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Our Brothers’ Keepers

June 2024
20min read

In a society grown steadily more affluent over two centuries, the existence of the poor has raised some baffling questions and surprising answers

From the opening decades of the nineteenthcentury toourownday, Americans’ persistent efforts to understand the causes and conditions of poverty have fixed upon the word “paradox.” Writing in 1822, the managers of one early reform organization, the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism, puzzled over the existence of poverty in the new Republic. “Our territory is so expansive, its soil so prolific,” they exclaimed, our institutions so “free and equal, “and our citizens so blessed with “ample scope for industry and enterprise,” that surely “pauperism would be foreign to our country.” Instead, to their dismay and wonderment they confronted the “strange paradox that pauperism, as a practical evil, should be known among us. ” A century and a half later a Presidential commission appointed to study essentially the same problem expressed equal wonderment. Its report, aptly entitled Poverty amid Plenty: The American Paradox , tried to explain why, in a nation as prosperous as ours, twenty-five million people had to “eke out a bare existence under deplorable conditions.” Thus, for most of our national history a mood of genuine perplexity has characterized our view of poverty. And not surprisingly, this perspective has almost always led commentators to mix charges and countercharges, to censure some and exonerate others for the problem. From the Jacksonian period to the present a number of critics have faulted the poor themselves, citing their supposed immorality and recklessness. Others have blamed the economy, pointing to its failure to sustain high wages and full employment. Still others have focussed on the charities and state programs that attempt to alleviate need, insisting that they have so amply rewarded the poor as to trap them in their poverty. But despite the variety of responses, all these observers share the premise that poverty amid plenty ought not to exist, that the paradox must be solved.

Yet, this notion is a comparatively modern one. Americans in the colonial period adopted a very different stance toward dependency. They were calm and complacent, not prone to allocate blame for poverty or to design programs for its eradication. From their perspective, need was a natural and inevitable part of social organization. This was the lesson that they learned in their churches. Poverty, according to eighteenth-century Protestant clergymen, was even a blessing. The poor were always to be with us, in America as elsewhere; but rather than lament a tragic fact of human existence, they praised it as a God-given opportunity for men to do good. Relieving the needy, explained the Boston clergyman Samuel Cooper in 1753, was the highest Christian virtue: “It ennobles our nature, charity conforms us to the Son of God himself. “Benevolencejustified the pursuit of wealth, for without benevolence men would grow “sensual, profane, and insolent, unjust and unrighteous.” It was senseless to expect that poverty would disappear, given its essential place in God’s order. Most clerics, it is true, conceded that a few unworthy beggars might be scattered here and there among the needy. But they advised parishioners not to devote much energy to this distinction. It would be foolhardy, said Samuel Seabury in 1788. to let the “idle and even intemperate… suffer before our eyes. … [For] what if God were to refuse his mercy to those of us who do not deserve it?”

The secular definitions of society also encouraged a broad acceptance of the poor. Eighteenth-century Americans conceived of a well-ordered society as hierarchical, with each level enjoying its special privileges and obligations: some men would be rich and powerful; others low, mean, and in subjection. This interpretation made the poor a permanent fixture, integral to the community. They were to respect those above them, pay all due deference, and, in return, receive assistance in time of need. If townsmen made no effort to eliminate poverty, at least they did not ignore, harshly punish, or isolate the poor.

Another element that encouraged the colonists’ tolerance for poverty and yet set limits to this sentiment was a sharp differentiation between the town resident and nonresident, between the insider and the outsider. Townsmen relieved a neighbor’s need without suspicion but showed little compassion for the plight of the stranger. Whether the outsider was an honest and poor man or a petty thief, the response was to move him beyond the town limits as quickly as possible. In part, the insularity of eighteenth-century settlements reflected English traditions; Elizabethan poor laws, for example, made relief the exclusive responsibility of each parish. But more important, localism suited New World conditions. Colonists were necessarily bound together by strong ties, and among other things they relied on each other to safeguard the community. In an era when the few constables who patrolled the streets at night were old men incapable of apprehending a criminal, insularity was a major element in keeping order. A townsman who committed an offense could be whipped or fined or, worse, shamed before his neighbors by being displayed in the stocks. But outsiders were much less easy to control, especially when they were penniless and away from people who knew them. Propertyless strangers not only would increase poor-relief expenditures but also would threaten public security.


The day-to-day treatment of the poor reflected these attitudes. Officials relieved neighbors quickly and without elaborate investigation, supporting them at home where possible or, when their disabilities were too great, in relatives’ or friends’ households. The dependent townsman remained within the community, not forced to enter such an institution as the almshouse; in fact, before 1820 few towns bothered to build a poorhouse. To counter the danger of outsiders, communities enforced stringent settlement laws, establishing property requirements for those who would enter and reside in the town. Transients—vagrants, poor but healthy strangers, nonresident widows with children, or unwed mothers—were moved out of town as quickly as possible. The boundaries were guarded with all the care that sentries give an international frontier.


Americans’ understanding and response to poverty underwent a revolution in the Jacksonian era. Beginning in the 1820’s and increasingly thereafter, observers defined poverty as both unnatural in the New World and capable of being eradicated. Colonial complacency gave way to a reform movement in which a heightened suspicion of the poor went hand in hand with the promise of improvement.

The spread of the ideas of the Enlightenment throughout the nation encouraged this change. The prospect of boundless progress wore away the grim determinism of Calvinist doctrines, so that men no longer believed that misery and want were permanent to society. As popular thinking became increasingly secular, God’s will or the inherent depravity of man no longer seemed a satisfactory explanation for the differences in social conditions. So, too, republican enthusiasm enhanced the prospect of progress. In the aftermath of the Revolution, Americans believed that their Republic would accomplish goals that corrupt European monarchies had missed. An obvious target for action was poverty, an evil that had to exist where aristocrats oppressed peasants but not where men were equal, resources were abundant, and labor scarce.

It was also impossible in Jacksonian America to maintain colonial localism and insularity. Men were now moving all the time,westward to the virgin territories or into the burgeoning cities of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. A system of poor relief that attempted to distinguish between the neighbor and the stranger was no longer feasible when men picked up stakes on hearing rumors of more fertile land ahead or of new opportunities in growing urban centers. At the same time, citizens’ close identification with their particular community was giving way to a wider view. Now one did not belong exclusively to the town but to the state and nation as well.

But while such considerations increased Americans’ willingness to eradicate poverty, they also encouraged a harsh and suspicious view of the poor. Observers concluded that because of New World wealth no one ought to be poor, and therefore those actually in need had themselves to blame in some degree. The first page of a typical tract on relief divided dependents into two categories: the poor, that is, the worthy but unfortunate, and paupers, the unworthy idlers. But by page 4 of the pamphlet the distinction fell away, and the discussion of poverty centered almost exclusively on the corrupted. After an extensive tour of eastern cities, a Philadelphia investigatory committee in 1827 unhesitantly reported that it was “vice” that had created “here and everywhere, by far the greater part of the poor.” The answer to the paradox of poverty reached by New York’s Society for the Prevention of Pauperism in 1821 was that “the paupers of this city are, for the most part… depraved and vicious, and require support because they are so.” The poor had become objects, not neighbors; people to be acted upon, to be improved, manipulated, elevated, and reformed.

These new ideas and social conditions prompted the almshouse movement. In the Jacksonian period cities and towns eagerly and rapidly constructed special institutions to confine all of the needy, devoting the bulk of public-relief funds to this enterprise. The proponents of the program were a mixed lot, in Boston ranging from the city’s mayor, Josiah Quincy, and its most prominent doctor, Walter Channing, to its noted Unitarian clergyman, Joseph Tuckerman. But they all agreed on certain essentials. Surely the poor were partly to blame for their own misery, having succumbed to the vice of idleness or intemperance. Yet, these critics vigorously insisted, they were not inherently depraved but rather were the victims of the numerous temptations set before them by society. Who else but the towns licensed the grog shops and allowed gambling halls and dens of iniquity to flourish? And who else but the towns supported the poor at home, giving them the wherewithal to subsist without working, the opportunity to languish in vice? Of all methods for supporting the needy, proclaimed MayorQuincy in 1821, “… the most wasteful, the most expensive, and most injurious to their morals, and destructive of their industrious habits, is that of supply in their own families.” Therefore, reformers concluded, to eliminate poverty the poor had to be isolated from temptation and forced to acquire habits of industry and labor. This grandiose task they assigned to the almshouse.

The hopes for the program appeared in the designs for New York’s and Boston’s relief systems. The poor, regardless of their moral standing or work history or residence, would receive aid only within an almshouse. Once inside this institution, they would learn order, discipline, and habits of work, the very traits the community had neglected to teach. The routine was to be precise and rigorous. An early morning bell would awaken the inmates, and another bell would signal the time for breakfast. They would go to their assigned seats at long mess tables, eat their meal, and then head for the workshop. There would be no drinking, loafing, or gambling; only honest living and steady labor. As Dr. Walter Channing told a group of Boston philanthropists in 1843, the almshouse was “a place where the tempted are removed from the means of their sin, and where the indolent (man), while he is usefully and industriously employed … by a regular course of life … is prepared for a better career when restored to liberty again.” The poor, after completing this regimen, would return to society girded as in an armor against temptation, ready to earn their keep.

The almshouse, however, never fulfilled its founders’ expectations. For one, its managers, generally recruited from the ranks of petty shopkeepers and small farmers, were ill trained to run an institution. For another, almost all of the inmates were not able-bodied loafers but the very old and decrepit and the very young. The routine that reformers had devised applied badly, and few were able to perform steady labor. So in short order the almshouse degenerated into a custodial institution, characteristically overcrowded, in sad disrepair, lacking all internal discipline and order, and cruel and punitive in its methods. A committee conducting a state-wide survey in New York reported in 1857: “The great mass of the poor houses are most disgraceful memorials of the public charity. Common domestic animals are usually more humanely provided for than the paupers in some of these institutions.”

Yet, despite the terrible gap between reformers’ ideology and institutional reality, almshouses not only persisted but proliferated in the last half of the nineteenth century. Everywhere their shadow fell over the lives of the poor, almost monopolizing public assistance. Part of the reason for their prevalence was the belief that institutional support was cheaper than home relief—and since the poor, by their immorality and lack of initiative, were responsible for their misery, officials did not have to be generous with provisions or accommodations. Indeed, should the almshouse become too comfortable —that is, less dreadful than the conditions in which the lowest-paid workers subsisted—the poor might flock to it. But even more vital to its popularity was the particular character of the inmates: starting about 1850, immigrants began to fill almshouse wards, and after 1870 they practically monopolized them. The poor-house became the preserve of broken immigrants—first the Irish, then the Italians, the Poles, and the Slavs. Native Americans turned their backs on the entire enterprise. If there had to be poor in America, then at least they ought to remain hidden behind sturdy brick walls.

The years of the progressive era marked a major shift in public attitudes and policies toward the poor. Beginning in the 1890’s and culminating in the administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, a new and more complex understanding of the origins of dependency spread through the nation, together with a host of fresh alternatives to institutionalization. The innovations were the work of clergymen like Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch, who preached a new social gospel; of social workers like Robert Hunter, Jane Addams, and Robert Woods, who practiced community work in their settlement houses; of sociologists like Margaret Byington and Crystal Eastman, who provided the first sophisticated and detailed studies of the causes and conditions of poverty; and of popularizers like Jacob Riis, who wrote newspaper articles and books to arouse the American conscience. Taken together, these groups influenced the thinking and responses of ordinary citizens and political leaders.

The new view toward poverty rested first on an understanding of the shortcomings of the economy—the periodic unemployment that forced many laborers below the subsistence line, the prevalent low wages that did not allow even the thrifty among them to accumulate savings. (“Many, many thousand families,” wrote Robert Hunter in Poverty [1904], “receive wages so inadequate that no care in spending, however wise it may be, will make them suffice for the family needs.”) It also was sensitive to the debilitating effects of slums, the crowded and unsanitary tenements through which disease rapidly spread, particularly tuberculosis, robbing households of their main providers. (“Penury and poverty,” declared Jacob Riis in How the Other Half Lives [1890], “are wedded everywhere to dirt and disease.”) It emphasized the dangers inherent in work itself—the inevitable accidents that occurred when managers neglected to install safety devices; when employees were crowded into sweatshops that were firetraps; when laborers, after ten or twelve hours on the job, grew fatigued and careless. (We must do something, pleaded Crystal Eastman in Work Accidents and the Law [1910], to insure that modern industry is conducted “without the present wholesale destruction of the workers.”) Critics recognized, too, the general misery of life for those at the bottom of society, a misery that drove them to the tavern to gain a temporary respite from their troubles. And they understood how generation after generation would remain trapped in poverty: families, hard pressed to make ends meet, would put young children out to work, depriving them of the education necessary to take skilled jobs. In brief, these reformers taught Americans to think of the needy as the laboring poor who, as Robert Hunter put it, “live miserably … [and] know not why. They work sore, and yet gain nothing.”


To some degree these conclusions almost forced themselves upon social observers. Forays into the urban slums, whether to bring the gospel to the unchurched or to ameliorate their need, taught ministers and charity workers that the poor were victims not of immorality but of forces beyond their control. The deeper sociologists probed, the more apparent it became that the moralism traditionally characterizing American attitudes toward poverty explained only a fraction of the problem. Ten million Americans, it was reliably estimated in 1904—an eighth of the population—earned less than subsistence incomes, and clearly the great majority of them were feeling the effects of social and economic dislocations. When newly graduated college students went into the ghettos to learn about the poor and to offer their help, whether at Chicago’s Hull House or New York’s Henry Street Settlement, they too immediately recognized the many disadvantages that the poor could not escape. To all these commentators it was obvious that America had become, once and for all, an urban and industrial nation, with a frontier that was now practically settled and, given successive waves of immigrants, a surplus of labor. The emphasis of earlier reformers on personal reformationandrehabilitationnow seemed largely irrelevant, and the isolation of the poor in an almshouse an inadequate response.

The new outlook on poverty also reflected special fears and hopes for American society. The majority of the urban poor (and it was the city’s needs that monopolized attention) were also immigrants. To reformers, the newcomers represented both a major threat to the national well-being and an unusual opportunity to do good. Two intimately related problems demanded resolution: the immigrant had to be assimilated into American life, and his standard of living had to be improved. The prospect of failure was haunting, for progressives were deeply suspicious of the aliens, disturbed by many of their idiosyncratic customs (from their strange modes of dress to worshipping in Roman Catholic churches), and frightened that they might act on foreign principles (be it a slavish obedience to Rome or a dedicated allegiance to European socialism). And yet, these critics were also confident that American society had the resources to counter these threats. They pinned their hopes on the opportunities for all men to climb the ladder of success and for all families to enjoy an unprecedented material well-being. Once the several barriers that penned the immigrant into his ghetto poverty were removed, once ambitious and energetic foreigners enjoyed the full chance to succeed, then the nation’s stability and security would be assured.

Still, the reformers themselves, and many more of their countrymen, could not completely escape a moralistic view of poverty. The equation of the immigrant with the poor kept alive the conviction that vice helped generate dependency. After all, one had only to walk through an ethnic ghetto to discover the omnipresence of taverns, beer halls, dance halls, and houses of prostitution. Even Robert Hunter, as sympathetic an observer as once can find in this period, maintained the older distinction between the worthy and the unworthy poor. “There is unquestionably,” he conceded, “a poverty which men deserve, and by such poverty men are perhaps taught needful lessons. It would be unwise to legislate out of existence … that poverty which penalizes the voluntarily idle and vicious.” And progressives, like others before and after them, could not altogether reconcile the presence of poverty with their deep sense of the munificence of American life. A tone of condescension entered their rhetoric, reflecting a certain disdain not only for the “wretched refuse” of European shores but also for those who had not been clever or ambitious enough to profit in the land of opportunity.

Despite such doubts, reformers did put an end to the almshouse monopoly, establishing new procedures that kept at least some of the poor within the community. The persons who benefited immediately were widows with small children—the group least suspect among the needy. In 1909 President Roosevelt convened the White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children and happily publicized its major findings. “Poverty alone should not disrupt the home,” he announced. “Parents of good character, suffering from temporary misfortune, and above all deserving mothers… deprived of the support of the normal breadwinner, should be given such aid as may be necessary to enable them to maintain suitable homes for the rearing of their children.” Tothisend, Illinois in 1911 passed a widows’ pension bill, and by the close of World War I nearly every industrial state had followed its example. The worthy widow and her children would no longer suffer separation and incarceration in almshouses and orphan asylums.

Reformers also moved to protect the lower classes both on the job and in their communities, to enable them to enjoy more of the advantages of industrialism. They enacted accident insurance to compensate injured laborers and regulated the number of hours women and children could work. They passed stringent building and fire codes to offset the most glaring dangers of slum living. They also tried to rescue the children of the poor from their parents’ fate, enacting compulsory school laws and establishing a minimum age (ranging from twelve to sixteen) for factory work.

There was an enormous amount progressives did not do. They paid little attention to the plight of the black, his economic or social disabilities, and they almost completely ignored the rural poverty of tenant farmers, share-croppers, and migrant laborers. They neither enacted health-care programs nor extended government pension provisions to the general work force. Although proposals for unemployment compensation and retirement benefits were heard between 1890 and 1914 (and indeed, several European countries were already administering them), no such advances were made here. Even the innovations that did occur were carefully circumscribed. Widows’ pensions were limited to only the most deserving, so that mothers whose husbands had deserted them were not eligible, nor those with illegitimate children. As a result the majority of the poor still had to rely upon the limited funds of private charities, or turn to public relief for some coal or wood, or suffer a stint in the almshouse. Nevertheless, the progressives did signal a new departure. In attitude and practice, it was they who first broke with tradition.

Few advances in policy or thought occurred during the’i92o’s. In fact, given the severe tensions that pervaded the nation, it is noteworthy that the moderate advances of the progressives were not eradicated. This was the decade when the K.K.K. and the temperance movement and immigration restriction reached the zenith of their power and appeal, and anti-alien, antiurban sentiments also led to a resurgence of harsh and critical judgments on the poor, especially those who were first- or second-generation immigrants. If only they would stop drinking, gambling, and paying obeisance to Rome, the argument went, if only they would become full-fledged Americans, then poverty would disappear. To be sure, a few social critics who did not embrace these prejudices continued to circulate among themselves analytic studies of the poor in the best reformist tradition. Some explored the most efficient methods for organizing a national old-age assistance and pension program; others undertook the first investigations of conditions in black ghettos and among tenant farmers. And an occasional state legislature did manage to widen the eligibility requirements for widows’ pensions. But in all, the 1920’s was not an auspicious time to innovate, and the public achievement against poverty was not impressive.

The one significant change in this period affecting the poor was the organization and professionalization of social work. The goodhearted but casual home visitor to the needy, who dispensed a little cash and a lot of homilies, gave way to the college- and university-trained full-time social worker. The founding ideology of the discipline looked both to helping the poor adjust to society and to encouraging society to offer more help. But not surprisingly, in the 1920’s it was the poor who had to do all the accommodating. Casework lost sight of social reform, focussing instead on teaching the lower classes to cope with their situation, to budget more carefully, tobe more industrious, to emulate those above them. Part of the severity of this vision reflected the inhospitable climate of public opinion. But it also reflected the impact of Freudian theory and the eagerness of social workers to become professionals. Using psychological therapy as a way to establish and exert their expertise, social workers insisted that many of the difficulties confronting the poor resulted from their emotional problems. The needy were not the victims of vice but of maladjustment, and careful and sympathetic counselling would teach them to achieve. But the net result of this new doctrine was to couch in modern terminology some very traditional ideas. The poor remained essentially responsible for their difficulties. Reformation and rehabilitation returned to the center of the stage, now rationalized in updated language. The “unworthy” poor had become the “emotionally deprived” poor. Hence, by the close of this decade, public programs and attitudes had rigidified. The nation was not well equipped to confront the phenomenon of the Great Depression.


Suddenly, the poor had more than enough company. The crash of 1929 sparked the most massive economic dislocation in our history, at its peak leaving 25 per cent of the work force unemployed. Poverty was no longer the exclusive fate of the ghetto immigrant or the migrant farmer but of blue-collar workers laid off the assembly line and white-collar workers dismissed from brokerage houses. The problem had unexpectedly become national.

At first, both powerful and ordinary Americans denied the magnitude of the crisis, insisting that recovery was imminent. Herbert Hoover, wedded to an older American credo and fearful of undermining the country’s moral fiber, refused to involve the federal government in relief. “I am opposed,” he declared in 1931, “to any direct or indirect government dole. … Our people are providing against distress from unemployment in true American fashion.” But true American fashion meant that local governments and private charities had to carry all of the burden, and by 1932 they were without the resources. Cities lacked funds and the taxing power to raise them. The Red Cross distributed bags of flour and the community chest armfuls of coal. Distress was everywhere apparent: migrants pitched camps at one water spot and then another, their life’s possessions piled on the back of a broken-down truck. The urban poor pasted together shacks in shanty towns in the parks and along the river banks. Those with some savings cut corners, awaiting a bank’s foreclosure or a landlord’seviction. Often unable to clothe their families decently, they kept their children out of school and shunned their neighbors.


New Deal legislation alleviated some of this misery. Less bound by tradition, Franklin D. Roosevelt plunged the national government into the business of relief. By 1936, with the passage of the Social Security Act and the establishment of the Works Progress Administration, Washington was providing the states with relief funds and the unemployed with jobs. New Deal legislation did alter permanently the character of public programs. To meet immediate problems, the unemployable (the aged, blind, and very young) received, after passing a means test, direct relief at home; at the same time, federally sponsored projects made jobs available for destitute but able-bodied workers. Unemployment compensation, funded by a tax on employers, provided incomes for the temporarily unemployed; and retirement pensions, paid for by employee contributions, gave the aged a new measure of security. The almshouse became a thing of the past, abolished through the effects of these innovations.

Still, the New Deal investment in relief fell considerably short of the nation’s need. Afraid to violate the sanctity of the balanced budget or the prerogatives of the states, and committed first and foremost to work relief, President Roosevelt insisted on funding relief through the states but would not set national standards. (Thus, the poor in Mississippi received about one third the support of those in Massachusetts.) The sums allotted to the aged were far below subsistence —nineteen dollars a month when forty dollars would barely do. WPA regulations required men to leave the rolls after eighteen months, no matter how grim their economic condition. Social security was not to take effect until 1942—and even then the pension sums were too small to support recipients. The states were no more generous. California, for example, packed migrant workers and the young unmarried unemployed wff to work camps that bordered on penal colonies. The states also tried to seal their borders by reviving stringent residence laws.

Despite the magnitude of the problem and the unprecedented government response, a very traditional attitude toward poverty persisted through the Depression. The new leadership continued to preach many ancient axioms, and the average citizen retained older beliefs. F.D.R. himself denigrated direct relief, keeping alive the term “dole.” To some degree this was a conscious strategy to swell public support for the millions expended on WPA. But it also reflected his inner conviction that relief corrupted and weakened the recipient. Those on relief, or who tottered on the brink, felt an acute sense of dread and guilt, a painful reluctance to take what they still defined as charity. Hence, just when one might have anticipated a public furor over real suffering, when widespread turmoil and vicious riots might have broken out, the nation remained remarkably quiescent. Most Americans remained silent, suffering alone.

In essence, poverty demoralized rather than activated the country. The unemployed insisted on blaming themselves for their misery, defining their problems as internal, not external. If only they looked harder or put up a better front, they would find a job. Instead of joining with others in faulting the system, they became immobilized and isolated. One after another they passionately and honestly told interviewers that before taking relief they would “rather be dead and buried.” Years later, when good times returned, they still vividly recalled these feelings. “I didn’t want to go on relief,” one small businessman remembered. “Believe me, when I was forced to go to the office of relief, the tears were running out of my eyes. I couldn’t bear myself to take money from anybody for nothing.” Their actions did not belie their words. Of nearly one thousand unemployed in New Haven, Connecticut, less than one quarter had asked for relief after being without a job for over a year.

Desperation also took more comic or pathetic turns in the Depression. The board game called Monopoly swept the country. If one could not eke out a living in the real world, one could accumulate a paper fortune in a fantasy one. Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People became a best seller with an overt message of doubtful relevance: confidence, grace, personal style, and sensitive shrewdness would bring success. Its latent message was also obvious: failures had only their own personalities to blame. Soap operas, which fastened themselves on the radio public in the 1930’s, provided a catalogue of troubles for the listener to compare with his own. But the serials usually blamed failure on personal and emotional inadequacy, rarely on external and social events.

Public-opinion polls during the Depression accurately gauged the degree of persistence and change in American attitudes toward poverty and the poor. There can be no doubt of the popularity of the federal involvement in relief among all the sectors of society. In March, 1939, a Roper poll indicated that three-quarters of the American public affirmed the government’s obligation to relieve all persons who had no other means of subsistence. Yet, at the same time, a majority of the public continued to think of the poor in hostile and pejorative terms. Reliefers could get jobs, they believed, if only they tried. The New Deal did institute new and important and widely supported relief programs, but the welfare recipient remained a target of suspicion, disparaged by himself and others. Even the Great Depression could not wipe away the stigma of poverty.

The legacy that America’s experience with poverty has left is a discouraging one. Public programs to eradicate and relieve dependency have not, on the whole, been successful and do not seem to point the way to new and effective proposals. With the rise in the overall population, relief rolls, especially under Aid to Dependent Children, have swollen almost to the bursting point; yet, some thirty million Americans, urban and rural, black and white, still suffer varying degrees of deprivation. Moreover, our attitudes toward poverty continue to be no more consistent than those of our ancestors. In November, 1964, according to public-opinion polls, only a bare 20 per cent of the nation believed that the government should spend less on relief, yet almost 70 per cent insisted that some or most of those actually on relief were there for dishonest reasons. The problem is not helped by the fact that a large proportion of relief recipients belong to nonwhite minorities, adding fuel to an already uncomfortably hot racial situation in American cities.

Thus, the disappointments and confusions marking earlier encounters with poverty are still with us. But perhaps the fact of past failures will inspire bold, imaginative, and unprecedented solutions. In the end, our responses to the paradox of poverty are certain to demonstrate that the uses each generation makes of its history are as important and fascinating as the history itself.

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