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A People's History of Poverty in America

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Political scientist Stephen Pimpare presents a compulsively readable social history vividly describing poverty from the perspective of poor and welfare-reliant Americans.


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Political scientist Stephen Pimpare presents a compulsively readable social history vividly describing poverty from the perspective of poor and welfare-reliant Americans.

30 review for A People's History of Poverty in America

  1. 5 out of 5

    sologdin

    A useful addition to the ‘people’s history’ series overseen by subcommandante Zinn. Approach is thematic (eating, sleeping, working, revolting, &c.), rather than strictly chronological, and is heavy on quotations of the subaltern. Text is therefore consistent with Zinn’s conception of people’s history as a subgenre, as opposed to Morton’s centralizing dialectical-voice-from-the-heavens approach (which I nevertheless also appreciate, and which is used with good effect by Nzongola-Ntalaja, say). T A useful addition to the ‘people’s history’ series overseen by subcommandante Zinn. Approach is thematic (eating, sleeping, working, revolting, &c.), rather than strictly chronological, and is heavy on quotations of the subaltern. Text is therefore consistent with Zinn’s conception of people’s history as a subgenre, as opposed to Morton’s centralizing dialectical-voice-from-the-heavens approach (which I nevertheless also appreciate, and which is used with good effect by Nzongola-Ntalaja, say). These virtues make it difficult to centralize for a quick review. Some highlights: “The welfare state was not an innovation of the national government during the Great Depression but a creation of the first large American cities, much of it created by poor people themselves” (30). This is a humane contrast to the prior practice of ‘boarding out,’ which involved, since the 17th century, auctioning off paupers to households as servants, which households were responsible for their maintenance (id.); In 2004, payday loan brokers were replacing pawnshops as the indigent’s line of credit, with “annualized rates of 350 to 1000 percent” (35); Standard workhouse was very Cool Hand Luke: “others created make-work projects (moving stones from one side of the yard to the other then back again” (44); Finding it “easier to fixate upon drink as the cause of misfortune, perhaps, than to see it as merely a symptom,” many institutions “sought to cure intemperance,” thinking that it needed “moral reform rather than medical intervention” (45); A typology of homelessness provided by one interlocutor: “hippies and punks; the classic bum; the con man; the perpetually helpless (genuinely but constantly in need); lost souls; flaming assholes; trust fund babies; teenage runaways; hermits; Vietnam vets; blacks; the sexually deranged; in-and-out-of-the-joint; the secret homeless; skid row types; bohemians; spiritual seekers; the martyrs; acid casualties; natural leaders; and those who ‘just can’t pay the fucking rent’” (61); Per DVA, “a quarter of a million or more American veterans are homeless on any given night, and one third of all homeless men are vets” (63); War veterans were the first beneficiaries in the US of poverty relief, and the first targets of the rightwing, even after the war for independence: "the enactment of our first national cash entitlement program, even though it targeted its benefits to the most ‘worthy’ of those in need, led immediately to a backlash and to cutbacks” (65); We similarly see a “taxonomy of tramps”: “pillagers, moochers, floppers, stiffys, timbers, mush fakers, stickers, pegs, blinkys, wingys, pokey stiffs, phoney stiffs, proper stiffs, gandy stiffs, alkee stiffs, stew bums, fuzzy tails, gay cats, dynamiters, yeggs, Jockers, preshuns, punks, gonsils, and more” (anyone know WTF any of that means?) (66-67); We see that some kindly rightwingers advised “when a tramp asks you for bread, put strychnine or arsenic in it, and he will not trouble you any more” (94); And so on. Lots of great details. More impressive still is the analysis of relief programs diachronically. For instance, lengthy section presents a “definition of the welfare state” as “historically has been understood to be a collection of government programs that provide citizens with money, food, shelter, health care, and education” (167), but also that “decommodify labor--the extent to which they make it possible for citizens to survive outside the labor market” (id.). The assumption is typically “that welfare state institutions are benevolent” but here it is argued that “the history of AFDC and TANF clearly shows [that] American relief has also functions to regulate the sexual, reproductive, and labor market behavior of vulnerable populations” (167-68). Thereafter comes the relation of the welfare state to slavery, which had been alleged by proponents of chattel slavery as a beneficent program for African Americans. The argument here is that much assistance has required some form of work, typically awful work in appalling conditions. (The argument is not the objectivist style ‘welfare enslaves the rich person who pays for freeloaders,’ NB.) Reminds us in this connection that “it is only recently that we have not thought of the prison as a welfare state institution” (185), with much discussion of this thesis (convict labor as post-slavery slavery, i.e.) Well written, informative, &c. Recommended for those who believe that the culture of poverty can be a revolutionary force, readers who, like Sen, redefine poverty as a ‘lack of freedom,’ and persons who behave precisely like a horse, have to be cared for like babies, & ought to be in an institution for the feeble-minded.

  2. 4 out of 5

    W. Joshua

    I was deeply moved by the many personal and first-hand accounts of Americans living in poverty contained in this book. I felt sympathy for many of them, and I felt compassion toward those whose existences are so much less wealthy than my own meager one. Best of all, this book is not simply a statement of fact. I appreciate (even if I do not always agree with him) Pimpare's bold assessment of our individual and social responsibilities toward the poor and poverty. I have long thought it inexcusabl I was deeply moved by the many personal and first-hand accounts of Americans living in poverty contained in this book. I felt sympathy for many of them, and I felt compassion toward those whose existences are so much less wealthy than my own meager one. Best of all, this book is not simply a statement of fact. I appreciate (even if I do not always agree with him) Pimpare's bold assessment of our individual and social responsibilities toward the poor and poverty. I have long thought it inexcusable that the richest nation in the world is home to so many homeless. I hope policy makers are reading this book!

  3. 5 out of 5

    Ollie

    It's hard to imagine how you can go wrong with a "People's History" book. In this one, we hear from the ones who suffer the most from poverty: the poor, the homeless, the vagabonds, the ones on welfare, etc. They have plenty to say about what it's like to feel helpless, what it's like to have next to nothing, what it's like to be screwed by the system and others in poverty, and what it's like to fight back. Very inspiring and highly recommended. It's hard to imagine how you can go wrong with a "People's History" book. In this one, we hear from the ones who suffer the most from poverty: the poor, the homeless, the vagabonds, the ones on welfare, etc. They have plenty to say about what it's like to feel helpless, what it's like to have next to nothing, what it's like to be screwed by the system and others in poverty, and what it's like to fight back. Very inspiring and highly recommended.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Billie Pritchett

    I'm really glad to have read Stephen Pimpare's People's History of Poverty in America, as depressing as the news of the conditions of American poverty are. This is a must-read for anyone who would like to learn about the extent to which Americans are stricken with poverty, largely through no fault of their own. Unforunately for most Americans, we have no had the luxury to have been born to wealthy families and since we have not, the opportunities we have are limited in terms of how much money ou I'm really glad to have read Stephen Pimpare's People's History of Poverty in America, as depressing as the news of the conditions of American poverty are. This is a must-read for anyone who would like to learn about the extent to which Americans are stricken with poverty, largely through no fault of their own. Unforunately for most Americans, we have no had the luxury to have been born to wealthy families and since we have not, the opportunities we have are limited in terms of how much money our families can invest in our future. This should be so obvious as to not be worth saying, but people often invoke equality of opportunity as though the starting conditions were exactly equal for Americans starting out, which is evidently false. Something work keeping in mind that is revealed in Pimpare's book is that much of the care that we have provided to our poor in the United States has been the result of a great deal of solidarity on behalf of people to actually do something about it, by putting pressure on their governments to get them to change. And lest any of us get on our high horses or try to make too many hard-and-fast distinctions about the deserving and undeserving poor in America, here is a fact from the book: "Over the course of their lives, 65 percent of all Americans use some form of means-tested aid, which you must be poor enough to qualify for--food stamps, Medicaid, disability income or cash relief. Most of us will be on welfare." The conclusion: "Being on welfare is not an aberrant behavior confined to the idle and undeserving poor, as myth would have it," but affects most all of us.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Tea

    Recommended reading for anyone who wants a wider, deeper picture of what poverty has and continues to look like for USians on the bottom rungs. Includes more topics than I was expecting and in the best way possible. Also way way more readable than a good half of stuff I read for college. More than half probably.

  6. 4 out of 5

    R.K. Cowles

    3 1/2 stars

  7. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    "Poverty is the enemy of human happiness." -Samuel Johnson For the brief period of time that I pursued my Ph.D at Boston University (before someone started knocking my wife up and ruining my plans), my area of research was on the impact of poverty on school children. One of the terms that really has stuck with me comes from developmental neurology: the swamping effect. The swamping effect occurs when an overwhelming number of environmental factors batters a developing nervous system, limiting its "Poverty is the enemy of human happiness." -Samuel Johnson For the brief period of time that I pursued my Ph.D at Boston University (before someone started knocking my wife up and ruining my plans), my area of research was on the impact of poverty on school children. One of the terms that really has stuck with me comes from developmental neurology: the swamping effect. The swamping effect occurs when an overwhelming number of environmental factors batters a developing nervous system, limiting its development, restricting its growth, and retarding its potential. Poverty, for children, has a broad-based, multifaceted, relentlessly determined swamping effect on their physical, emotional, and intellectual development. In this book, the author--a professor of Social Work in some college I never heard of--lets those living in poverty speak for themselves. The book is organized by topic: food, shelter, medical care, community, resistance,etc.-- and spans the totality of American history. There are voices from Colonial times, the Civil War, the Progressive Era, the Great Depression, the Reagan and Clinton eras, etc. What comes across over and over again is how powerless the poor feel, and how difficult it is to pull one's self up by the proverbial bootstraps and become self-sufficient. Many people, especially those who are born into poverty, have a very difficult time extracting themselves from it. For many, the physical and intellectual damage that is done by a childhood spent in poverty makes the likelihood of later success in life quite low. It is heartbreaking, and it is a part of our society. Always has been. The book does not propose any cures for poverty, although those who are poor certainly make their needs and desires known ("bread and roses," if you know that reference). For myself, having become quite knowledgeable about the history of anti-poverty programs in the United States over the past decade for so, I can tell you that the current assault on our social safety net--flawed and imperfect though it may be--will result in tremendous human suffering, as well as long-term damage to the next generation of Americans. The only thing worse than some inefficient government sponsored program to meet a child's basic needs is no program at all. Jesus said the the merciful are blessed and will themselves be shown mercy. May God have mercy on all of us for what we are allowing to happen in our country.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

    NB: This is not a proper review (not that I can write proper reviews!). I usually like footnotes, but this is footnote heavy, and I wish some things would have been elaborated on, like a few mentions about Tammany Hall (which, I learned of in the last book I read, a cozy mystery by author Rhys Bowen. Aren't books just wonderful? I think I vaguely remember learning something about Boss Tweed in school, but that was ages ago! [I've just looked up Tammany on WikiP....] I digress.). I know, in this NB: This is not a proper review (not that I can write proper reviews!). I usually like footnotes, but this is footnote heavy, and I wish some things would have been elaborated on, like a few mentions about Tammany Hall (which, I learned of in the last book I read, a cozy mystery by author Rhys Bowen. Aren't books just wonderful? I think I vaguely remember learning something about Boss Tweed in school, but that was ages ago! [I've just looked up Tammany on WikiP....] I digress.). I know, in this age of Google, I could easily find out about Tammany online (like I'm doing now), but if there are going to be a ton of footnotes, why not add another to explain that? That said, this is a well-researched book about the history of poverty in the U.S. Two things that are still with me after having finished this book are: 1. Pages 146, last paragraph through the end of page 148. 2. Page 244, an excerpt from National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI), which, among other things, says that the U.S. has "The highest rate of child poverty among industrialized nations."* The author also explains in the epilogue that measuring poverty is not easy, and, from what I could glean, current measures are based on old systems of thinking, and are simply outdated. Plus, poverty can be different in other regions, i.e., I'm dirt poor in San Fran, but I'd be considered well off in say, Appalachia (I think). So, a national measuring system of poverty simply won't do. Do give this book a try. I give it two stars, but that's not an awful rating; it was, for me, a bit trying at times to read (probably due to my not reading footnote heavy type books that often). *The footnote for this provided a link that didn't have that excerpt on it, but I dug around and found it here (same site, just located on another page within the site): http://www.nesri.org/human_rights_us/...

  9. 4 out of 5

    Thomas DeLair

    This book attempts to investigate the broader cultural narrative of the bottom two tenths of America. The abundance of quotations made it a bumpy read for me, but the point was to provide a multitude of perspectives. Poverty is both extremely common and, as Pimpare argues, extremely misunderstood. The ending is devoted to defining and more deeply understanding poverty after covering the nine themes of the book. One of the more interesting points brought up is role of reciprocity within lower inco This book attempts to investigate the broader cultural narrative of the bottom two tenths of America. The abundance of quotations made it a bumpy read for me, but the point was to provide a multitude of perspectives. Poverty is both extremely common and, as Pimpare argues, extremely misunderstood. The ending is devoted to defining and more deeply understanding poverty after covering the nine themes of the book. One of the more interesting points brought up is role of reciprocity within lower income communities or groups. It kind of reminded me of the role of reciprocity within hunter gather cultures, not that I want to make any sharp comparisons. Personally I was hoping for a bit more of a narrative rather than a discussion of themes, but it gave a lot of breadth to critical aspect of understanding history and how to understand some important themes or components of many very different people that struggle with poverty. By the end of the book I thought a bit about my own class, how I am surrounded by it, it's something that everyone comes to learn what they were born into and how they "fit in" to a society. I think the book's strongest aspect is presenting accounts that shows an economically rational actor that is living in poverty.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    It could be that I have read a lot of literature on America's poor and working poor. It could by that I have spent a lot of time talking to, counselling and helping the poor and working poor attain some of their goals. This book is good. It is in fact very good. Pimpare does a really effective job in debunking myths surrounding America's poor and the ideological, racial and ethnic motivations behind such myths. He does it by quoting extensively from interviews, testimony and memoirs of people wh It could be that I have read a lot of literature on America's poor and working poor. It could by that I have spent a lot of time talking to, counselling and helping the poor and working poor attain some of their goals. This book is good. It is in fact very good. Pimpare does a really effective job in debunking myths surrounding America's poor and the ideological, racial and ethnic motivations behind such myths. He does it by quoting extensively from interviews, testimony and memoirs of people who have experienced poverty. So he is very successful here as well. What I liked, in particular, was that the book did not fall into the trap of being the kind of liberal poverty porno that I feel authors like Barbara Ehrenriech and Jonathan Kozal often fall into: titilating in the self-flagellating tsk tsk we are a bad country sort of way. At the same time, he quoted extensively from other works that if you have read extensivley from the socialogical investigations of poverty you will have come across. This is, nonetheless a very good read, and it would be an excellent introductory text for anyone interested in American policy and history revolving around poverty.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Miroku Nemeth

    "Middle-class people have rights and they like to think that everyone does. The rich, of course, know that rights are bought and sold, and the poor know it too. Those between them live in an illusion.". Lars Eigner, quoted in Pimpare's "A People's History of Poverty in America" (141) Not an easy book to read, but very much a necessary book to read. "Middle-class people have rights and they like to think that everyone does. The rich, of course, know that rights are bought and sold, and the poor know it too. Those between them live in an illusion.". Lars Eigner, quoted in Pimpare's "A People's History of Poverty in America" (141) Not an easy book to read, but very much a necessary book to read.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Teressa

    This book read like someone's 10th grade history paper. It lacked cohesion and flow and sometimes contradicted itself without acknowledgment of the differing statistical data. Poorly done - I would look for the information elsewhere. This book read like someone's 10th grade history paper. It lacked cohesion and flow and sometimes contradicted itself without acknowledgment of the differing statistical data. Poorly done - I would look for the information elsewhere.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Bridget

    Very sad but very illuminating. Read this book if you are at all curious.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Bryan

    Excellent book. Contains material that everyone should read. You may think you know all you need to know about poverty. You don't. Excellent book. Contains material that everyone should read. You may think you know all you need to know about poverty. You don't.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Wordwizard

    Very interesting. Introduction was fairly dry, I thought, but the rest of the book was extremely accessible.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Michelle

    sadly, in america, some things never change.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Sheri Irons

    Classwork Good for class. It's a great book to read for classes. I have nothing more to say about this book. Classwork Good for class. It's a great book to read for classes. I have nothing more to say about this book.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Melissa

    Although not the primary focus of the book, I was unaware of how deeply both poverty and the welfare system are women's issues. Although not the primary focus of the book, I was unaware of how deeply both poverty and the welfare system are women's issues.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Hyojin

    Make you rethink about what poverty means in reality. Well researched, eye-opening book. Highly recommended.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Kelli

    Offers some interesting first-person perspectives that you don't often hear on this subject. It made me think about my old welfare-to-work clients in a different light. Offers some interesting first-person perspectives that you don't often hear on this subject. It made me think about my old welfare-to-work clients in a different light.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Georgia Rae

    This is a great introduction and I look forward to reading more of the works referenced in this book.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    A great history of how we have and do conceive of poverty in America.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Rhonda

  24. 5 out of 5

    Hilary

  25. 4 out of 5

    Flan

  26. 5 out of 5

    Roxanne

  27. 5 out of 5

    Kristen

  28. 4 out of 5

    Aaron Maxwell

  29. 5 out of 5

    David02139

  30. 5 out of 5

    Scot

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