IN CONTRAST to the peoples of less fortunate lands, who have accepted poverty as inevitable, Americans have tended to regard it as an abnormal condition. Our belief that want is unnatural and unnecessary originated in a hopeful view of human nature. It has been strengthened by our faith in the unlimited resources of the New World and, especially in more recent years, by pride in the productive achievements of the American economic system. This optimistic outlook has not always served us well in dealing with the misery that has in fact, and despite all our advantages, existed in our midst. We have sometimes acted as though we expected distress to cure itself, or have assumed that economic ills could be treated by spiritual disciplines. Confidence in the eradicability of poverty has nevertheless been a dynamic force for reform in the United States. Because of our assumption that want is man-made, not God-made, we have never lacked earnest critics to call us to account for both our individual and our social failings. In every generation they have reminded us that poverty is shameful, not only to those who suffer from it, but also to the society that allows it to exist.
This book is a study of America's awakening to poverty as a social problem. It is not a history of economic distress in the United States, but an attempt to explain the factors that made Americans conscious of and sympathetic to the misfortunes of their fellows. My objectives are to trace the growth of factual information about social conditions, to characterize and account for changing attitudes toward poverty, to describe the ways in which writers and artists have handled the subject of poverty in their work, and to present the experiences and influences that led to the enactment of legislation