Poverty, Middle-Class Poverty, and the Tyranny of Debt: Excerpt of "Poverty" by Ira Steward, 1873

By Ewen, Stuart | Women's Studies Quarterly, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

Poverty, Middle-Class Poverty, and the Tyranny of Debt: Excerpt of "Poverty" by Ira Steward, 1873


Ewen, Stuart, Women's Studies Quarterly


Below is a selection from an essay titled "Poverty," written by Ira Steward, a machinist turned labor organizer who was a key founder of Grand Eight Hour League of Massachusetts. Steward was an influential activist and a leading American figure in the struggle to improve the general living conditions of working men and women and to bring an end to the poverty that he saw as a pervasive product of industrial capitalism as it expanded exponentially in the years following the Civil War.

This essay first appeared in 1873, in the Fourth Annual Report of the Massachusetts Bureau of Labor Statistics, published under the stewardship of Carroll D. Wright, who would later become the first U.S. commissioner of labor. Wright was one of the United States' most influential early sociologists and believed that a combination of statistics and critical analysis could help bring about "the amelioration of unfavorable conditions" affecting a growing swathe of the country's population. During his leadership in Massachusetts, the bureau's reports promoted the idea that an informed populace was the best route to bringing about social and economic justice. "Any means which the Legislature can adopt which will add to the information of the people on subjects which concern their daily lives are of untold value," he wrote. "To popularize statistics, to put them before the masses in a way which shall attract, and yet not deceive, is a work every government which cares for its future stability should encourage and enlarge."

Under Wright's direction, the Massachusetts Bureau of Labor Statistics sought to enlighten laboring people that they might be in a position to comprehend the scope of injustice and bring about the reforms that indus- trial society required. The bureau worked to publicize a wide range of ideas and was at the forefront of highlighting the conditions of women as they entered the factory system and the business office workforce. "As woman has the power given her to support herself, she will be less inclined to seek marriage relations simply for the purpose of securing what may seem to be a home and protection," he wrote.

In tune with Wrights goals for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Ira Steward's "Poverty" presented a wide-ranging and sophisticated perspective on poverty as it afflicted various sectors of society, attempting to draw connections between people who didn't necessarily see themselves connected to one another. And in this essay he addressed issues of gender inequality as a pivotal component of economic hardship, noting, "Poverty .. . falls most crushingly on woman. In all countries and in all ages among the middle and lower classes, she has worked harder, and for less pay, than men."

The selection from Steward's "Poverty" that is excerpted below is less direct in terms of what Charlotte Perkins Gilman would call "sexuo-economic" relations. Yet it is no less pertinent to intertwined matters of class and gender. And, written in 1873, it is remarkably prescient regarding the ambiguous position of the middle class life even into the present.

In this passage, Steward moves beyond the idea of poverty as conventionally understood and opens up an illuminating examination of what he termed "middle class poverty." Here he vividly describes the life of an American middle class that has been uprooted from its traditional identity as made up of small entrepreneurs and property holders and has become a population of salaried employees, better dressed than paupers or the laboring poor, but living lives fearfully positioned at the brink of poverty. The marginally better pay that they earn, Steward argues, is little more than what it takes for them to maintain the appearance that they are not poor, that they are among the prosperous sectors of society. As Steward dissects the contours of middle-class poverty, he notes that going into debt in order to maintain the illusion of affluence is an essential component of its anatomy. …

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