Understanding the Nature of Poverty in Urban America

By James Jennings | Go to book overview

CONCLUSION

This introduction to some of the major questions related to urban poverty in America illustrates that many of the issues and ideas raised about the nature of poverty and how it should be addressed are not new. Although a front page article in the summer of 1992 in the New York Times by Robin Toner was titled, "Rethinking Welfare,"in fact, there has been very little change in this nation's approach to poverty and welfare reform since the Nixon presidency. 1 Significant similarities can be found in literature separated by a quarter of a century or more. We have seen, for instance, that although "underclass" may technically be considered a new term, it is not novel when compared with terms like Ostrogorski's "de-classed" in his work published in 1901, or Marshall "Residuum" appearing in 1914. Today's calls by political leaders for eliminating "dependency" on the part of the poor and for "training" programs to make them employable were spelled out more than three decades ago in the "Public Welfare Amendments Act of 1962."

Furthermore, the current view of poor people as lazy, uneducated and disinterested in improving their lot reflects a long tradition of thought and ideology. Interest in the well-being of the poor has changed from period to period before the backdrop of this tradition. Society's attention to poverty has fallen and risen on issues of economic affordability or social stability. Thus, as Joe R. Feagin pointed out twenty years ago,

Concerns with poverty and welfare and for the very poor have been a roller coaster phenomenon over the last few centuries of Western history, rising and falling with such things as changes in economic conditions, in political protest, and the character of political leadership. 2

One thing is certain, however: attempts to define and understand the nature of poverty for public policy purposes are still inadequate. While the literature has grown more technically sophisticated in terms of research methodologies, the nature of poverty and its causes are still being debated. The debate continues despite the fact that poverty has been written about throughout human history. When some observers today claim that the problem of poverty is one of individual weakness rather than a reflection of systemic causes, they are in fact repeating an idea that is very old in this society. It is interesting that George Gilder's claim that poverty is a reflection of moral weakness and disrespect for the institution of marriage is not really very different from the Humane Society's position in the colonial period that "Misery is ordained to be the companion and punish-

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