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The basic premise of the environmental theory of poverty is that the environment where a person lives and works is the primary shaper of the individual’s social, economic, and moral outlook. This perspective has enjoyed various stages of both popularity and disrepute throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century in America; nevertheless, it has affected the way that social workers have approached reform and has greatly influenced America’s response to the poor. Like its opposite perspective—the idea of a “culture” that sustains poverty from generation to generation—environmentalism is an oversimplified approach, but it does provide some insights into the causes and effects of poverty.
The environmental perspective was especially strong among Progressive reformers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Reformers and settlement house activists such as Jane Addams and Jacob Riis publicized the environmental movement among social workers, who argued that poverty was caused by decrepit surroundings and moral failings, not by ingrained inferiority. The basic argument of environmentalists was that the provision of better housing and education would improve the condition of the poor. In How the Other Half Lives (1890), Jacob Riis described in great length the terrible living conditions of New York City’s tenement districts, using photographs and illustrations to emphasize that the dilapidated conditions of the city’s poor—most of whom were immigrants—was the primary cause of the high incidence of crime in New York.
Reformers and social workers came to realize that the best way to alter the environment was to implement comprehensive neighborhood reconstruction programs. Settlement houses, such as Addams’s Hull House in Chicago, which opened in 1889, were one solution. Hull House was the nation’s first successful settlement house; it served as a community center in an impoverished neighborhood, offering practical training to help immigrant women learn habits and skills to assist their adaptation to the American way of life. Hull House provided a place for children to play and receive a basic education, offered meals for the hungry, and served as a training ground for other social reformers, as well as a model for subsequent settlement homes.
A prominent example of environmentalism in the mid-twentieth century was the 1967 report of the Kerner Commission, which investigated the causes of the “ghetto” race riots in cities across the nation. The Kerner Commission reported that the riots were the result of America’s ingrained inequality, especially the segregation of whites and blacks into two very distinct societies. The Commission emphasized the effect of the depressing conditions endured by African Americans and minorities in the decaying inner city, which were in direct contrast to the living conditions of the affluent middle class and elites. To prevent additional riots, the Commission proposed the implementation of a comprehensive plan to change the structure of American society—in effect, to alter the environment of the urban poor and thus pacify them. Although President Lyndon B. Johnson refused to accept the Commission’s recommendations, the Commission’s report illustrated the continuing impact of environment on the attitudes and perception of the poor.
The environmental theory has remained strong in recent years. Conservative welfare-reform policies, such as the now-defunct Welfare to Work program (which ended in 2004), imposed strict limits on welfare in an attempt to instill a stronger work ethic in the poor. The program bussed participants from impoverished areas to work in more affluent areas—thus the program identified poverty as a function of impoverished areas. The program’s emphasis on work, not welfare, also connected to the environmental perspective, because the program’s supporters hoped that persons who were formerly dependent on welfare and lived in depressed areas would learn to support themselves. This particular program failed because, among other reasons, the causes of poverty are too complicated to be simplified in terms of where a person lives. Like the cultural view of poverty, the environmental perspective is, at best, a partial explanation. Although environment obviously has some effect on the perceptions and attitudes of and toward the poor, it is not the only or the most significant cause of poverty. Nevertheless, the focus on the environment has greatly influenced the way that reformers attempted to aid the poor, because most reformers have not experienced firsthand the burdens of extreme poverty.
Environmentalism (and the culture of poverty) explain the complex causes and effects of poverty according to theory, not according to experience.
- Atkins, Jacqueline M., ed., Encyclopedia of Social Work, 18th ed., 2 vols. (Silver Spring, MD: NASW, 1987);
- Goldfield, David R., and Blaine A. Brownell, Urban America: From Downtown to No Town (Boston: Oxford University Press, 1979);
- Kerner Commission, “Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders” (Washington, D.C.: 1968);
- Patterson, James T., America’s Struggle against Poverty in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000);
- Riis, Jacob, How the Other Half Lives (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1890).
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