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Throughout American history, the urban poor—those persons living below the poverty threshold in urbanized areas—have been one of the most visible and most misunderstood groups of society. Differences in race and ethnicity, economic impoverishment, and lifestyle traits that did not conform to the white middle-class ideal contributed to the separation of the poor from mainstream society, both hiding and magnifying the experience of the urban poor. Until the mid-twentieth century most academic and professional accounts of the urban poor assumed the viewpoint of the white Anglo-Saxon protestant (WASP) middle class, from which perspective most reformers, critics, and casual observers discussed the social, economic, religious, and cultural “difference” of the poor in urban areas. This perspective obscured the fact that WASP men and women also comprised part of the urban poor. With the rise of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, however, the majority of the urban poor became of immigrant or nonwhite descent.
The urban poor are a difficult group to identify and understand because of the changing perceptions of poverty. As noted by Michael Harrington in The Other America, the urban poor’s invisibility and isolation hides the great numbers of impoverished Americans and masks their experiences. Also impeding an understanding of the urban poor are the stereotypes—such as “deserving” and “undeserving” poor—adopted by middle class America to describe the urban poor. The “deserving poor” are those hardworking, sober people who, through ill fortune or incapacitation, have been prevented from achieving the goals of economic success. Those, on the other hand, who did not subscribe to the WASP ideal of hard work were “undeserving.” The public perception of the poor was increasingly negative during the course of the nineteenth century, particularly as large numbers of Eastern and Southern European Catholics arrived in America in the late 1800s. At the same time the white middle class was influenced by the ideology of Social Darwinism, which taught that only the fittest (hardest working) survive in the American capitalist system. If economic success is a mark of superiority, then the poor must be inherently inferior—and therefore undeserving of public welfare. The urban poor had to rely on private rather than public welfare until the Great Depression brought massive material suffering even to the middle class, discrediting the idea that poverty is a mark of personal inferiority.
The early Industrial Revolution in America negatively impacted the urban poor. Prior to the rise of the machine and the standardization of production, small local shops were the norm. Artisans learned a trade through an apprenticeship in which tradesmen imparted their trades and provided lodging; thus great emphasis was put on personal relations between masters and their apprentices. Employers had closer relations with their workers, sometimes providing lodging in their own homes. The emphasis on quality workmanship allowed individual craftsmen to gain good reputations, which improved their social and financial situations. Mass production, however, led to the breakdown of the master-worker relationship, and quantity became more important than quality. Machines, with workers performing predefined tasks, produced goods more efficiently than one worker making a finished product; factories could rely on unskilled laborers. Mass production also lowered wages for workers, because special skills were no longer as important. This devaluation of skilled labor led to decreased contact between the affluent part of society— the employers—and the unskilled workers and the unemployed. As a result, the affluent became wealthier and the impoverished became poorer, until by the end of the nineteenth century Jacob Riis could justify the assertion, made in How the Other Half Lives, that the affluent not only did not care how the poor—”the other half”—lived, but had willfully forgotten them.
Changing social policy toward the poor clearly illustrates the transition from preindustrial to industrial America. In colonial American towns, members of the community in good standing who through misfortune—illness, disability, age, orphaning, widowing—became poor were cared for by the town through private individuals or the almshouse. As population increased and the numbers of itinerant, undeserving poor grew, American cities constructed workhouses to house, employ, and sometimes punish the poor. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, the numbers of inhabitants in major American cities had reached hundreds of thousands, stretching city infrastructures and making it impossible to care for the deserving poor. American cities no longer assumed responsibility for the poor, causing the creation and expansion of the urban slum. Who was “deserving”—and who was “undeserving”—of public poor relief did not matter, because such relief did not exist.
The increasingly nameless and faceless poor was enlarged by the large numbers of impoverished Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Greek (among others) immigrants. Eastern and Southern European newcomers upset the American middle-class ideal, rarely sharing faith in individual initiative with most WASP Americans. The American middle class grew fearful of the consequences of urbanization. Attempting to retain a semblance of order, city officials placed more reliance on institutions to establish order. Nineteenth-century American cities embraced the idea of the police to catch and incarcerate criminals and nonconformists, many of whom were the poor. Accompanying the white middle-class fear of immigrants was the anxiety about where they lived: the urban ghetto.
The conflict between the WASP middle class and the urban poor often occurred in the workplace. The former, spouting the ideals of Social Darwinism and laissez faire capitalism, were the socialist ideals of organized labor. The development of unions, such as the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor (AFL), allowed workers to voice their discontent through strikes. At times, strikes degenerated into an outright fight between the workers and business and government: the Haymarket Square riot in Chicago (1886) and the Pullman Strike (1894) both resulted in increased federal measures to secure the position of American business. The pro-business stance of the government contributed to the spread of socialist ideology among the urban poor as a means of organizing against and vocalizing discontent about what they believed to be an oppressive system. The popularity of socialism and communism among the urban poor of all races alarmed political and business elites, who renewed their efforts to secure the position of individual initiative and free-market capitalism. But it was not until the stock market crash of October 1929, and the ill-starred response of President Herbert Hoover, that the federal government began to listen to the voice of the poor.
The Great Depression discredited the idea that poverty was a mark of inferiority, because the economic collapse impoverished the business elite and the middle class as well as the laboring class and urban poor; thus began the New Deal, America’s entry into welfare statehood. Because mainstream Americans experienced poverty during the depression, New Deal programs such as Social Security implied that individual initiative alone was not a guarantee of prosperity. Other New Deal programs directed toward helping the urban poor included the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which relocated unemployed urban youth to rural work camps, and the Works Project Administration (WPA), which employed men in projects such as building sidewalks. Ideologically, the Great Depression led to the awareness that poverty was not a disease or mark of inborn inferiority, justifying the switch from individualized charity to federal welfare. In the 1930s, poverty was no longer a trait of the “other”—immigrants, blacks, drug addicts, heathens, the indolent poor—but affected a large proportion of middle-class white Americans.
Early twentieth-century reformers attempted to clean up urban tenements, but these efforts were usually not successful; too often the reform efforts were halfhearted and did not get to the root of the problem. Housing programs like the Federal Housing Association (FHA) enabled low-income families to obtain affordable loans, increasing the movement to the suburbs. However, many African Americans and minority groups could not move out of the city and were forced to reside in large-scale public housing complexes, separated from the rest of the city. By 1937, when Congress passed the United States Housing Act (USHA), large-scale public housing complexes seemed to be the answer, as large complexes provided a low-cost and (theoretically) cleaner alternative to tenement housing. Early examples of housing complexes built under the USHA were Brooklyn’s Red Hook and Queensbrough housing developments; these complexes were designed on a strict geometrical layout, did not have any design frills, and were generally dirty, unpleasant places to live. The enclosed design and large scale of these “big box” complexes led to a feeling of isolation from the rest of the city.
The isolation of African Americans in public housing led to the downward spiral of the conditions of the inner city, as city officials tended to focus their resources: in other areas. The complacency of city officials was shattered in the mid 1960s with the nationwide outbreak of “ghetto” riots: the worst were in Watts (1965), Detroit (1967), and Newark (1967). President Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission to investigate the causes of these disturbances; the Commission’s 1967 Report clearly identified the racial segregation of blacks into the worst areas of decaying cities as the cause of the violence. The Kerner Commission recommended a comprehensive overhaul of the existing structure of American society, including increasing the work for civil rights and equality, that was more radical and farther-reaching than President Johnson’s War on Poverty. Johnson rejected the Kerner Commission’s plan, however, so the situation remained unchanged.
Michael Harrington, in The Other America, echoed the Kerner Commission’s conclusion that the America’s poor felt forgotten. Significantly, Harrington’s book reported similar findings to Riis’s in How the Other Half Lives, demonstrating that despite the New Deal, few changes had occurred. In fact, many of the same problems exist today. In 2005, the poverty rate among people who lived in standard metropolitan statistical areas (SMSAs) but outside the city proper—in the suburbs and older towns near large cities—was 9.3 percent, whereas 17 percent of the residents of the principal city area of the SMSA and 14.5 percent of nonurban dwellers lived below the poverty line. Likewise, the most impoverished areas of most cities are the African American or immigrant areas, where there are few jobs, much crime, and little interaction with the rest of the population of the SMSA. Old industrial cities like Camden, New Jersey, and Detroit have large numbers of impoverished minorities in comparison to the more affluent residents living in the outlying suburbs, leaving the principal city with insufficient tax revenue. The problem of the urban poor is presently easy for the middle class to ignore but remains a significant concern for the continued livelihood of America’s cities.
Since the Kerner Commission’s Report, the situation has significantly changed in some ways and remained stagnant in others—somewhat depending on viewpoint and method of analysis. In terms of spatial segregation—the isolation of impoverished minorities in depressed central-city areas—relatively little has changed: central cities across the United States remain underfunded, contested areas; inner-city schools provide substandard education, and the urban poor do not have a strong political voice. However, recent comprehensive urban revitalization campaigns in poverty-stricken cities such as Detroit and Pittsburgh demonstrate that local authorities realize that a functioning central area is a requirement for urban growth. Despite the fact that revitalization leads to “gentrification” and does not often benefit the poorest residents, the spatial isolation of the inner city (a leading cause of ghetto unrest in the 1960s) is less defined. The movement of wealthier persons to revitalized central city areas should provide important information about the state of the urban poor in the twenty-irst century but also raises several questions. Will municipal authorities provide adequate housing for the displaced former residents of revitalized areas? Will more attractive urban public space lead to reconciliation of class groups, or will the daily reminder of unattainable affluence goad the poor to renewed unrest?
- Bauman, John F., Roger Biles, and Kristin M. Szylvian, eds., From the Tenements to the Taylor Homes: In Search of an Urban Housing Policy in Twentieth-Century America (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000);
- Brown, Robert, Middle Class Democracy and the Revolution in Massachusetts, 1691-1780 (Cornell, New York: Cornell, 1955);
- Callow, Alexander B., Jr., ed., American Urban History: An Interpretive Reader with Commentaries, 3rd ed. (New York: 1982);
- Goldfield, David R., and Blaine A. Brownell, Urban America: From Downtown to No Town (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1979);
- Harrington, Michael, The Other America: Poverty in the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1963);
- Horne, Gerald, Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s (New York: University of Virginia Press, 1995);
- Huggins, Nathan Irvin, Harlem Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971);
- Lawson, Benjamin A., “The Pruitt-Igoe Projects: Modernism, Social Control, and the Failure of Public Housing, 1954-1976” (MA thesis: Oklahoma State University Press, 2007);
- Litwack, Leon, North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 (Chicago: University Press, 1971);
- 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: 1890); Sitkoff, Harvard, New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue (Oxford: University Press, 1981);
- Trattner, Walter I., From Poor Law to Welfare State, 6th ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999).
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