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Excerpt from the New American Poverty (1984, by Michael Harrington)


High inflation, little economic growth, and rising unemployment were rampant in the early 1980s. Trade imbalances, energy crises, and the decline of American industrial production all contributed to the increases in poverty, homelessness, and crime that characterize the decade. While the Reagan administration heralded an era of perceived prosperity and power, the poor population was growing at an astronomical rate and social programs designed to help them were being cut in an effort to reduce the deficit.

Michael Harrington's 1984 book, The New American Poverty, was part of the widespread media attention being given to social welfare problems in the early 1980s. The book illustrates the ineffectiveness of government programs designed to address poverty by drawing attention to statistics revealing the desperate plight of poor Americans. In this excerpt, Harrington discusses the new face of rural poverty in the South and the escalating Social Security crisis.

Leah R.Shafer,
Cornell University

See also Old Age ; Poverty ; Rural Life ; Social Security .

I was on my way to give a speech at Starkville, Mississippi, and since I was working on this book I decided that I would be a poverty tourist. I told my faculty contact at Mississippi State University that I preferred to drive from Jackson to Starkville. I didn't tell him that I hoped to see, and even photograph, some obvious rural poverty. But I knew that welfare was the main source of income in thirty-one of Mississippi's eighty-two counties, that half of the five-year-olds in the state were not in pre-schools (although the state is now moving to change that), and that 35 percent of the Mississippians who tried to enlist in the Air Force were rejected. Wouldn't it be quite simple to get such a social problem to pose for a picture?

In The Other America I had written that poverty in general—and rural poverty in particular—lies off the beaten track. It is not obvious, which is precisely one of the reasons it is so often tenacious. As we drove from the Jackson Airport, I became uncomfortably aware that I should have heeded my own forgotten advice. The outskirts of Jackson could have been the outskirts of any city in the United States: the motels, the fast-food places, the low-rise business, that plastic homogeneity of Any City, U.S.A. Then we went down the Natchez Trail Highway, a pretty road lined with the ubiquitous pine trees of the South. There was a lovely reservoir named for a former racist governor, and then came small homes and apparently prosperous farms.

As we talked, my old knowledge slowly began to come back to me. The Delta is where the heavy concentration of blacks is found; shacks are not to be found on major arteries, because they can't pay the rent commanded by such important roads. But then it turned out that even some of the superficial well-being was not quite as it seemed. The chicken sheds at the seemingly prosperous farms were not owned by the farmers but advanced to them, along with the chickens and the feed, by entrepreneurs. Even the affluent farm owner, I remembered, is normally squeezed between the corporate input sector of the agricultural economy—the banks, the manufacturers of agricultural implements—and the corporate output sector—the processors, distributors, and giant export companies.

Social structure, I understood once again, was not to be seen; it had to be perceived. My act of stupidity on the road to Starkville might be paradigmatic of the attitude of the entire society toward rural poverty. Our eyes are so totally controlled by the stereotypes in our minds that we cannot see what we see.

For instance, it is well known that the American South is in the Sun Belt, which has been growing, and that it is better off than the Frost Belt of the North, which is in crisis. The fact is that the South, with less than a third of the population, accounted for 49.3 percent of the American poor in 1959 and 41.9 percent in 1978. Even that relative decline has to be put into a context, since part of it is explained by the fact that, though white out-migration stopped in a state like Mississippi during the sixties, black out-migration continued. As we have already seen, some of the worst aspects of black poverty in the cities of the North are consequences of the shocked lives of the black economic refugees from the South.

When one looks at the poverty rate in the non-urban parts of the South, however, there seems to have been real progress: from 33.2 percent in 1959, down to 13.5 percent in 1978. But the bulk of that improvement (from 33.2 percent to 17.9 percent) was made in the sixties, and in the mid-seventies the poverty percentage actually increased as a result of the recession of 1974–75. Since the statistics do not as yet reflect the economic catastrophe of 1981–82, the numbers are likely to have already gone up. But when it comes to the black and non-urban South, one does not have to be sensitive to statistical nuances to get a sense of the incredible deprivation: In 1978—a relatively "good" year—37.2 percent of the people living there were poor.

I finally got some sense of that reality on my visit to Starkville. The student who drove me to the local airport for the return trip took me down some back roads, and there were the broken-down houses that I had thought would be on the main highways for all to see. There was also a trailer camp, one of the important assembly points for the poor and the almost-poor. Indeed, when one looks at the 1980 census figures for "mobile home and trailer" percentages, they are very high in Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia. And if one examines the states where more than 20 percent of the population had less than 125 percent of the poverty level, one finds that they are Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Mississippi, as is so often the case, is the poorest of all, with 31.5 percent of the people below that level. Yet I could not see that last fact with my presumably trained eyes.

But then, if one looks not at the South in general, but at the poor black South, the reality becomes even more grim. The National Association of the Southern Poor describes the Black Belt as the area between Virginia and Louisiana with counties in which the black population ranges from 30 to 82 percent. Typically, Northampton County, North Carolina, had a per capita income of $2,673 a year at the end of the seventies, which was about one-third of the national average, and the three hundred other counties of the Black Belt had similar rates. These figures should not, however, be seen as shocking. Right before the Reagan cuts, the state of Mississippi provided a family of four on welfare with $120 a month—or $1,440 a year.

"The life of the people in the area reflects the very low income," the association's report continues. "They live in houses insulated by cardboard with tin roofs, in converted stables or chicken coops. Many have no toilets, indoors or out. Often they must transport water from long distances. Most babies are born without the assistance of any medical advice. The sleep of residents is sometimes disturbed by children crying from hunger; and our organization has witnessed hunger pacified by sugar and water for entire households, including babies, for periods of up to ten days."

The South, particularly the Southeast but even the Southwest, is not a happy Sun Belt with an affluent economy even in good times Rather, a part of its growth has been based precisely on low-wage, anti-union practices. North Carolina, for instance, is a more industrialized state than many think; in 1980 it ranked seventeenth in value added by manufacture. It was, however, forty-ninth in the percentage of union membership (only South Carolina was lower). All of this is not to say that the South made no gains during the relatively good times of the fifties and sixties. It did. It is to say that economic growth will have less of an impact there than it did historically in the industrial heartland—unless, that is, the American labor movement can finally make a major breakthrough into the region.

But what, one might ask, do unionism and industry have to do with rural America? A great deal. Here, again, stereotypes inhibit the eyes.

In 1945, at the end of World War II, there were about six million farms in the United States. By 1970 there were half that number, and their average size had almost doubled. In human terms, 24.9 percent of the American population was composed of farmers in 1930, 2.6 percent in 1981. What these statistics describe is the elimination of most of the subsistence farms as well as of most of the farm hands. Rural poverty, then, is often not farm poverty.

There are, for instance, sections of New York State that are "Appalachian." In part that adjective has to do with the landscape and the economy; in part it has to do with the fact that the definition of Appalachia in the 1960s was an exercise in politics having to do with the spending of money rather than the work of scholarly geographers. In Janet Fitchen's analysis of one of the small towns in this New York Appalachia, social decay "proceeded unrelentingly, with much the same inexorable sweep as was the case in the chestnut blight, which struck the same region and wiped out whole hillsides of stately and useful trees."

In the early twentieth-century, agricultural decline, out-migration, debt-ridden farms, and people without skills adjusted to the industrial labor market. At the same time, the legendary social structure of rural America was subverted. The hamlets were impoverished, underpopulated, unable to carry out their traditional functions as centers of a vibrant, friendly community life. The people became members of the working poor, holding lowpaying jobs in factories, in the highway department, in the low-skill, left-over jobs of an area that was no longer agricultural and not yet urban. That was much the same pattern I had encountered in Maine, where the subsistence farmers, the clammers, and the berry pickers had been driven by gentrification into the mill towns. It exists in Vermont where, only a few miles away from a fashionable ski resort, there are enclaves of bitter poverty.

The migrant workers face a different kind of poverty than do the exhausted agricultural areas of the Northeast. For one thing, they are extremely hard to count. For instance, the Statistical Abstract follows the legal definitions and, in effect, assumes that no Mexican agricultural laborers entered the United States after 1965. That is one improbable reason why it estimates migrants in 1979 at a mere 217,000. The best count, according to Richard Margolis, who wrote an excellent survey for Rural America, was made by the Department of Agriculture in 1977, which said that this labor force was one-third white, one-third Hispanic, one-third black, Oriental, and Native American. Margolis puts the total number at "more than one million women, men, and children who travel from place to place, yet have no place to call their own."

But then, where does one take note of the similar, but different, poverty of the Chicanos living in that thirties-style "tourist court" I saw in a tiny Nebraska town? There is a Chicano community of ex-migrants in East Kearney, Nebraska, a town of 20,000 people. It is on the "wrong side" of the Union Pacific Railroad tracks, in a neighborhood that spectacularly lives up to one of the classic patterns of poverty in the United States: bad roads for poor people. There are not simply muddy streets and trailer parks; there are no sidewalks. And yet the people living under these conditions have more stability and even amenities than do the migrants themselves. There are places, Margolis found, where at the height of the season a dozen people are stuffed into a single trailer and charged ten dollars a head per week.

There are even a few places where there is a minimum of decency for migrants. Farmworker Village is a 276-unit public housing project in Immokalee, Florida, built in the mid-seventies to show that, with money and imagination, migrants don't have to be treated like animals. It is both an exception and a "Potemkin village" for the government (Potemkin was a minister under Catherine the Great who rigged up villages with phony facades to prove that progress was being made), an exception to the rule. Yet the point has been made: There could be decent housing for these people; we just don't care.

It might seem strange to include a brief discussion of the poverty of the aging in a book that talks of new forms of misery. Isn't it clear that in this area there has been unambiguous and irreversible progress? Yes and maybe.

The "yes" part is clear enough. In 1959, 35.2 percent of people over sixty-five were poor; in 1980, 15.7 percent. Indeed, between 1970 and 1983, the income of older Americans went up faster than that of those under sixty-five. One of the reasons for this change is that social security coverage was extended from 60 percent of the aging in 1960 to 92 percent in 1981. Another reason is that, during the sixties and the seventies, the benefit levels were increased and then indexed. The aging, then, were probably better protected against inflation in the seventies and early eighties than was any other group. So, yes, there has been progress and those who fought for it should be proud of their accomplishment. Now come the qualifications—and the possibility that the aging could indeed become the new poor, not so much in the near future (although that is possible, too) but in the early twenty-first century.

First, the qualifications. If it is true that "only" 15.7 percent of the aging are poor—a mere 3,853,000 human beings in their "golden years"—another 25 percent are on, or just above, the poverty line. In the Miami Beach area, where there are so many social security recipients, one watches them waiting outside of cheap restaurants to take advantage of specials, or sitting in front of shabby hotels. Many are not poor—that is a gain—but are within the magnetic field of insecurity and faced with all of the health problems that age brings. Older blacks and widows more than seventy years old are particularly at risk. The Wall Street Journal quotes an expert: "We're just giving them enough so they'll starve better." Second, the optimistic statistics do not emphasize the fact that more than 10 percent of those over sixty-five are getting Medicaid—even though more than half of them (1,700,000 people) are technically above the poverty line.

If the conservative proposals designed to assign a cash value to in-kind income prevail, the portion of the aging poor having their nursing-home bills paid for by Medicaid will be suddenly promoted into the middle class. On the other hand, there are those who attack the medical care programs for the aging on the grounds that they go far beyond the intentions of the original Social Security Act. In fact, Franklin Roosevelt's Committee on Economic Security, which proposed the social security bill, had said that the "second major step" in the social security process should be not simply health care for the aging, but the application of social insurance principles to the problem of health itself. And there are still major problems for divorced women, particularly those in their fifties who have spent their lives as homemakers. In fact, older women as a group are almost twice as likely to be impoverished as men.

The point is, progress has indeed been made, but it is not quite as unambiguous as some think. And the progress is not universally welcomed, either. This act surfaced in the debate over the social security "crisis" of 1982–83. In early 1982, former Commerce Secretary Peter Peterson made the famous discovery that public expenditures for the poor were only a fraction of the outlays for the aging. To deal with the budgetary crisis, he said, it was necessary to think about cuts in this area. At the same time, it became known that some of the social security trust funds were in trouble. The air was filled with dire predictions of a breakdown in the system.

Peterson's point constitutes an ongoing danger, i.e., that some politician will, particularly at the end of the century, decide to balance the budget on the backs of the aging. But before looking at that possibility, it is important to understand that the crisis of the eighties was not a crisis of social security but of the American economy. During the seventies, both inflation and unemployment rose to very high levels. This put a special burden on social security. Unemployed workers do not pay social security (or any other) taxes; and benefits were indexed to correct for inflation. The system's revenues went down and its expenditures went up because the economy as a whole was in a period of "stagflation," which was inexplicable in terms of the conventional Keynesian wisdom.

This brings us to an ABC that is sometimes forgotten. Many Americans think that social security is a form of insurance, like a private policy. In fact, the system is not "funded" at all. That is, the government does not take—nor has it ever taken—the payments, invest them, and then pay the claims out of the monies actually earned, minus a charge for administration. Rather, it uses the taxes of the current working generation to pay the benefits of the retired generation. Unemployment among the young is thus a problem for the old. Moreover, the benefits are not proportioned to payments as an insurance policy. Two groups in particular, the rich and the poor, get welfare from the system, the poor because there is a certain minimum level of support, no matter what has been paid in, the rich because they are only taxed on a small portion of their income and therefore get maximum benefits at a very cheap (relative) price.

In the eighties, the "crisis" was a function of the mismanagement of the economy. If America had been operating at full employment with stable prices, the "crisis" would hardly have existed. As it was, that "breakdown" of the system was resolved by a compromise with one clearly reactionary factor. In addition to some sensible reforms, such as taxing the benefits of retired individuals receiving $20,000 a year and couples getting $25,000, the law postponed the July 1983 cost-of living adjustment to January 1984. That "one time" postponement will affect benefits for years to come, and could even push some of the marginal people under the poverty line. Congressman Claude Pepper and AFL-CIO leader Lane Kirkland fought that provision and did eventually win some extra help for people receiving Supplemental Security Income. But still, a principle had been breached, i.e., there had been a slight rollback in the real income of people over sixty-five. They were penalized for Washington's inability to manage the economy.

What makes this particularly disturbing is that the real crisis will occur shortly after the turn of the century. In 1980 there were roughly five people of working age for every person sixty-five or older; by the year 2030, when the "baby boom" generation (1945–60) has retired, there are expected to be two and a half people between twenty and sixty-four for every retiree over sixty-five. On all but the most pessimistic analysis, the system will run a surplus until 2015, or even 2025, but then there is a danger of significant deficits. Mind you, all demographic projections are speculative; the baby boom itself came as a surprise.

This gets to a central point, one that the best people in the political movement of the aging have understood: To protect, and deepen, the antipoverty gains of the social security system requires that the society face up to structural economic problems.

The movement itself is one of the most exciting political developments in the United States in years. The original Social Security Act was, in part, a response to the organization of the aging by Dr. Townsend in the thirties. His plan, interestingly enough, was supposed to stimulate the entire economy, since the aging would agree to spend their benefits in the month they received them and thus help prime the pump for all. But after the agitation of the thirties there seemed to be relative quiet until sometime in the sixties or early seventies. I first encountered this new trend in Denver at a meeting of the Western Gerontological Society in the mid-seventies. There was a large audience, part of it made up of doctors and social workers, but part composed of the militant aging themselves. As people lined up at the microphone to criticize or applaud speakers, the confident and aggressive tone reminded me of the best days of the civil rights movement.

There was, for example, a very palpable response to the psychiatrist who attacked diagnoses of "senility" which allowed government to abandon expensive attempts to restore the aging to a meaningful life and permitted them to prescribe cheap tranquilizers for a vegetablized existence instead. In 1981, Ronald Reagan made a tentative suggestion to cut back on some social security benefits, and it was this same movement of the aging that rose up in protest and helped persuade every Republican in the United States Senate to reject the President's proposal. Reagan promptly backed down.

In October 1983, when I spoke at a Gray Panthers meeting in Seattle, what impressed me most was the understanding of the way in which the problems of the aging are linked to the fate of the economy as a whole. The conference was co-sponsored by the Washington AFL-CIO, and it had attracted activists of all ages. When I spoke of how the aging had to support the full employment of the young, there was an enthusiastic response.

Most of the older people in Denver and Seattle and at other meetings were not poor. They were middle class. But they were and are the front line of the forces defending the biggest single gain of the poor in the past twenty years, one that even Ronald Reagan has not yet dared to attack. If they build the kind of alliances talked of in Seattle, it is possible that this progress will continue for the indefinite future. But if the American economy continues to malfunction for another decade or so, it could well be that some unscrupulous politician will notice the figures that so intrigued Peter Peterson. When asked why he robbed banks Willie Sutton said, "Because that's where the money is." And if a reactionary politician looks around for cuts, his eye will eventually alight upon social security. Because that's where most of the social spending is.

Finally, what about the 15.7 percent of the aging who, despite the gains, still are poor? It would be simplicity itself to raise coverage to 100 percent of the people over sixty-five and increase benefits so that everyone has enough to meet necessities. We have been sitting on the 15-percent laurel for a decade now (actually there has been a slight increase in the poverty of the aging since 1975). But why, in what is potentially the richest society in human history, should people in the twilight of their lives have to pinch the pennies of necessity? This is not a possibility of future poverty but a present reality, and it can be abolished anytime we decide to do so. We showed in the sixties and seventies that it is easy enough. If we care.

SOURCE: Harrington, Michael. The New American Poverty. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1984.

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