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Poverty, Urban

Poverty, Urban


For well over a century and a half, the urban poor have been an object of intense contemplation among scholars, politicians, philanthropists, activists, and policy makers, and the topic of urban poverty has been one of the most controversial in the field of urban studies. Alternatively reviled or pitied, the urban poor tend to be characterized in academic and popular discourse as either undeserving, irrational, passive, pathological, apathetic, and in need of charity and moral reform or as deserving, resilient, exploited, and oppressed. Accordingly, explanations for the causes of urban poverty have, for the most part, vacillated between blaming the poor for their own impoverishment and explaining impoverishment in terms of urban political economy.

Research on urban poverty first gained prominence in nineteenth-century Europe and the United States as industrialization transformed the urban landscape. Its roots were primarily in early social reformism, which built on investigative journalism with survey research to make poverty visible so that it could be reckoned with by the burgeoning middle classes. In England, social reformer Charles Booth, for example, followed the earlier work of journalists Henry Mayhew and Andrew Mearns to gain widespread attention for his classificatory survey of the laboring classes, Life and Labour of the People of London (1902). In the United States, journalist Jacob Riis published the still famous How the Other Half Lives (1890). Soon thereafter, Hull House settlement founder Jane Addams spearheaded the publication of Hull House Maps and Papers (1895), revealing the distinctive pattern of immigration, wage inequality, and residential segregation that characterized American cities at the time.

As the first empirical studies of poverty in European and American cities, the work published by these social reformers is widely considered to be the precursor to modern social scientific poverty studies. Importantly, these studies were largely descriptive and were designed to be systematic in their classifications of the poor and in their depictions of the illicit commerce, violence, deprivation, and sloth that was sometimes present in urban neighborhoods. They were also focused squarely on the question of urban political economy, with class, wages, and employment as central categories of analysis. As the first study to establish a direct link between industrialization, the labor process, and the depreciation of living conditions in overcrowded slums, Friedrich Engelss The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 became an early classic of this approach.

The rise of Chicago School sociology in the early twentieth century reoriented poverty studies away from urban political economy toward social ecology. Less interested in class than in assimilation and social disorganization among immigrants, the Chicago approach sought to explain industrialization, commerce, and residential distribution as natural occurrences in the urban environment (Park et al. 1925). In this formulation, poverty and segregation were understood as part of a natural process of ecological succession, in which poor and segregated neighborhoods were seen as natural areas where new immigrants were oriented to the city, giving them a foothold before their eventual accommodation with and assimilation into the more affluent mainstream. In a series of important and highly influential field and ethnographic studies on such topics as juvenile delinquency, gangs, hobos, and slums, the Chicago School provided the social scientific basis for the understanding of urban poverty, which its protagonists tended to view as a consequence of social deviance and neighborhood disorganization. E. Franklin Fraziers The Negro Family in Chicago (1932) and The Negro Family in the United States (1939) gained wide influence in poverty studies by downplaying the importance of racial inequality, establishing a powerful connection between poverty and family structure, and arguing in particular that the matriarchal black family was pathologically disorganized and that it therefore perpetuated poverty. (It should be noted, however, that Frazier ultimately viewed family disorganization as temporary and that he was a strong advocate for incorporation of black men into the industrial workforce [OConner 2001].) In contrast, St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton, also trained at Chicago, published Black Metropolis (1945). Like Du Boiss The Philadelphia Negro (1899) before it, they placed a stronger emphasis on the role of racial inequality in the production and reproduction of black inner-city poverty.

The influence of the Chicago Schools poverty-as-cultural-pathology argument grew in the poverty scholarship and public-policy work of the 1960s and 1970s. Notably, anthropologist Oscar Lewis, best known for his widely disseminated culture of poverty thesis, linked behavior with the persistence of poverty (Lewis 1966). He argued that a significant faction of the poor were caught in an intergenerational quagmire of dysfunctional values and behaviors. This argument resonated with and reinforced the dominant policy positions that emerged as poverty was rediscovered in America in the 1960s during the War on Poverty. Famously, Lewiss influence can be seen in Daniel Patrick Moynihans 1965 report to President Johnson, The Negro Family: A Case for National Action, which relied heavily on the culture of poverty thesis to describe black ghetto poverty and familial dysfunction. Many social scientists rebutted Lewiss culturalist explanations for social disorganization with work showing that the consumption, labor market participation, and kinship patterns among the poor were not dysfunctional, irrational, or self-destructive but rather survival strategies that made sense given economic constraints (see, for example, Stack 1974; Liebow 1967; Valentine 1978).

In the 1980s and 1990s, the controversy around the culture of poverty thesis replayed itself as the underclass debate, which focused on the poorest of the poor in cities struggling to remake themselves under postindustrial conditions. Also centered around the behaviors of black inner-city residents, the debate this time focused on their social isolation and dislocation. Pundits and policy makers on the right argued that poverty was caused by poor peoples dependency on welfare programs (Murray 1984; Mead 1992). In rebuttal, left-liberal scholars countered the moralist formulations of the right with demographic analyses demonstrating the structural roots of impoverishment. William Julius Wilson (1987, 1996), among others, showed that public policies such as affirmative action, which enabled residential mobility for middle-class blacks, combined with labor market restructuring in deindustrializing cities to create an isolated underclass of chronically jobless inner-city residents. Both sides of the underclass debate were critiqued by left-leaning scholars for downplaying the persistence of racial and gender discrimination in labor markets, housing policies, and tax policies, and for perpetuating the image of the pathological poor (Goode and Maskovsky 2001; OConner 2001). Recent research on urban poverty has redirected attention once again to urban political economy. In the aftermath of the 1996 welfare reform, the popularity of the poverty-as-cultural-pathology argument has abated significantly, and new policy-centered work has documented the plight of the U.S. working poor, who are not able to earn wages high enough to pull them out of poverty. More significantly, as global cities paradigms have become more influential in urban studies, the idea that urban poverty is a consequence of global shifts in economy, politics, and governance has once again taken center stage. Whereas some European Third Way scholars have shifted their focus away from poverty toward social exclusion (e.g., Giddens 1998), others have directed critical attention to the political economy of the new global inner city. In the global North, gentrification and other redevelopment strategies are displacing low-income residents from central cities (Hackworth 2007). In the global South, slums are proliferating in large measure because of new migration patterns that correspond with global shifts in industrial and agricultural production patterns (Davis 2006). Of particular interest in this work is attention to the polarizing effects of neoliberalism on cities across the world (Harvey 2005). This new work resonates with scholarship that understands poverty as fundamentally a political problem, one that is shaped dramatically by forms of activism, urban or otherwise, that either include or exclude the impoverished residents who live in cities across the globe (Maskovsky 2001; see also Piven and Cloward 1977).

SEE ALSO Affirmative Action; Assimilation; Chicago School; Culture of Poverty; Deviance; Discrimination, Racial; Drake, St. Clair; Du Bois, W. E. B.; Frazier, E. Franklin; Immigration; Inequality, Racial; Lewis, Oscar; Moynihan, Daniel Patrick; Moynihan Report; Neoliberalism; Park School, The; Pathology, Social; Poverty; Racism; Slums; Underclass; Urban Renewal; Urban Sprawl; Urban Studies; Welfare


Booth, Charles, ed. 1902. Life and Labour of the People in London. 17 vols. London and New York: Macmillan.

Davis, Mike. 2006. Planet of Slums. London: Verso.

Drake, St. Clair, and Horace R Cayton. 1945. Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

Du Bois, W. E. B., and I. Eaton. 1899. The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. Philadelphia: Published for the University of Pennsylvania.

Engels, Friedrich. 1888. The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. Trans. Florence Kelley. London: William Reeves.

Frazier, E. Franklin. 1932. The Negro Family in Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Frazier, E. Franklin. 1939. The Negro Family in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Giddens, Anthony. 1998. The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Goode, Judith, and Jeff Maskovsky, eds. 2001. New Poverty Studies: The Ethnography of Power, Politics, and Impoverished People in the United States. New York: New York University Press.

Hackworth, Jason R. 2007. The Neoliberal City: Governance, Ideology, and Development in American Urbanism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Harvey, D. 2005. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hull House. 1895. Hull-House Maps and Papers: A Presentation of Nationalities and Wages in a Congested District of Chicago, Together with Comments and Essays on Problems Growing Out of the Social Conditions. New York: T.Y. Crowell.

Katz, Michael B. 1990. The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare. New York: Pantheon.

Lewis, Oscar. 1966. The culture of poverty. Scientific American. 21 5(4): 1925.

Liebow, Elliott. 1967. Tallys Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men. Boston: Little, Brown.

Maskovsky, Jeff. 2001. Afterword. In New Poverty Studies: The Ethnography of Power, Politics, and Impoverished People in the United States, eds. Judith Goode and Jeff Maskovsky, 470482. New York: New York University Press.

Mead, Lawrence M. 1992. The New Politics of Poverty: The Nonworking Poor in America. New York: Basic Books.

Murray, Charles A. 1984. Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 19501980. New York: Basic Books.

OConnor, Alice. 2001. Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Park, Robert Ezra, Ernest Watson Burgess, Roderick Duncan McKenzie, and Louis Wirth. 1925. The City. University of Chicago studies in urban sociology. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Piven, Frances F., and Richard A. Cloward. 1977. Poor Peoples Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail. New York: Pantheon.

Riis, Jacob A. 1890. How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York. New York: Scribners.

Stack, Carol B. 1974. All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community. New York: Harper & Row.

U.S. Department of Labor. 1965. The Negro Family, the Case for National Action. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Valentine, Bettylou. 1978. Hustling and Other Hard Work: Life Styles in the Ghetto. New York: Free Press.

Wilson, William J. 1987. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wilson, William J. 1996. When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor. New York: Knopf.

Jeff Maskovsky

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"Poverty, Urban." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 27 Jul. 2017 <>.

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In The Slums (1890, by Jacob Riis)

IN THE SLUMS (1890, by Jacob Riis)

The rapid industrialization of post-Civil War America, coupled with massive influxes of immigrants into urban areas, resulted in the appearance of blighted residential districts or slums. Primitive sanitary facilities, windowless tenement rooms, and massive overcrowding were only a few of the many problems suffered by the urban poor at the turn of the century.

When Jacob Riis (1848–1914) came to America from Denmark in 1870 he held a number of low-wage jobs before becoming a journalist, so he was well acquainted with the horrors and depravations of slum life. His zeal for reform led him to publish widely on the problems of the urban poor. Riis, who eventually became a close ally of Theodore Roosevelt, exposed the contamination of New York City's water supply, lobbied against child labor, forced the destruction of dangerous tenements, argued for public parks, and performed countless other deeds in the service of public health and welfare. His book, How the Other Half Lives(1890), was a watershed publication in the field of public service. In it, short descriptive essays are accompanied by startling photographs of the devastating squalor in immigrant neighborhoods. In this selection, Riis describes life inside the tenement houses.

Leah R.Shafer,
Cornell University

See also Housing ; Poverty ; Tenements .

… In the dull content of life bred on the tenement-house dead level there is little to redeem it, or to calm apprehension for a society that has nothing better to offer its toilers; while the patient efforts of the lives finally attuned to it to render the situation tolerable, and the very success of these efforts, serve only to bring out in stronger contrast the general gloom of the picture by showing how much farther they might have gone with half a chance. Go into any of the "respectable" tenement neighborhoods—the fact that there are not more than two saloons on the corner, nor over three or four in the block will serve as a fair guide—where live the great body of hard-working Irish and German immigrants and their descendants, who accept naturally the conditions of tenement life, because for them there is nothing else in New York; be with and among its people until you understand their ways, their aims, and the quality of their ambitions, and unless you can content yourself with the scriptural promise that the poor we shall have always with us, or with the menagerie view that, if fed, they have no cause of complaint, you shall come away agreeing with me that, humanly speaking, life there does not seem worth the living. Take at random one of these uptown tenement blocks, not of the worst nor yet of the most prosperous kind, within hail of what the newspapers would call a "fine residential section." These houses were built since the last cholera scare made people willing to listen to reason. The block is not like the one over on the East Side in which I actually lost my way once. There were thirty or forty rear houses in the heart of it, three or four on every lot, set at all sorts of angles, with odd, winding passages, or no passage at all, only "runways" for the thieves and toughs of the neighborhood. These yards are clear. There is air there, and it is about all there is. The view between brick walls outside is that of a stony street; inside, of rows of unpainted board fences, a bewildering maze of clothes-posts and lines; underfoot, a desert of brown, hard-baked soil from which every blade of grass, every stray weed, every speck of green, has been trodden out, as must inevitably be every gentle thought and aspiration above the mere wants of the body in those whose moral natures such home surroundings are to nourish. In self-defence, you know, all life eventually accommodates itself to its environment, and human life is no exception. Within the house there is nothing to supply the want thus left unsatisfied. Tenement-houses have no asthetic resources. If any are to be brought to bear on them, they must come from the outside. There is the common hall with doors opening softly on every landing as the strange step is heard on the stairs, the air-shaft that seems always so busy letting out foul stenches from below that it has no time to earn its name by bringing down fresh air, the squeaking pumps that hold no water, and the rent that is never less than one week's wages out of the four, quite as often half of the family earnings.

Why complete the sketch? It is drearily familiar already. Such as it is, it is the frame in which are set days, weeks, months, and years of unceasing toil, just able to fill the mouth and clothe the back. Such as it is, it is the world, and all of it, to which these weary workers return nightly to feed heart and brain after wearing out the body at the bench, or in the shop. To it come the young with their restless yearnings.… These in their coarse gar ments—girls with the love of youth for beautiful things, with this hard life before them—who shall save them from the tempter? Down in the street the saloon, always bright and gay, gathering to itself all the cheer of the block, beckons the boys. In many such blocks the census-taker found two thousand men, women, and children, and over, who called them home.…

With the first hot nights in June police despatches, that record the killing of men and women by rolling off roofs and window-sills while asleep, announce that the time of greatest suffering among the poor is at hand. It is in hot weather, when life indoors is well-nigh unbearable with cooking, sleeping, and working, all crowded into the small rooms together, that the tenement expands, reckless of all restraint. Then a strange and picturesque life moves upon the flat roofs. In the day and early evening mothers air their babies there, the boys fly their kites from the house-tops, undismayed by police regulations, and the young men and girls court and pass the growler. In the stifling July nights, when the big barracks are like fiery furnaces, their very walls giving out absorbed heat, men and women lie in restless, sweltering rows, panting for air and sleep. Then every truck in the street, every crowded fire-escape, becomes a bedroom, infinitely preferable to any the house affords. A cooling shower on such a night is hailed as a heaven-sent blessing in a hundred thousand homes.

Life in the tenements in July and August spells death to an army of little ones whom the doctor's skill is powerless to save. When the white badge of mourning flutters from every second door, sleepless mothers walk the streets in the gray of the early dawn, trying to stir a cooling breeze to fan the brow of the sick baby. There is no sadder sight than this patient devotion striving against fearfully hopeless odds. Fifty "summer doctors," especially trained to this work, are then sent into the tenements by the Board of Health, with free advice and medicine for the poor. Devoted women follow in their track with care and nursing for the sick. Fresh-air excursions run daily out of New York on land and water; but despite all efforts the grave-diggers in Calvary work over-time, and little coffins are stacked mountains high on the deck of the Charity Commissioners' boat when it makes its semi-weekly trips to the city cemetery.…

That ignorance plays its part, as well as poverty and bad hygienic surroundings, in the sacrifice of life is of course inevitable.…

No doubt intemperance bears a large share of the blame for it; judging from the stand-point of the policeman perhaps the greater share.…Even if it were all true, I should still load over upon the tenement the heaviest responsibility. A single factor, the scandalous scarcity of water in the hot summer when the thirst of the million tenants must be quenched, if not in that in something else, has in the past years more than all other causes encouraged drunkenness among the poor. But to my mind there is a closer connection between the wages of the tenements and the vices and improvidence of those who dwell in them than, with the guilt of the tenement upon our heads, we are willing to admit even to ourselves. Weak tea with a dry crust is not a diet to nurse moral strength.…

Perhaps of all the disheartening experiences of those who have devoted lives of unselfish thought and effort, and their number is not so small as often supposed, to the lifting of this great load, the indifference of those they would help is the most puzzling. They will not be helped. Dragged by main force out of their misery, they slip back again on the first opportunity, seemingly content only in the old rut. The explanation was supplied by two women of my acquaintance in an Elizabeth Street tenement, whom the city missionaries had taken from their wretched hovel and provided with work and a decent home somewhere in New Jersey. In three weeks they were back, saying that they preferred their dark rear room to the stumps out in the country. But to me the oldest … made the bitter confession: "We do get so kind o' downhearted living this way, that we have to be where something is going on, or we just can't stand it." And there was sadder pathos to me in her words than in the whole long story of their struggle with poverty; for unconsciously she voiced the sufferings of thousands, misjudged by a happier world, deemed vicious because they are human and unfortunate.

SOURCE: Hart, Albert Bushnell, ed. American History Told by Contemporaries. Vol. 4. New York: Macmillan, 1901.

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