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Remembering Poverty Before the Safety Net

In an ideal world, families, churches, and volunteer organizations -- exemplifying the idea that we Americans take care of our own without relying on government -- would be the safety net. But this isn't an ideal world.
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Early in my reporting career -- nearly half a century ago -- my editor sent me out on a freezing pre-Christmas day to do a story on poverty in northeast Washington, D.C.

I found people living in basement apartments with dirt floors. Many were hungry, cold and short of coal for stoves. Some children were staying home because they had no shoes and were too ashamed to ask for help. A penniless woman lacked an overcoat in which to brave the weather long enough to get to a nearby social service agency. A blind man whose wife was hospitalized said he'd asked D.C. Public Assistance for help getting coal but was told to try buying some on credit. He was caring for nine children and still without heat.

That was poverty in America in the early 1960s: stark, vivid and desperate. What I wrote then is a reminder, in this time of retrenchment, of what America was like before presidents from both parties backed a vast expansion of the nation's economic safety net beginning in the 1960s.

The programs didn't end poverty. More Americans live below the poverty line now than before Medicare, Medicaid, the modern food stamp program, Headstart, community health clinics, feeding programs for low-income mothers and infants, housing vouchers, earned income tax credits and federal subsidies for the home heating and air-conditioning bills of the poorest families.

Yet the programs changed the quality of poverty.

In the '50s and early '60s, there was a safety net of sorts: welfare for children of single mothers, Old Age Assistance through Social Security, volunteer agencies, store-front soup kitchens, and churches. But it wasn't catching a lot of people.

The poor really looked poor. In the summer of 1956, a college buddy and I picked beans in Oregon alongside Mexican mothers who were breast feeding their babies. They earned just a few dollars a day. Driving along old Route 40 in Kansas, we picked up a down-and-out middle-aged couple. They were hitchhiking west to pick crops. After they declined to join us at stops at diners -- they were "not hungry" -- we deduced they were penniless and half-starved.

In Middletown, Conn., where I had my first newspaper job, I wrote about the city's "Negro" slum that was filling up with black families from the South. Many were living in rundown housing and keeping children out of school.

The plight of the poor was a national disgrace, detailed in Michael Harrington's The Other America (1962), which became a catalyst for the war on poverty, and in broadcaster Edward R. Murrow's classic TV documentary, "Harvest of Shame" (1960), about the living conditions of farm workers.

Working on a book about California in the 1930s a few years ago, I met an extended family from Oklahoma that had lost three babies to dehydration in just a few days while picking cotton around Delano in 1936. A relative showed me the graves in the town cemetery. Things had not improved much when Harrington wrote his book two decades later. Hundreds of men slept on sidewalks at night on Stockton's skid row, and often went several days without food while waiting for jobs picking crops. "[California] is a sight of near medieval poverty in the midst of lush abundance," he wrote.

As Congress looks to pare federal spending in 2012, the safety net will be a fat target. Some states have tightened eligibility and reduced benefits for those seeking unemployment compensation. It is uncertain whether Congress will continue the payroll tax cut or extend unemployment insurance beyond 99 weeks -- crucial assistance for the working poor.

Entitlements paid for by working taxpayers and administered by an army of federal bureaucrats helped fuel Tea Party anger in 2010. House Speaker Newt Gingrich noted in his recent book, A Nation Like No Other, that the poverty rate in 2009 was about what it was when the War on Poverty began in 1966. "What did we get in return?" he asked.

A great deal, I think, when you contemplate what conditions would be like now without the modern safety net. The data from both liberal and conservative analysts leaves little doubt it has made a difference. At a recent seminar sponsored by the right-of-center American Enterprise Institute, Profs. Bruce D. Meyer of the University of Chicago and James X. Sullivan of Notre Dame argued that today's poor were, indeed, better off in part because of the expanded safety net.

The poverty rate in 2010, 15.1 percent of the population, was the highest since 1993 but was 7.3 percentage points lower than in 1959. The improved economic status of the elderly is particularly striking. Poverty among those over 65 plummeted from 28.5 percent in 1966 to 9 percent in 2010.

Arloc Sherman of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities credits the gains to such things as the automatic indexing of Social Security benefits to the cost of living, beginning in 1975.

Without the Earned Income Tax Credit, which provides a refund to low-income working families, some 3 million more children would have been classified as poor in 2010, according to the Census Bureau.

A large measure of credit goes to Republicans. President Nixon offered an early version of the EITC, and it was enacted under President Ford and expanded under President Reagan and the first President Bush.

In the same period, millions more workers, including farm workers, and new categories of disabled, were made eligible for Social Security benefits. Without unemployment insurance, 3.2 million more people would have been counted as poor in 2010, the Census Bureau has concluded.

Clinical malnutrition, has mainly given way to what government and private agencies call "food insecurity." In one percent of U.S. households with children, one or more children experienced conditions in which meals were irregular and food intake was below adequate levels in 2010, according to World Hunger Education Service. But food stamps, the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) feeding program, The Emergency Food Assistance Program, and private food banks receiving surplus federal commodities, have eased the worst of the hunger problem. Some 46 million Americans received food stamps, worth an average $133 a month, in 2010.

"Doctors do see clinical malnutrition but I don't think anyone would say it's the same [as the early 1960s], said Sherman. Joel Berg, author and leader of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, concurs. "Poor nutrition, not malnutrition, is the biggest problem," he said.

He estimates that WIC alone has prevented 200,000 babies from dying at birth. "Dying of malnutrition is a lot rarer. Hunger is less severe and less continuous than it once was."

Progressives should not be timid about extolling the achievement. And conservatives, above all, should welcome it. Indeed, many do. Putting more resources into the hands of the poor enabled millions more people to participate in the great American market, using food stamps to buy groceries at Safeway, paying rent to private landlords with vouchers and obtaining health care from doctors through Medicare.

In an ideal world, families, churches, and volunteer organizations -- exemplifying the idea that we Americans take care of our own without relying on government -- would be the safety net. But the government safety net was expanded after 1960 because those institutions alone had proved inadequate. Nothing suggests they are capable of taking up the slack in the midst of the worst economic crisis in three-quarters of a century.

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