Reflections on ‘Deep Poverty’

The Constitution’s Framers set as one of the new government’s priorities providing for the “general Welfare,” but that progressive mandate was soon swept away by slaveholders and industrialists who shaped America into a “me-first” society amazingly tolerant of “deep poverty,” as Lawrence Davidson reflects.

By Lawrence Davidson

In the assessment of poverty in the United States there is a category known as “deep poverty,” defined in a recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer as: “income of 50% or less of the poverty rate.” In other words, the current poverty level income for a U.S. family of four is $24,000 a year, which means that the same family receiving only $12,000 is in deep poverty. At this level, hopelessness prevails and one’s day-to-day goal is just staying alive.

The deep poverty rate for the United States as a whole is 6.8 percent of the population. Using the rounded-off 2014 census figure of 322 million residents, that comes to about 22 million men, women and children in deep poverty. This is a pretty shocking figure for what most regard as the richest country on earth.

A classic photo of a poor mother and children in Elm Grove, California, during the Great Depression. (Photo credit: Library of Congress)

A classic photo of a poor mother and children in Elm Grove, California, during the Great Depression. (Photo credit: Library of Congress)

It should come as no surprise that, according to the article, “deep poverty increased nationwide after 1996, when the welfare system was changed. The number of people on cash welfare was drastically reduced and the amount of time people could receive benefits was limited.” This was a public policy decision taken by elected officials at the national level. All at once, the “safety net” for the poor, and particularly for those at this deep level of poverty, all but disappeared.

Tradition of Not Caring

The Inquirer article of Sept. 30 goes on to state that “most Americans cannot fathom the level of privation that deep poverty represents.”

I am not sure this is the case. Deep poverty is very visible. Consider that at present 81 percent of Americans live in urban environments. In such environments it is easy to encounter the homeless and the beggers, most of whom are in deep poverty. So ubiquitous are they that a Hollywood movie has recently been made about them, entitled “Time Out of Mind” and starring Richard Gere.

Here is a quote from the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Oct. 2 film review, “People talk on cell phones, run for the bus, head for meals almost uniformly indifferent” to the fate of the homeless man Gere portrays.

Also keep in mind that it was not that long ago that people had older relatives who lived through the Great Depression, a time when deep poverty was even more visible. That story is a big part of the nation’s modern history.

Rather than pretending that Americans “cannot fathom” deep poverty, it is better to argue that popular perception is more complex. When the non-poor see that homeless person, they probably feel a bit of worry and disgust all at once. In the end, they turn aside and pretend not to see. And this denotes a collective sentiment of not caring enough about the problem to push for the policies needed to correct it policies which go way beyond welfare.

Why would this be the case? Here are a couple of reasons:

First, there is the fact that the people of the United States, perhaps more than any other Western country, are still influenced by the primitive outlook of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century capitalism. In those centuries both the middle and upper classes favored government restricted to three functions: 1. defense of the realm; 2. police, courts and the enforcement of contracts; 3. and upholding the sanctity of private property. Care for the poor was the responsibility of the churches.

This entire setup was designed to maximize individual freedom by keeping government small in both power and scope. Maintaining this status would also hold taxes down to a minimum.

You can easily see this attitude toward government in the ideology of the Tea Party and the conservative politicians who cater to that group’s complaints. For instance, take the reason given by Ben Shapiro, a journalist and Tea Party advocate, why the Republican Party was successful in the 2010 congressional elections: “In 2010, Republicans soared to historic victory because the much-maligned Tea Party spearheaded mass resistance to Obama’s takeover of the healthcare industry.”

The statement is a gross exaggeration, at least as to the claim that the government had taken over the healthcare industry. It did no such thing, but rather moved to work with private insurance companies so as to facilitate healthcare for the poor and uninsured. However, spending tax money on the poor only fed into the paranoia over big government that afflicts Shapiro and his lot.

Another angle on this sentiment can be found in the declaration of Michele Bachmann, another Tea Party advocate, that the Tea Party “stands for the fact that we are taxed enough already.” This statement is misleading at best. While it is true that those of moderate or low income are often highly taxed, those of high income are definitely not. In the U.S., the wealthy pay lower taxes than those of moderate income.

Finally, Elizabeth Warren, a liberal Democrat, has correctly concluded that the Tea Party is dedicated to “unraveling just about everything the federal government had ever built.” That is straight out of the playbook of primitive Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century capitalism.

Looking Out for Number One

There is a second reason why many non-poor Americans do not actively concern themselves with poverty, deep or not, and that has to do with what I call “natural localness” the generic tendency for all of us to concentrate foremost on our local sphere. Thus, caring, like charity, begins at home and usually does not go far beyond it.

We care for our family and friends, sometimes (though not always) for our neighbors, local co-religionists, co-workers or others in local social groups we might identify with. But we rarely actively care about strangers.

The primitive, yet still extant, capitalist ideology referred to above comes in here and reinforces this space between us and the stranger who happens to also be poor. This ideology teaches that poverty is a personal failing with moral implications. That is, if you are poor, it is your fault. It is because you are lazy and otherwise morally deficient.

The possibility that poverty, and particularly deep poverty, could be a structural problem of both capitalist and racial or ethnically biased economies is never considered in this interpretation. And, tax-wise, it is cheaper to blame the victim in this case, than pay out adequate welfare.

The argument given here, that not caring is an age-old tradition, should not be taken to mean that there are no individuals out there who do in fact actively care and advocate for strangers who are poor, oppressed and otherwise mistreated. These folks do exist.

There are individuals who actively advocate for the ultimate strangers people suffering on other continents. There are even those who dedicate their lives to giving solace to incarcerated murderers. The point is that these folks are a small minority amidst a sea of ultimate indifference. They are, if you will, counter-cultural, despite occasionally getting good press.

It might be the case that we could, over time, teach the nation’s youth to be more caring of strangers in need. After all, being human means that we are not necessarily slaves to evolution-rooted tendencies like natural localness. But to do this would be to challenge tradition and wage a political struggle against narrow-minded school boards.

So, the odds are against it. It is easier to go with the indifference that just comes naturally.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

14 comments for “Reflections on ‘Deep Poverty’

  1. Mortimer
    October 13, 2015 at 15:33

    Bill Clinton admitted that he was a Conservative- what may be lesser appreciated is the Rhodes Scholar indoctrination which presupposed his bowing to Wall Street in NAFTA and to Phil Gramm in the repeal of Glass-Steagal – both of which opened doors to globalization and Extraction/Execution of the American Economic Structure.

    Clinton walked us into Bullyism during the brutally dictatorial dismantling of Yugoslavia.
    1 step leads to the next toward a new order of things/life.

    Gmo crops to feed the world !
    Chemicals 4 Life !
    bioLogically controlled/stimulated
    benzodiazepine as daily supplicant
    replacing “social security” with
    big pharma addictive meds
    until insanity or death do you part.

    • Jacob
      October 13, 2015 at 16:05

      “. . . which presupposed his bowing to Wall Street in NAFTA and to Phil Gramm in the repeal of Glass-Steagal – both of which opened doors to globalization and Extraction/Execution of the American Economic Structure.”

      Remember that Congress was dominated by Republicans during the Clinton administration and they had Clinton in a vice. It was the voters who kept the Republicans in power. Phil Gramm was the lead author of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley act, which repealed Glass-Steagall, but Clinton, inexplicably, receives the blame from most of today’s authors. Gramm and his Republican cohorts were working to protect banker Sanford Weil, head of Citigroup, who had already violated Glass-Steagall. It is banker Sanford Weil and the legislators who worked for him who should be blamed for undermining the financial system, leading to its near-collapse. Clinton didn’t write the act, but he was required to sign it into law because the vast majority of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, approved it; it was thus veto-proof. Anytime an author blames Clinton for the repeal of Glass-Steagall, that is a good indication that the author is untrustworthy.

  2. Jacob
    October 10, 2015 at 18:07

    Modern democratic governments function as agents of wealth redistribution, which usually is downwardly redistributed from the wealthy to the masses via progressive tax and monetary policies. That’s the fundamental nature of what’s called the “welfare state.” The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 was a cornerstone of the Republican Contract With America, designed to reduce the government’s traditional role of downward wealth redistribution by putting welfare recipients to work and making welfare benefits much more difficult to obtain and of temporary rather than long duration. The PRWORA shifted most of the control over welfare benefits from the Federal government to the states, giving control to state and local politicians. Deep poverty for many Americans, formerly uncharacteristic of the U.S., is the result of the Republicans’ reform of the welfare state. Major power players behind the creation of the PRWORA included then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

  3. The chump
    October 8, 2015 at 22:12

    Deep poverty as is all poverty is easy to address: STOP poor women from getting pregnant! If a poor woman does not get pregnant, she does not give birth to a poor child. The child and taxpayers are the victims of these poor irresponsible women. If they do not spread their legs and get pregnant, they do not have a poor child.

    • Mortimer
      October 9, 2015 at 08:58

      circulus in demonstrando

      also known as: paradoxical thinking, circular argument, circular cause and consequence, circular definition

      Description: A type of reasoning in which the proposition is supported by the premises, which is supported by the proposition, creating a circle in reasoning where no useful information is being shared. This fallacy is often quite humorous.

  4. Mortimer
    October 8, 2015 at 16:26

    See also, in the context of Crisis and Process, this little known MLK speech;

  5. Mortimer
    October 8, 2015 at 16:13

    Professor, Davidson; if I may, I wonder if you’d consider
    Samuel P. Huntington’s The Crisis of Democracy as an answer to
    MLK’s The Crisis in America’s Cities speech?

    A vital condensation of Huntington’s POV can be found at:

    A clue of MLK speech here: http://www.theking

    • Mortimer
      October 8, 2015 at 16:14


      • Mortimer
        October 8, 2015 at 18:42

        A way to see where we are is to know where we’ve been, how we arrived here.

        A trip by ship by in 1619 took months – in 1830 to 80 it was a time of commodity enrichment that lifted Northerners and Southerners into the Wealthy Class and poorer immigrants into land owners.
        (Economic) Freedom Rang as many white immigrants prospered from the Indian War battles both before and after the our vehement Civil War.
        Slave LABOR (unpaid production) was a major source of that Wealth and Freedom.
        Many poor Whites suffered depravity as well but Never Suffered Absolute Exclusion.

        A way to see where we are is to know where we’ve been, how we arrived here.

        Compare and Contrast MLK’s “The Crisis in America’s Cities” to
        Samuel P. Huntington’s “The Crisis of Democracy”
        (condensation) –

  6. Mortimer
    October 8, 2015 at 14:31

    “reflections” – – – Why they killed him, the Actual Reason… .
    The Poor People’s Campaign was a 1968 effort to gain economic justice for poor people in the United States. It was organized by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and carried out under the leadership of Ralph Abernathy in the wake of King’s assassination.

    The Campaign demanded economic and human rights for poor Americans of diverse backgrounds. After presenting an organized set of demands to Congress and executive agencies, participants set up a 3000-person tent city on the Washington Mall, where they stayed for six weeks.

    The Poor People’s Campaign was motivated by a desire for economic justice: the idea that all people should have what they need to live. King and the SCLC shifted their focus to these issues after observing that gains in civil rights had not improved the material conditions of life for many African Americans. The Poor People’s Campaign was a multiracial effort—including African-Americans, whites, Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Native Americans—aimed at alleviating poverty regardless of race.[1][2]

    According to political historians such as Barbara Cruikshank, “the poor” did not particularly conceive of themselves as a unified group until President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty (declared in 1964) identified them as such.[3]
    Figures from the 1960 census, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Commerce Department, and the Federal Reserve estimated anywhere from 40 to 60 million Americans—or 22 to 33 percent—lived below the poverty line. At the same time, the nature of poverty itself was changing as America’s population increasingly lived in cities, not farms (and could not grow its own food).[4] Poor African-Americans, particularly women, suffered from racism and sexism that amplified the impact of poverty, especially after “welfare mothers” became a nationally recognized concept.[5]

    By 1968, the War on Poverty seemed like a failure, neglected by a Johnson administration (and Congress) that wanted to focus on the Vietnam War and increasingly saw anti-poverty programs as primarily helping African-Americans.[6] The Poor People’s Campaign sought to address poverty through income and housing. The campaign would help the poor by dramatizing their needs, uniting all races under the commonality of hardship and presenting a plan to start to a solution.[7] Under the “economic bill of rights,” the Poor People’s Campaign asked for the federal government to prioritize helping the poor with a $30 billion anti-poverty package that included, among other demands, a commitment to full employment, a guaranteed annual income measure and more low-income housing.[8] The Poor People’s Campaign was part of the second phase of the civil rights movement. King said, “We believe the highest patriotism demands the ending of the war and the opening of a bloodless war to final victory over racism and poverty”.[9]

    King wanted to bring poor people to Washington D.C., forcing politicians to see them and think about their needs: “We ought to come in mule carts, in old trucks, any kind of transportation people can get their hands on. People ought to come to Washington, sit down if necessary in the middle of the street and say, ‘We are here; we are poor; we don’t have any money; you have made us this way…and we’ve come to stay until you do something about it.'”[10]

    The Poor People’s Campaign had complex origins. King considered bringing poor people to the nation’s capital since at least October 1966, when welfare rights activists held a one-day march on the Mall.[11] In May 1967 during a SCLC retreat in Frogmore, South Carolina, King told his aides that the SCLC would have to raise nonviolence to a new level to pressure Congress into passing an Economic Bill of Rights for the nation’s poor. The SCLC resolved to expand its civil rights struggle to include demands for economic justice and to challenge the Vietnam War.[12] In his concluding address to the conference, King announced a shift from “reform” to “revolution” and stated: “We have moved from the era of civil rights to an era of human rights.”[13]

    In response to the anger that led to riots in Newark (July 12–17, 1967) and Detroit (July 23–27, 1967), King and his close confidante Stanley Levison wrote a report in August (titled “The Crisis in America’s Cities”) which called for disciplined urban disruption, particularly in Washington:[14][15]

    To dislocate the functioning of a city without destroying it can be more effective than a riot because it can be longer-lasting, costly to society but not wantonly destructive. Moreover, it is more difficult for government to quell it by superior force. Mass civil disobedience can use rage as a constructive and creative force. It is purposeless to tell Negroes they should not be enraged when they should be. Indeed, they will be mentally healthier if they do not suppress rage but vent it constructively and use its energy peacefully but forcefully to cripple the operations of an oppressive society. Civil disobedience can utilize the militancy wasted in riots to seize clothes or groceries many did not even want.

    Civil disobedience has never been used on a mass scale in the North. It has rarely been seriously organized and resolutely pursued. Too often in the past was it employed incorrectly. It was resorted to only when there was an absence of mass support and its purpose was headline-hunting. The exceptions were the massive school boycotts by Northern Negroes. They shook educational systems to their roots but they lasted only single days and were never repeated. If they are developed as weekly events at the same time that mass sit-ins are developed inside and at the gates of factories for jobs, and if simultaneously thousands of unemployed youth camp in Washington, as the Bonus Marchers did in the thirties, with these and other practices, without burning a match or firing a gun, the impact of the movement will have earthquake proportions. (In the Bonus Marches, it was the government that burned down the marchers’ shelters when it became confounded by peaceful civil disobedience.)

    This is not an easy program to implement. Riots are easier just because they need no organization. To have effect we will have to develop mass disciplined forces that can remain excited and determined without dramatic conflagrations.[16]
    Also in August, Senator Robert F. Kennedy asked Marian Wright Edelman “to tell Dr. King to bring the poor people to Washington to make hunger and poverty visible since the country’s attention had turned to the Vietnam War and put poverty and hunger on the back burner.”[17] At another SCLC retreat in September, Edelman transmitted Kennedy’s message to King and suggested that King and a handful of poor people hold a sit-in at the Department of Agriculture. Stanley Levison proposed an even more ambitious crusade that modeled itself on the Bonus Army of 1932.[11]

    The SCLC’s major planning before announcing the campaign took place during a five-day meeting (November 27–31, 1967) in Frogmore, SC. With King’s leadership, the group agreed to organize a civil disobedience campaign in Washington, D.C., focused on jobs and income. King wanted the demonstration to be “nonviolent, but militant, and as dramatic, as dislocative, as disruptive, as attention-getting as the riots without destroying property”.[18]

    Not all members of the SCLC agreed with the idea of occupying Washington. Bayard Rustin opposed civil disobedience. Other members of the group (like Jesse Jackson) wanted to pursue other priorities.[19] Dissent continued throughout the planning of the campaign.

    King traveled to Washington in February 1968 in order to meet with local activists and prepare the resources necessary to support the campaign.[20]

    Marchers were scheduled to arrive in Washington on May 2.[21] Some planners wanted to target specific politicians; others wanted to avoid ‘begging’ and focus on movement-building and mutual education.[22]

    The SCLC announced the campaign on December 4, 1967. King delivered a speech which identified “a kind of social insanity which could lead to national ruin.”[23] In January 1968, the SCLC created and distributed an “Economic Fact Sheet” with statistics explaining why the campaign was necessary.[24] King avoided providing specific details about the campaign and attempted to redirect media attention to the values at stake.[25] The Poor People’s Campaign held firm to the movement’s commitment to non-violence. “We are custodians of the philosophy of non-violence,” said Martin Luther King, Jr. at a press conference. “And it has worked”.[9] King originally wanted the Poor People’s Campaign to start in Quitman County, Mississippi because of the intense and visible economic disparity there.[26]

    In February 1968, King announced specific demands: $30 billion for antipoverty, full employment, guaranteed income, and the annual construction of 500,000 affordable residences.[10]

    King toured a number of cities to raise support for the campaign. On March 18, 1968, King visited the town of Marks, Mississippi. He watched a teacher feeding schoolchildren their lunch, consisting only of a slice of apple and some crackers, and was moved to tears. King’s visits were carefully orchestrated and the media tightly controlled; meetings with militant Black leaders were held behind closed doors.[27]

    The media often discouraged those within the movement who were committed to non-violence. Instead of focusing on issues of urban inequality and the interracial efforts concerted to address them, the media concentrated on specific incidences of violence, leadership conflicts and protest tactics.[28]

    Martin Luther King, Jr. was the Campaign’s undisputed leader until his assassination on April 4, 1968.
    Ralph Abernathy successor of the SCLC presidency and leader of the campaign after King’s assassination.
    Rev. James Bevel was a key advisor to King and organizer of many SCLC campaigns including the Selma to Montgomery March.
    Stanley Levison was a key advisor to King whose influence diminished after the assassination.
    Bernard Lafayette was the national coordinator of the campaign.[29]
    Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, a prominent Chicano movement advocate, led a caravan from Colorado.
    Reies Tijerina, of New Mexico, was a leader of land grant rights efforts in the Chicano movement.
    Stoney Cooks did outreach and recruitment to college students.[30]
    Hosea Williams of the Georgia SCLC was the campaign’s field director and became a director of logistics at Resurrection City. Rev. Fred C. Benette was a liaison to the clergy.[31]
    SCLC Vice President Andrew Young was a major leader and spokesperson.
    Walter Fauntroy was the Washington coordinator for the SCLC, and became director of what remained of the Campaign in 1969.
    Rev. Dr. David Carter was the Assistant Director for Mobilization.

  7. bobzz
    October 7, 2015 at 10:16

    The religious right frequently trots out a favorite verse from Paul, “If a man will not work, do not let him eat”. This holds a lot of sway for millions who take no note that it was written to a fledgling church that knew and could target the sponges very well. Paul was hardly laying down a national policy, but one would think so from the use to which it is put. Another of Paul’s instructions to the Ephesians gets little or no audience, “Let him who stole, steal no more, but labor with his hands to give to others in need”. How fascinating that the rejectors of evolution adhere more closely to Social Darwinism than do the Darwinists.

  8. Joe Tedesky
    October 7, 2015 at 00:31

    A well run society, would do everything in it’s power to employee the below average worker. I’m not referring too below average, as a person with low work ethics. No, I’m talking about the D and even the E student, who could contribute much more, if they just had the chance to have a decent paying job. There were plenty of these type of people among my parents “greatest generation”, who not only worked very hard, but they saved enough to send their children to college. Many of their generation worked hard, just for the fact they knew what being poor was like. They worked even harder, with the hopes they could provide their children the tools to grow up and get educated, and do better. This was the American Dream. The U.S. through it’s continuation of drafting corporate friendly trade deals, which in effect are nothing more than a worldwide hunt for cheap labor, has ruined America’s once thriving working middle class. When American politicians cry about the migrant worker, why don’t they sight the devastating effects that these trade deals incur? Walmarts Mexican invasion put 28,000 small Mexican businesses out of business. Sadly, no politician ever frames the migrant overflow this way. This would apparently mean, that the only ones who benefit from these lopsided trade deals, are the corporate profiteers. This has become business as usual, and this is what must change.

  9. Klabauter
    October 6, 2015 at 16:49

    One important reason for the ignorance in the face of poverty is missing (imo): fear. People are afraid that they might descent from social and financial level. This fear might also explain the agony and antipathy, which prevents actions against this socially disruptive poverty.
    Charity is and was always only a fig leaf to prevent any outburst of popular outrage or more probable functions as a kind of modern indulgence.

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