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Poverty is as old as our society; but the awareness that something can be done about it is recent. Not until our own lifetime was there a challenge to the injunction that the poor always ye have with you. The nineteenth-century humanitarian reformers expected not to end poverty, but to help its victims endure their fate. Only in the wild speculations of utopian novelists did the poor disappear entirely.
The optimistic view that poverty is a problem which Americans can solve arises out of an altered appraisal of national resources and out of a novel diagnosis of the causes of social disorder.
The concern with these inequities is a product of affluence, which since 1945 has made the objective of abundance realistic.
Within this transformed perspective, the hardships of the poor are more often ascribed to economic than to social causes. The nineteenthcentury American knew, of course, that some people in India or even in his own cities lacked decent dwellings and often went hungry. But he explained those deprivations by the social shortcomings of the Hindus or immigrants; superstition or drink, laziness or ignorance kept them poor. By contrast, the American of the 1960s assumes that poverty is primarily economic in origin. Ameliorative programs, whether aimed at domestic or at foreign recipients, take it for granted that employment and an equitable distribution of incomes will put an end to the age-old problems of the poor.


Yet there is evidence that this optimistic view is excessively simple. Some features of the situation of the poor will not respond just to greater income, desirable as that may be; they will call also for drastic changes in living habits. These considerations certainly ought to influence the strategy of future social planning.
LA VIDA by OSCAR LEWIS (Random House, $10.00) is a fascinating account of a network of Puerto Rican families. In these pages, four generations of Ríos, on the island and on the mainland of the United States, speak with the utmost frankness. The book offers its readers glimpses of uncommon clarity into the habits, values, and emotional reactions of some of the poor.
As an anthropologist, Professor Lewis strives for a naturalistic record of family life with a minimum of intervention on his own part. But he also is a shrewd and sympathetic observer who spent many hours attending family parties, wakes, and baptisms and responding to emergency calls. Above all, he has a feeling for the individual. Fernanda, Soledad, and Junior are not types; they are rounded human beings, who appear not as abstractions but as persons.
The bulk of the volume consists of multiple autobiographies, similar to those that Professor Lewis compiled in his work on Mexico. Based upon extensive tape-recorded interviews, they are skillfully interconnected to present a full picture of family life viewed from a variety of perspectives. To these narratives, he has added collateral accounts of typical days in the lives of the chief characters. All this material has the ring of authenticity. Professor Lewis has a sensitive car and a feeling for words, intonation, and slang. He therefore evokes a sense of language as well as of events. It is remarkable, for example, that his rendering in English conveys the difference between the Spanish spoken in Mexico and that spoken by Puerto Ricans.
Professor Lewis presents his characters as they themselves speak, without explanation or synthesis. Interpretation he reserves for a long introduction, which analyzes the significance of poverty in the lives of the Ríos. Casting loose from the data, he expounds an unconvincing theory of the subculture of poverty.
The introduction apologetically recognizes the progress made in Puerto Rico in the last quarter century. Most people there are better off than ever before. The poverty of the Ríos is not. characteristic of the whole island but is rather a feature of all individualistic and capitalist societies. In communities with a cash economy, wage labor, high rates of unemployment, and a set of values in the dominant class which stresses the accumulation of wealth and property and explains low status as the result of personal inadequacy, the poor stand apart from all other groups and react in a common adaptation to the common problem of their marginal position. They develop a distinctive subculture which transcends regional, rural-urban, and national differences. Wherever it appears, it shows remarkable similarities in family structure, value systems, and spending patterns.
In the case of Puerto Ricans, the subculture of poverty emphasizes a great zest for life, especially for sex, and the need for excitement, new experiences, and adventures. The Ríos value acting out more than thinking out, expression more than constraint, pleasure more than productivity, spending more than saving, loyalty more than justice. Their matrifocal households are the product of free unions, formed and dissolved with the utmost ease; Fernanda is on her sixth husband, Cruz, at the age of seventeen, on her third.
These are certainly not the cultural characteristics of poverty in all individualistic societies. Lewis himself excludes Eastern European Jews, lower-caste Indians, and preliterate peoples. Nor would the poor of Europe and America before 1940 have shared in that subculture. Indeed, even today, only one in five poor in the United States, by Lewis’ own guess, leads a life that could be classified within the subculture of poverty, and those who do are primarily “very low-income Negroes, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, American Indians and Southern whites.”
The definition is therefore circular. The kinds of poor people who act as the Ríos do belong in the subculture of poverty which explains why the Ríos act as they do.
But the definition obscures important questions. Why do the other 80 percent of the American poor not fall within the same pattern? Are the forms of behavior here described due to poverty or to altogether different ethnic or personal factors?
A good deal of the evidence bearing on these questions is contrary to Professor Lewis’ interpretation. Poverty as such does not play a very large part in the consciousness of the Ríos; and the family has suffered a long history of psychopathology.
This issue is closely related to the decisions Americans make in the course of the war on poverty. The evidence runs counter to the simple assumption that subsidizing these families will transform their lives and introduce order and self-sufficiency into their existence. Money and material possessions are not factors in their major decisions. Simplicio cannot understand his bosses, who have “the custom of saving money. They won’t eat a lollipop so as not to waste the stick! For them, work is the thing. They kill themselves working, week in and week out. For that reason, they are rich and able to send their children to school to get a good education.” Simplicio and his friends are proud to be poor. When they have money they spend it on clothing or immediate gratifications. Will full employment or even a guaranteed annual wage alter their way of life? Or will the school, no matter how good, transform Soledad’s children, who are not encouraged to study and are never indulged the pennies to buy their notebooks? Will the emotional damage caused by wrenching these people out of the family setting which perpetuates their way of life deprive them of their only elements of stability? To these questions there are no easy answers.


Unfortunately, rationality too often surrenders to sentiment in the considerations of these questions. Thus, RICHARD M. ELMAN’S THE POORHOUSE STATE (Pantheon, $5.95) consists largely of unfounded accusations against the system by which the half million dependent persons of New York City receive aid. The chief targets are the welfare workers, described as vindictive snoopers administering budgets “devised by Pecksniffs with professional degrees.”
The book deserves attention for the attitude it reveals. To Elman, the dependents are just consumers, and society ought simply to satisfy their needs. Any inquiry about their personal lives is an invasion of privacy. To ask a client to take a job is to plunge him into involuntary servitude. High rates of drug addiction, illegitimacy, alcoholism, and felonious assaults are, Elman points out, “what we chose to define as antisocial behavior.” That sentence is the key to much sloppy thinking. Those phenomena are antisocial not because one group or another defines them as such, but because they prevent men from living decently in communities. The state which abstains from making judgments about these matters loses the ability to act by rational standards.
BEYOND WELFARE by HERBERT KROSNEY (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $5.00) is a more sober report on New York City’s war against poverty. For the past five years, active programs, financed mostly by the federal government, have attempted to deal with the consequences of poverty in the nation’s largest metropolis, the site of its densest concentration of Negroes. The book contains a good account of the most important of these projects, Mobilization for Youth, and HARYOU. Both stressed the necessity for local community action and sell-help to offset control by the political welfare system. Neither really achieved its objectives.
Krosney sympathizes with those objectives. He insists that the state ought not to impose its standards upon the poor; he opposes more welfare or public housing; and he prefers a job creation program or a negative income tax. That preference rests upon a faith — unsupported by the evidence — that delinquency is simply the result of the lack of opportunity, and upon a mistrust of government except as a distributor of the wealth.
Yet the state cannot refrain from making social judgments. The number of children a man begets is no more a purely private matter than the number of wives he marries; both actions affect the whole community, and therefore involve the rights of others. The government can give blank checks to no group, because what it expends in one channel must be diverted from another, Since it must act, it can only do so by the standards that the whole body of the citizens set.
THE DESPISED POOR by JOSEPH P. RITZ (Beacon Press, S4.95) points to the dangers of the alternative. The book deals thoughtfully with the war on welfare costs unleashed in 1961 by Joseph M. Mitchell, then city manager of Newburgh, New York. That attempt to generate a backlash against the poor failed, but the issue was close. Initial nationwide reaction was favorable to Mitchell, who was praised for liberating the taxpayers of the burden of supporting immoral loafers. The polls then registered in his support between 85 and 95 percent of all Americans, working people as well as the wealthy. It would be tragic indeed if the opportunity to cope with poverty were now to become a divisive social issue.


Since 1945, the peace of the world has depended upon an understanding between the United States and the Soviet Union. In the longing to believe that the worst could not happen, we have snatched hopefully at every straw which seemed to show a softening of the rigors of the Communist regime. The eagerness to find evidence of a thaw has induced the free world to close its eyes to the tragic plight of the Jews behind the Iron Curtain.
ELIE WIESEL’S THE JEWS OF SILENCE (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $4.00) is a personal report on the slate of Soviet Jewry. This simple document by a Jewish novelist who survived Auschwitz is eloquent because it records just what he saw —the terror of three million people living under totalitarianism. AntiSemitism has a long history in the Soviet Union, although it did not always sustain the virulence of Stalin’s last years. What is impressive is the extent to which it survives and the pretense that it does not exist.
Wiesel, who shares the hope for peace of other Westerners, refuses to condemn the Communists. “Having never been involved in political action, I hope that what I have written here will neither exacerbate the Cold War nor be used for political purposes. I have never engaged in propaganda, and have no intention of beginning now.”Yet the question he refrains from asking cannot be set aside. What is the character or a government that fills tens of thousands of eyes with fear?
The answer is related to another phenomenon that puzzles Wiesel. “Young Jews in Russia want to return to Judaism, but without knowing what it is. Without knowing why, they define themselves as Jews.” They are seeking in this vague unformulated way an alternative to the oppressive society around them, which, three generations after the revolution, still rules by terror.
There is silence beyond the Iron Curtain. We can do nothing about it. But we ought not to mistake it for consent.