Friday, March 27, 2009

History from the bottom up

Stephen Pimpare, A People's History of Poverty in America (The New Press People's Histories, 2008) series editor Howard Zinn (Hardcover - Nov 17, 2008)

Walter Benjamin, famously noted that "progress" is the storm irresistibly propelling us into the future, to which our backs are turned, piling wreckage upon wreckage in front of our feet.

Abandon all hope of progress when you enter Pimpare's world of poverty. Here is what Pimpare has to say about progress.

"Well the way that the history of poverty is usually told is as much other history is told. It’s the history of great men and occasionally great women, right? So we’ll talk about Jane Addams or FDR or LBJ, or alternatively, we’ll talk about moments of state or national policy innovation. So we’ll focus on state-level innovations of the Progressive Era or of the New Deal programs of the 1930s or of the Great Society programs of the 1960s.

What I have done in this book is to ask, what happens if instead of asking “How has policy changed over time?” we invert our analysis and ask the question “How has the experience of being poor and in need changed over time?” And one of the consequences I argue of doing that is, among other things, instead of comforting ourselves with a relatively progressive story, a forward-moving story, an evolutionary story, that no matter how bad things may be at any given moment in time, they have in fact gotten better, what I argue is in fact the constants, the consistency of that experience of poverty over the course of American history has changed much less than we might like to believe."

According to Pimpare:
Among "advanced" nations, we have the highest of rates of poverty; the highest rates of childhood poverty; the second highest rates of elderly poverty; the highest rates of long-term poverty; of permanent poverty and income inequality. We boast the highest rates of incarceration; the highest rates of health-care costs and the highest CEO pay. At the same time, only Australia and New Zealand have longer average work weeks. We have one of the highest rates of infant mortality with Taiwan, Belgium, Cuba and the Czech Republic all showing lower rates of infant mortality than the US.

At the same time, the United States ranks among the very lowest for high school graduation, health-care coverage, mandated vacation and paid parental leave, voter participation, women in the national legislature, working-class wages, living standards among those at the bottom, and life expectancy. A 2005 study by Save the Children found ten countries in which mothers and their children fare better than in the United States. The infant mortality rate for African Americans in Washington, D.C., is higher than in the poor Indian state of Karala, and the overall infant death rate in the United States is the same as in Malaysia. Men in Bangladesh stand it better chance of surviving to age sixty-five than black men in Harlem. There is much that is exceptional about the United States, much that is extraordinary and worthy of celebration, but many Americans, perhaps /8/ most, would be better off elsewhere. As social-welfare analyst David Wagner has observed, it may be that our self-congratulatory rhetoric, what he calls our "virtue talk," obscures the less noble reality: Americans do less for the least among us than do other Western industrialized nations. (Introduction, p. 8.)

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