At first reading, I thought Ronald Hill’s tack toward poverty somewhat puzzling, coming from someone whose specialty is social science and public policy. I had expected many more statistical tables and analytic categories. Basically, through a compilation of data from those he interviewed and from his participant observations, Hill draws up composites of people, partially fictional, who live in poverty. Each chapter is a kind of short story. His detailed portraits show cases: someone who is among the hidden homeless, scavenging for survival; someone who lives in shelters for the homeless; a welfare mother and her family as she cycles off welfare to work. Other chapters portray a young juvenile delinquent who turns to stealing cars as the fast track to the consumer goods our society prizes; a young woman caring for her terminally ill mother in rural poverty and an Aborigine woman who returns to her Australian reservation to empower her people.
It is not that Hill (the professor of social responsibility in the School of Business Administration at the University of Portland) does not have a capacious arsenal of analytic skills to bring to his study of survival amidst poverty. Each of his chapters ends with very helpful annotated bibliographies of the best social science literature about welfare mothers, juvenile delinquency among the poor, the homeless, the incidence of health care resources in pockets of rural poverty. These, along with unobtrusive yet rich data woven into his short-story portraits, supply the reader with ample tools to undertake a more analytic social analysis of poverty in America.
Yet Hill’s aim is less this kind of abstract and statistical social analysis than to make the material lives of the poor accessible and to help rid society of the common stereotypes about the poor. As a kind of subtext of the volume, Hill subtly shows how consumerism plants shame in the poor who lack the latest fashionable clothing or gadgets or drives them into illegal methods of gaining money. Hill’s portraits uncover two things about the poor: 1) the severe restrictions in their resources to meet basic consumption needs (for food, health care, housing, transportation, child care) and 2) how, even when excluded from mainstream society, the poor sometimes cope successfully, drawing on sources of strengththe weapons of the poor in communitarian support systems. They often prove surprisingly resourceful.
I was eventually won to the wisdom of Hill’s strategy of turning to narratives of lived experience. The data are clear and have been often repeated: 2 million homeless, 32 million living below the poverty line, 45 million without health insurance, one in five children living in poverty in the United States. Worldwide, 1.2 billion people live on less than a dollar a day; a billion are illiterate; a billion lack safe drinking water; 800 million have no access to health services. Yet reiterating these abstractions leaves us numb and does very little to move our hearts and minds to effective action.
The late Judith Sklar, a political scientist at Harvard, in her Storrs Lectures on Jurisprudence delivered at Yale Law School in 1988 (The Faces of Injustice, Yale University Press, 1990), makes the telling point that Americans engage in an absolute concentration on individuals in making judgments about justice such that only those cures for poverty that aim at helping specific individuals are acceptable.
A recent national survey (first published in the spring of 2001) of American attitudes toward poverty, cosponsored by National Public Radio, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, confirms Sklar’s judgment. Only 10 percent name poverty as one of the top two issues government should address. Fifty percent of Americans blame the poor for their poverty, arguing that they are lazy or do not work hard enough. Americans are very cynical about the effectiveness of government programs to alleviate poverty. They tend to mistrust direct cash or cash-like (e.g., food stamps) benefits for the poor. They are more likely to support job-training programs for the poor, improving public schools in low-income areas and expanding subsidized day care and low-cost housing for the working poor. Paradoxically, however, they do not favor paying higher taxes to provide these benefits.
By putting concrete faces on poverty, Hill elicits our empathy. He dispels stereotypes. In his portrait of Jack, the scavenger who reclaims food and recyclables from garbage bins and lives in abandoned housing, Hill puts paid to any stereotype that being homeless is easy. It takes more work to be homeless than to have a job! Along with Barbara Ehrenreich’s rich personal narrative in Nickel and Dimed (New York: Metropolitan, 2001), which recounts that gifted journalist’s struggles to survive, working at minimum wage in jobs as a waitress or for Wal-Mart, Hill’s Surviving in a Material World just might jolt us to ask what we can do to help specific individuals climb out of poverty.
Even conservatives who mistrust governmental programs might actually become more compassionate upon encountering Hill’s faces of lived poverty. With a series of legislative bills pending or being considered by Congress in 2002 (including expansion of health care benefits for children who are poor and the re-authorization of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act), more Americans may learn from Hill that it is unfair that the working poor can simply not make it, despite their jobs, without auxiliary help in medical benefits, child-care subsidies and efforts to boost the stock of low-cost housing. Tax benefits aimed mainly at the wealthy have come at a steep price.
As Hill ends his book, he reminds us that without the right to a living wagewhich requires that governments, working together with private industry, establish a package of pay and benefits for full-time workers at the lower end of the socio-economic scale, thus allowing a family to meet its primary consumer needsthe lives of the poor will continue to be characterized by humiliation, alienation, anxiety and rage. In a global economy of approximately $25 trillion, the financial resources necessary to eliminate poverty currently exist. Reading Hill, I was reminded that Jesus, when he was once asked, And who is my neighbor? also resorted to a story to make his point.