A People's History of Poverty in America.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Loiacono, Gabriel
Pub Date: 06/22/2010
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Summer, 2010 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 4
Topic: NamedWork: A People's History of Poverty in America (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Pimpare, Stephen
Accession Number: 230778714
Full Text: A People's History of Poverty in America. By Stephen Pimpare (New York: The New Press, 2008. xii plus 322 pp. $27.95).

Social historians often aim to write history "from the bottom up" and to recover the voices of the least powerful people of the past. Political Scientist Stephen Pimpare has achieved these goals exceptionally well in this synthetic survey of the experience of poverty from colonial British North America to the present-day United States. Drawing from, an impressive, wide array of secondary works in history and social scientific studies of recent decades, along with published memoirs, oral histories, and other published primary sources, Pimpare has combed the literature for the voices of the poor. And he delivers them to the reader in copious volume, sometimes one after the other, but framed in such accessible prose and with such a clear interpretive structure, that the book reads very well.

Pimpare's main argument, that the experience of poverty throughout American history is a story of continuity, and little meaningful change, is often well-supported by his legion of evidence. He identifies numerous continuities in the experiences of the poor in America, including: the condescending idea that the well-off know what is best for the poor; the notion that welfare causes poverty; the efforts of the poor to turn welfare to their own benefit as ingeniously as possible; the willingness of poor people to help others; and the roles of welfare states in governing the labor of African Americans and others. To emphasize these constants, Pimpare uses a thematic structure in his book, which deliberately throws chronology to the wind.

Chapters focus on themes such as the poor helping each other; finding shelter, food, and work; organizing family life to be as successful as possible; and struggling for welfare rights. Within chapters, the voices of the poor speak to these themes from many different time periods. In two pages, a reader might hear from a half dozen people, two each in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, all describing remarkably similar experiences of poverty. At their best, Pimpare's chapters are very persuasive in demonstrating continuity, in the first chapter, on the poor helping each other, for example, the echoes in testimony from the seventeenth to the twenty-first centuries ate too striking to ignore.

As diverse as the periods represented are, however, the late twentieth century becomes the most familiar epoch to readers, and it even feels like the normative period. Chapters often begin with an anecdote or statistic from the late twentieth century, and then take a tout of other periods to find that the experience of the recent past has also been that of earlier eras. In some chapters, this tour of pre-twentieth-century experience is too brief and spotty to persuasively support the argument of continuity. In his discussion of how the poor acquire food, for example, Pimpare provides only four examples from prior to the twentieth century, out of at least twenty-eight examples total. Given Pimpare 's obvious familiarity with a wide swathe of sources in early America and the nineteenth century, it is puzzling that at times this study gives overwhelming attention to twentieth-century sources.

One major exception to this emphasis on the twentieth century is Pimpare's ground-breaking discussion of an "African American welfare state," which counts the institutions of slavery, the Freedmen's Bureau, Jim Crow laws, and prisoner labor as part of this welfare state (168). Following the social control interpretation that American welfare states have often been intended to regulate the labor market, Pimpare argues persuasively that slavery and its successor institutions did just that: regulated antebellum Southern labor, white and black, while also providing welfare to enslaved people. Pimpare is careful to make the point that this does not make slavery a benevolent institution, but he insists that it does share some features with subsequent welfare programs, which often exchanged work for aid and also "concerned themselves with labor market effects" (169).

Pimpare's is an activists' history, and readers can get a sense of moral outrage at the conditions of American poverty, past and present. Timely, given our recent rise in unemployment, it encourages readers to reflect on the meaning of the history of poverty for our present-day policy choices. Perhaps Pimpare's most important conclusion for present-day policy is that a welfare state is the best political economy available for addressing the needs of the poor (6).

There seems to be a strong tension, though, between Pimpare's point that a welfare state is good political economy, his recognition of multiple welfare states throughout history, and his strong emphasis on continuity in the experience of the poor in America. It he is concluding that a strengthened welfare state is a good thing, one would expect him to find that welfare states in the past made a positive impact on the experiences of the poor. Instead, the book avoids such a story of change over time. In the section focusing on women's experience, for example, there are so few examples from prior to the New Deal, that the book never has to grapple with whether the New Deal changed women's and children's experiences of poverty. Relentlessly, Pimpare's story of continuity would suggest that neither welfare states, nor new technologies in the workplace or in food production, nor changing elements of culture have had a significant impact on what poverty feels like.

At times, this argument is nor well-supported, but at other times, Pimpare's parade of evidence demonstrates that many aspects of poverty have been remarkably alike, whether documented in the 1760s or the 1960s. This book, then, will challenge experts in the field and laypeople alike to revise or moderate our views of the history of social welfare as marked by distinctive phases. It will also challenge scholars and policy-makers to listen more closely to those who experienced poverty. It will appeal to both scholarly and popular audiences because of its engaging, clear, and fluid writing. It will also serve scholars and teachers as an extraordinarily rich collection of endnotes, and of the voices of the poor.

Gabriel Loiacono

University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.