Last week, the US Census Bureau released its figures on income and poverty for 2013. The Bureau found that, last year, the poverty rate stood at 14.5%, with 45.3 million people living in poverty. To put that number into some perspective: it is approximately equivalent to the population of America’s forty-two largest cities combined. Or, expressed another way, last year the same number of people lived in poverty in the US as lived in the states of New York, Illinois, and Pennsylvania put together. Nearly a third of those living in poverty were children—around one in every five American children were classed as having been in poverty in 2013.
That poverty, and economic insecurity, is a significant problem in the US is therefore clear, and it has been for some decades. The sociologist Michael Harrington, in his 1962 expose of the poverty in the midst of America’s apparent plenty, wrote that all too often it was “invisible” to much of society. Today, the lives of many of those who struggle to get by are still obscured, but are less invisible than in Harrington’s time. Poverty can be seen in statistics, but also elsewhere.
Take an exhibition that recently opened at the Djanogly Art Gallery in Nottingham. Based around the theme of American night photography, you may expect to see images of the glamour of America’s twinkling cityscapes and the bright lights of Times Square. But these are not the scenes portrayed in this exhibition. The works of the three American photographers featured—Todd Hido, Will Steacy, and Jeff Brouws—are far from glamorous. In these images, darkness does not suggest possibility, but is instead uneasy. Neon signs do not advertise abundance, but instead give an eerie, hollow glow. The areas photographed are not the ones we see in glossy magazines and on the silver screen, but are instead run-down, with tired motels and streets that feel too quiet. This is not a prosperous, comfortable American night. Instead, it is one where the effects of both long-term trends, such as deindustrialisation, and short-term problems, such as the Great Recession, are clear.
The very act of photographing these scenes, and exhibiting them, allows the public to look at, confront, and contemplate them. Yet many of the effects of poverty in the US can be glimpsed simply by walking down the street. Several weeks ago, late on a warm summer night in Manhattan, I walked down a street where a row of homeless people lay, one person after another, preparing to sleep on the pavement in the shadow of a church that appeared to offer them help. The line of people stretched for nearly a whole block. That, too, was an American night of economic struggle, right in the heart of one of the world’s foremost financial centres, perhaps the most thought-to-be-glamourous city of them all.
Yet if poverty is, to some extent, more visible then it was when Harrington was writing, we still must ask if we really see American poverty. For all that it may be visible on the streets, in photographs and newspaper articles, and in annual statistics, how much do we really look? In the four weeks I was in the US this summer, and in the five cities I visited, many people seemed to turn their heads when they saw a person quietly asking whether they could spare any change. From the bustle of Boston’s Harvard Square, to Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue with the US Capitol in the background, people, much of the time, kept walking, carried on their conversations, or looked away. Perhaps they felt guilty, or perhaps they felt helpless—that they alone could not do enough.
In fact, the idea of helplessness seems to exist not just at a personal level, but at a federal one as well, and the two are likely related. For, over the past decades, and particularly since the 1980s, many politicians, as well as some think tanks and academics, have repeatedly argued that poverty in the US is more the result of individual behaviour than structural economic forces. Therefore, the logic has been that government can’t do much to help. Not only this, they have said, but government has worsened the problem when it has tried to help before; the 1960s War on Poverty being the most often-cited example of such allegedly misguided government intervention. Government programmes have, supposedly, made the poor (and note the assumption that they constitute an homogenous group) ‘irresponsible’ and thus perpetuated poverty. Of course, this argument has also gone hand-in-hand with a broader ambivalence about the role of government, and it’s not just Republicans who have expressed this. Ronald Reagan may have claimed that “government is not the solution to our problems: it is the problem”, but it was Bill Clinton who stated in 1996 that “the era of big government is over.”
All of this has served to create a dominant discourse about poverty in the US, or, to use John Kenneth Galbraith’s phrase, a ‘conventional wisdom’: that government can’t much help. It is doubtful that any current politician, except rather a brave one, would propose the War on Poverty 2.0. There are many who try hard to counter this discourse, but it remains largely entrenched in politics and, often, in the media. Little wonder, then, that individuals may feel helpless and avert their eyes from the effect of poverty when politics seems to do the same.
The thing is, though, that government can help. Stephen Pimpare, who has written extensively on poverty in the US, noted on Twitter this week that the Census Bureau’s report contained evidence of this. Tucked away on page twenty, the Bureau noted that if certain benefits from the government that are not included in their calculations of income were taken into account, fewer people would be classified in poverty. If Food Stamps had been counted as income, then 3.7 million fewer Americans would have been classed as in poverty in 2013. And, in 2012, if the Earned Income Tax Credit had been included, then 2.9 million fewer children would have been counted as in poverty. As Pimpare Tweeted, “we know how to reduce poverty—we do a fair bit of it. We just don’t do enough to get it down to the levels of other rich democracies.”
And, indeed, those government programmes are not doing enough to combat poverty in America. But a large part of the reason for that is the perception that their efforts won’t work. This conventional wisdom has to be challenged, because it is self-perpetuating. Government should not avert its eyes from poverty, because it can help, and can do more. It is only helpless if it chooses to be.
By Alice Lilly
Note: The exhibition ‘And Now It’s Dark: American Night Photography’ was curated by Dr. Mark Rawlinson, and is open daily until November 9 at the Djanogly Art Gallery in the Lakeside Arts Centre, Nottingham. Admission is free.