essays and articles by david g allen

During Past Decades, Nation Has Redefined Poverty


Part one of two parts.

In 1960, poverty in West Virginia meant something altogether different than it means today.

In his campaign for the presidency, U. S. Senator John F. Kennedy cast the national spotlight on poverty in our state.  West Virginians warmed to him (and to his pledge to end Appalachian poverty), and we handed him the nomination with our primary vote.  Then came a photo essay about West Virginia’s poverty in the Saturday Evening Post.  The photos shocked the nation.

Whether poverty was the topic of political oratory or sensationalism in the coffee-table magazine graced by Norman Rockwell’s idyllic covers, poverty was a word and an image to be feared.

Definition of poverty

Poverty:  The state of being poor or without competent subsistence; need; penury.

Poor:  Lacking means of comfortable subsistence; indigent; needy.

Penury:  Extreme poverty or want.

Funk and Wagnalls, New College Standard Dictionary, 1961


I looked up “poverty” in my 1961 dictionary and discovered that the word had a much more severe meaning than it does today.  Poverty is now defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary as “the state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions.”  Poverty, a lifestyle that not so long ago “gripped” its victims, is now an arbitrary measure of spending money.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan served as advisor to President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, and he made quite a name for himself when he argued that curing poverty was not a function of spending.  Rather, he argued, poverty was a social problem aggravated by broken familes, a lack of education, and so on.  His analysis infuriated liberals; they had already concluded that monetary benefits would cure poverty.  The only question in their minds for fighting LBJ’s War on Poverty was “How much do we need to spend?”

For the next three decades, the government spent more and more.  Uncle Sam even paid single women to have more children out of wedlock.  Then in 1996, Congressional politics changed, and welfare programs, such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, were either terminated or radically modified.

In an interesting footnote to the 1996 welfare debate, Mr. Moynihan (then the senior U. S. senator from New York) argued loudly that cutting welfare spending would create chaos.  In his book, Miles To Go, Sen. Moynihan railed that “the national commitment to dependent children'' would be ''eagerly abandoned'' by what he called “welfare repeal.”

The boy genius who understood so well the root causes of poverty in 1965 ended his Senate career as a partisan—a liberal general still fighting the last war, a war over spending levels.

Eric Blair, the British author known to us as George Orwell, hoped to learn what it meant to be poor during the years that he experimented with socialism.  In Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell recounts his life in Paris as a restaurant dishwasher trying to survive on less than a livable wage.  He lived among other poor kitchen workers and waiters. 

Orwell certainly lived in poverty.  At one point he sold his clothes for two hundred francs.  He also skipped out of his boarding house owing rent.  And there were times when he could not afford even bread. 

Parisian bakers sold their loaves whole and charged one franc each.  From this formula, they would not budge.  Orwell could not understand why the baker would not sell him part of a loaf for eighty centimes, all the money that he had to his name in one of his telling chapters.

His comrades, the waiters, for the most part had never known anything but poverty.  When they had less than one franc, they did not eat.  Nor did they trouble themselves with trying to understand the baker’s one-franc rule.  But when the waiters got an unexpected big tip, they splurged.  They bought good wine and fine pastries.  They sated themselves rather than save for hard times.

You have lived Orwell’s scene.  You have passed up Delmonico steaks and instead opted for the meat loaf mix because of your budget.  But when you checked out, the shopper in front of you paid with food stamps.  And topmost on her grocery cart was the shrimp cocktail platter.  Then you realized it was the first of the month.

Whether by Orwell’s observation or your own, you can see that the cause of poverty is better defined in terms of behaviors rather than by levels of disposable income. 

Compared to King Midas, we are all paupers.  In that sense, our poverty can be lessened by his charity.  But to cure the roots of poverty, charity alone has little effect.

In Part Two, I will discuss the future of welfare now that society has accepted poverty as an income problem.

David G. Allen

Clarksburg, WV


"During Past Decades, Nation Has Redefined Poverty" originally appeared in the September 7, 2007 issue of the West Virginia State Journal.




Copyright 1990-2007  David G. Allen