What Do the Poor Need?

What Do the Poor Need?

Writing these pages in Europe allows me to look at the problem of American poverty in a way I might not have chosen had I written in America. Visiting the slums of Naples and North Africa or traveling through the Sicilian or Greek countryside, one realizes that their misery, their utter deprivation, their stark horrors are qualitatively different from the poverty one encounters in the United States. You can, of course, see in the Mississippi delta cases of deprivation similar to those in Mediterranean slums, yet poverty in America is by and large no longer a problem of sheer physical survival, of utter immiseration and pauperism. Poverty in America concerns, in the main, not absolute but relative deprivation. We suffer from a highly unequal distribution of incomes, with the result that a fairly large proportion of the population is daily reminded of the fact that, compared to the rest, it is severely disadvantaged.

Beyond the primary issue of income distribution, poverty raises the question of full citizenship for the poor. Not only are the poor relatively deprived when it comes to goods and services; they are also politically deprived of the rights and privileges that come with citizenship in a democratic society.

The well-to-do and the poor still live as two different nations. To be poor in contemporary America means not only that one disposes of less income but also that one is aware of having little or no access to the levers of political power; that one feels excluded and alienated from the political process; that one is likely to conceive of oneself as a pawn, an object, of social and political developments rather than a selfconscious political subject.

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