Ordinary Poverty, a Little Food and Cold Storage

William DiFazio, Ordinary Poverty, a Little Food and Cold Storage (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006).

It was a cold day – winter 1984. Entering a building in the Bronx I stopped a tenant, identified myself in Spanish as a tenant organizer and asked why the building was so cold. He replied that he didn’t speak English and would get the super. I kept questioning the man in my bad Spanish while the man walked away, insisting in English that he didn’t speak English and couldn’t talk to me.

Another man was listening from the stairway. He called down to me; told me that the other tenant was afraid and that the super was the head of one of three tenant associations in the building. The man walked down the stairs graciously explaining that the building was owned by the City; that the boiler had been removed and the City wanted to move the tenants to another building. I took notes until the ink in my pen froze.

Impressed, I asked my informant what apartment he lived in. I still remember him saying, “Do you think I’m crazy? I don’t live here. I just come here to wash up. I live in the vacant lot across the street. It’s too cold to live here.”

Over the next couple of months I would pass the lot at night. There, a small community of men would eat, drink and socialize around a fire joined by stray dogs. They had makeshift shelters made of cardboard. Then one spring day I noticed that the lot had been bulldozed. I saw one of the dogs trying to cross the Grand Concourse against traffic. I never saw the man again.

These memories came flooding back as I read William DiFazio’s Ordinary Poverty, a Little Food and Cold Storage. The book presents a cogent analysis of poverty gleaned in part from the author’s work at St. John’s Bread and Life soup kitchen in Brooklyn. His interviews, observations and social analysis powerfully rebut those social theorists and politicians who argue that people are poor out of cultural or personal inferiority. He documents how the people in this book were left out of the economic boom of the Clinton years — so much for trickle-down prosperity. So-called “welfare reform” made life even harder. The poor are now forced to juggle exploitative workfare requirements with childcare and visits to the soup kitchen.

Ordinary Poverty paints a picture of poor people trying to make ends meet on an inadequate budget. As advocates for the poor know, the basic welfare allowance has never remotely kept up with the cost of living. It maintains people in a state of perpetual destitution. Yet the myth that people on public assistance receive an adequate amount of money or are actually wealthy is extraordinarily resilient.

I remember a friend who worked as the director of a battered women’s center in a wealthy suburb. The clients were receiving public assistance. At a meeting she became frustrated with the Center’s board members who believed that the women’s economic problems were the result of poor budgeting skills. My friend went through the welfare allowance figures for a family of two, ($414.10 a month) and then asked her audience how the women could pay for basic necessities. The problem of poverty is not limited to those on public benefits. It is equally impossible to pay for food, clothing and shelter on a minimum-wage job in New York City.

The people depicted in this book struggle to survive. They may jump subway turnstiles or sell some of their food stamps so they can buy clothes, pay rent or occasionally splurge on a breakfast special in an inexpensive restaurant. Perhaps while collecting public assistance they have an undisclosed income from odd jobs or from selling bottles they have collected on the street. This is of course illegal. With poor people being forced to expend so much energy to get basic needs met, is it surprising that no poor people’s movement has surfaced to fight to change the conditions of the poor?

DiFazio documents that the rising numbers of poor people has placed a strain on soup kitchens. For example, staff at St. John’s Bread and Life soup kitchen must decide whether to provide smaller meals so they can serve an overflow crowd or turn hungry people away. This is not a choice any organization should have to make in a country of such wealth and waste.

This book sensitively traces the gradual cooptation of the anti-hunger movement as soup kitchens became a permanent fixture of the American social landscape. I suspect that these changes permeate community-based organizations as staff members provide emergency services in increasingly bleak times. DiFazio notes that soup kitchens were never intended to be permanent. They arose in reaction to Reagan-era cuts to anti-poverty programs. Unfortunately these cuts were not only never reversed, they were deepened by so-called “welfare reform,” and the need for emergency services for the poor skyrocketed.

When I was an organizer in the 1980s many organizations wanted to hire people from their target population. They hoped to create new leaders and be more sensitive to the needs of the communities with whom they were working. DiFazio notes that originally soup kitchens would offer jobs to guests (clients) to help them get experience and eventually move on to other jobs. However now the soup kitchens require grant writers and fund-raisers so that they can provide services. This has led to a greater professionalization of the staff, and MBAs are now in demand, which in turn creates more of a chasm between the service providers and the communities they are trying to aid, and creates more bureaucratic red tape than there was before.

The dependence of soup kitchens on foundations raises other problems. Foundation grants determine the scope of services. The soup kitchens can only provide services which are attractive to funders. Advocacy is generally not funded, neither is organizing. In essence the movement can aid the poor in concrete ways but it cannot be an agent for social change. It has become by necessity part of the system.

DiFazio interviews advocates about social policy issues and the role of the anti-poverty movement. When the advocates undertake policy initiatives these days they try to be “realistic” while working within a political establishment which is hostile to their clients. Thus they are not in a position to struggle to end poverty. They can only ameliorate some of its conditions. DiFazio does not underrate the importance of the soup kitchens since they provide warm meals for people who would otherwise go hungry.

He proposes two solutions to the problems of the poor. He calls for a guaranteed middle-class income for all people and stresses the importance of creating a new poor people’s movement. While I am essentially in agreement with both his analysis and his solutions, I find myself wondering how our society has come to accept as a given that many will go without food or adequate shelter. I have other concerns as well.

In the 1980s some of the City’s homeless organized encampments. They would stake out a park or a vacant lot and sleep there in groups. At times they would make political demands and work with homeless rights advocates. Perhaps their encampments would be bulldozed like the one I discussed previously. Perhaps they would fall apart due to other pressures. It is extremely difficult for the destitute to organize; they are extraordinarily vulnerable and transient. I, like DiFazio, want the poor to have an organized voice, but I suspect we will need a broad social justice movement within this society to provide the space for the poor to have that voice. The poor are still a minority in our country. They lack the numbers and obviously the economic clout to make policymakers listen.

We live in a class-based society with widespread racial and economic segregation. People are judged by their professional status and wealth. Americans from other social classes rarely have poor friends. The poor are social pariahs. Thus it is easy for the poor to be dehumanized. I remember a homeless friend telling me that after she lost her home she was literally starving in Washington DC. Wearing torn shoes and a light sweater in the middle of winter, she went into a restaurant in desperation and begged for food. She was horrified by the way people reacted to her. She had crossed the great social divide. She complained that she was treated like a dog. Until the poor can no longer be dehumanized I fear nothing will really change.

This book makes me impatient for a broad-based social justice movement to emerge which will demand an end to poverty. I hope that it will be read widely.

Reviewed by Barbara Conn

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