Making Poverty History

by DAN BROOK

One test of a great idea is if afterwards it seems obvious or necessary. Scott Myers-Lipton has certainly come up with a great idea with his book Social Solutions to Poverty, making it an instant classic that will be both voraciously read and kept for reference. In the proud and patriotic tradition of Howard Zinn, this book is an inspiring comprehensive collection of anti-poverty proposals and programs, from the grassroots as well as the elite, historically contextualized by Myers-Lipton, an associate professor of sociology at San Jose State University, who specializes in civic engagement, service learning, and social change.

Covering ideas from Thomas Paine to W.E.B. Du Bois, Tecumseh to Sitting Bull, and Susan B. Anthony to George W. Bush, along with many other famous figures as well as lesser-known ones, Myers-Lipton presents a powerful history of anti-poverty efforts in a country that is the richest but has the highest rate of poverty in the industrialized world. In spite of, or perhaps because of, American wealth and empire, poverty has been a chronic feature of U.S. society. While the current official poverty rate is over 12.5%, 1 of every 8 Americans, the actual poverty rate is much higher, possibly as much as 1 in 6, or 50 million Americans. We remain, as ever, in dire need of poverty reduction and, eventually, the elimination of poverty, the overarching social problem that causes or exacerbates so many others.

The millions of poor especially, but all of us generally, pay the high costs of poverty. If we forget our history, as George Santayana warns, we are doomed to repeat it. With Myers-Lipton expertly collecting and contextualizing the history of anti-poverty efforts in the U.S., there is renewed hope of finally transcending the tragedy of poverty.

There is abundant material in this useful and fascinating book, though for better or worse it’s limited to the U.S. There is, therefore, no mention of anti-poverty programs such as Bangladeshi-economist Muhammed Yunus’ micro-credit Grameen Bank, which won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, nor is there any reference to the policies of the Scandinavian countries, Cuba, Venezuela, Japan, Mondragón in Spain, the state of Kerala in India, and other places that have reduced or eliminated the worst effects of poverty. Yet even within the U.S., phenomena such as rent strikes, collectives, communes, credit unions, and Hebrew Free Loan Associations are omitted. Hopefully, further volumes and future editions will address these issues. That said, what’s missing from this invaluable book pales in comparison to what it includes.

For such an important book on solving poverty, it’s a shame that it is so expensive, necessarily limiting its distribution outside of academia, where premium-priced books are unfortunately the norm. Nevertheless, Social Solutions to Poverty demands and deserves to be read–and then implemented!–to finally rid society from the scourge of poverty.

DAN BROOK, a freelance instructor of sociology, is the author of Modern Revolution (University Press of America, 2005). Dan writes for various non-corporate media. He welcomes comments via <mailto:Brook@california.com>Brook@california.com.


 

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