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Decent Poverty Report: Poverty and Misery

President Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, leave the home of Tom Fletcher, a father of eight who had been out of work for nearly two years. The president announced his War on Poverty from the Fletcher porch in 1964.

President Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, leave the home of Tom Fletcher, a father of eight who had been out of work for nearly two years. The president announced his War on Poverty from the Fletcher porch in 1964.

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson launched his War on Poverty, a phrase attributed specifically to the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act and more broadly to his administration's efforts to expand the social safety net and improve education, housing, job training, and health care. The writer and social gadfly Paul Goodman was at the height of his popularity in 1964. As "the philosopher of the New Left," Goodman surely approved of a tighter social safety net, though as an anarchist, he was caustically critical of the federal government's encroachment into arenas better served by local and community-based groups. 

But I suspect he had a deeper, more philosophical quibble with the "War on Poverty" rhetoric, stemming from his often-stated commitment to what he called "decent poverty." The essay "Politics Within Limits," in Goodman's posthumously published book Little Prayers and Finite Experience (also available in Crazy Hope and Finite Experience, 1994, edited by Taylor Stoehr), contains this reference to the decent poverty idea:

There must not be horrors that take me by the throat, so I can experience nothing; but it is indifferent to me what the Growth Rate is, or if some people are rich and others poor, so long as they are pauvres, decently poor, and not misérables (Péguy's distinction). I myself never found that much difference between being very poor and modestly rich. 

This distinction between poverty and misery, which Goodman made in several essays and speeches, is very interesting and rather clarifying. Charles Péguy was a socialist French poet from the turn of the century. Goodman's reference is to Péguy's 1902 essay called "De Jean Coste," a piece of literary criticism about a novel called Jean Coste by Antonin Lavergne. The title character of this novel is a rural schoolteacher who is paid so poorly that he can't make ends meet; with a sick wife and sick mother, he gradually falls deeper into squalor. The novel's irony comes from the hero's valiant efforts to keep up appearances, which succeed so well that those around him, looking on with indifference, are blind to his suffering. (My source for this is an essay by Charles Coutel, in French.). Here's the key Péguy passage, roughly translating from the French: 

Misery and poverty are frequently confused, because they are close-close, but located on either side of a limit. On one side, economic life is not assured; on the other side, it is assured. Beneath that limit, there's misery, no certainty of a viable life, constant risk; above the limit, the risk stops, and poor or rich, there is assurance. Immediately above the limit is poverty, and above that are the successive zones of affluence. All below is misery; poverty is only a little above; thus the two are close in quantity, closer than much affluence is to poverty. Judging only by quantity, wealth is much further from poverty than poverty is from misery; but between poverty and misery is a distinction in quality, in nature.


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Goodman understood both styles of deprivation from his own life experience, growing up fatherless and fancy-free on the streets of New York, then struggling to raise children as a proud, starving artist in a two-income household. The distinction between poverty and misery was very clear to him, but for numerous reasons of ideology and culture, it's a distinction the Americans have never recognized or respected. And I think he's on to something. It's a bigger deal than it might seem. 

Poverty itself, the absence of money to spare, is not the enemy, Goodman told us. We should be more precise and define the problem as economic insecurity, the threat of utter destitution, the constant specter of misery and ruin. If America could eliminate or substantially reduce that threat, for millions of people-say, the threat of homelessness, foreclosure, or eviction-then living here in poverty would be tremendously improved, and suffering greatly diminished. If the nation could put a firmer floor under its people, and ensure a roof over their heads, decent poverty might begin to resemble a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity. It could be something a person or family might choose: off the grid, out from behind the wheel, extricated from the cash nexus, downscale. Such a notion seemed out of step with the affluent ethos of the early sixties, literally countercultural. But today, when it's ever clearer that the affluence of a few and the consumption of the many are at the core of our economic, environmental, existential exigency, the time for this idea may have come.

A war on poverty, like a war on terrorism, can never be won because it's so poorly defined. But some strategic skirmishes against economic insecurity, if the political will existed, could still make a big difference. Can we imagine a war for poverty-decent poverty?

Roger Kimmel Smith

Roger Kimmel Smith

Roger Kimmel Smith is a freelance wordsmith based in Ithaca, New York. He has written for The Progressive, Ithaca Times, National Geographic, Propaganda Review, Disarmament Times, Syncopated Times, Common Dreams, and Global Issues in Context.

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