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Poverty in America
John Iceland

Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
$50, 208 pp. ISBN-10: 0520239598.


Reviewed by Emmanuelle Le Texier



In 2003, 12.5 percent of the US population (35.9 million people) were poor. Poverty is more pervasive among minorities, children, female-headed families and people with less education. It is thus not a marginal phenomenon. Although America is the wealthiest country in the world, income inequality is far greater than in other major countries such as Great Britain, Australia, or Canada.

Poverty in America provides an overview of both theoretical and empirical research on poverty issues in the United States. After a decade of poverty decrease in the 1990s, in the wake of the 2000-2001 economic recession, the US witnesses moderate increase in poverty. The book reflects the wide disparities in American society, by examining different variables, such as age, income, ethnicity, race, home ownership, socio-economic status, geographical residence, etc.

Iceland departs from four arguments. First, views of poverty vary over time and space. Second, persistence of poverty reflects addition of individual situations as well as structural factors producing inequities. Third, economic changes—and not changes in family structures—account for much of the poverty rate. Fourth, anti-poverty policies remain of little impact on poverty—due largely to the low level of Federal investment. The analysis is mostly rooted in statistical information from the Current Population Survey (CPS) of the Census Bureau.

John Iceland is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland and former Branch Chief, Poverty and Health Statistics Branch, Housing and Household Economic Statistics Division, U. S. Census Bureau. He has contributed to Demography, Journal of Human Resource, Social Problems, Social Science Quarterly and co-authored a 2002 Census Bureau monograph, Racial and Ethnic Residential Segregation in the United States, 1980-2000. This second edition to Poverty in America deals with updated Census data on poverty and residential segregation in the United States. He focuses on understanding basic patterns and trends, measures, and causes. One of his main arguments is that the effect of changes in family structure has been overstated in the literature as well as in political debates. He studies the importance of socioeconomic differences between groups. He could be labeled a liberal author in the debate liberal vs. conservative that animates the discussion around welfare and poverty in America. He has written this book to serve as a text for undergraduate courses on poverty as well as to examine the nature and extent of poverty in the United States. Students will approach poverty issues such as poverty measurement, views of poverty, causes of poverty, welfare reforms and policies that address poverty. Different questions lead the analysis: Who are the poor? What are the limits of policy? How have views of poverty evolved?

The first chapter is a discussion of general misperceptions on poverty defined generally as a “fixed measure of economic deprivation” [4], as well as of the common hypothesis that the increasing number of female-headed families is largely responsible for current poverty rates. The second chapter reviews historical approaches of poverty from colonial times to the present, focusing on the divide between “deserving poor” and “undeserving poor.” Chapter three is the most challenging since it offers a broad view on alternative methods of measuring poverty. The most important aspect used to measure whether an individual is living below the poverty line is income. According to the Census Bureau, only cash income is considered in a family’s income, not the other types of government assistance such as Food Stamps, school lunch programs and earned income tax credits. A family of four with three children under the age of 18 would be considered poverty-stricken if their total income fell below $19,233.

Iceland shows that both absolute and relative measures of poverty have strengths and weaknesses. He recommends the use of a quasi-relative measure, such as the one used by the National Academy of Sciences Panel on Poverty and Family Assistance: “its basic strength is a poverty line that increases with inflation-adjusted spending on basic goods” [6-7]. Other poverty measures exist such as: consumption, self-reliance, capabilities of families to meet minimum level of living, social exclusion, etc. But Iceland argues that income poverty is the more appropriate and concise type of measure, because it refers to economic deprivation and allows to adjust poverty thresholds to every generation or as needed.

Chapter four studies the dynamics of poverty among specific groups, depending on time and space. It shows that poverty varies greatly. The author focuses on who the poor are, studying patterns among demographic groups, geography, race, ethnicity, etc. Inequality is striking as of 2000: “While 7.5 percent of the non-Hispanic white population was poor, according to official measure, a little over a fifth of both African Americans and Hispanics were poor” [41].  In addition, the poverty rate among Native Americans was 25.9 percent. Other categories at risk were single parent headed families and especially female-headed families, non-citizens, less-educated people, elderly people and children. Apart from the poverty line, Iceland follows Amartya Sen’s argument that critical hardships must be taken into account,1 that is all that threatens the basic needs for survival (food security, insufficient health care, housing problems and inadequate childcare). Relying on Denton and Massey’s American Apartheid,2 the author deals with the “geography” of poverty: more in the South and the West than in the East; more acute in inner-cities and segregated spaces than in rural areas, frequent intergenerational transmission of poverty. Nevertheless, his main argument is that “declines in poverty in the United States more or less stalled by the early 1970s” [68].

While discussing the causes of poverty in chapter five, Iceland considers both individual characteristics and structural factors or “social stratification (that is) the set of social and economic institutions that generate inequality and poverty” [71]. Iceland argues that former factors such as discrimination against women and minorities in the labor market, and racism are now less impacting than wealth differentials or family instability.
Chapter six questions the relationship between income growth and poverty rate, changes in family structures and economic inequality. Rising income inequality in the 1970s and 1980s had a particularly negative association with Latino poverty—especially because Latinos occupy a majority of less-qualified or low-skill jobs. In addition, the composition of Black families also had negative effects in the 1980s and 1990s on the poverty rate. As a consequence, although income increases do decrease absolute poverty, Iceland focuses on the fact that persisting poverty has to be explained by other structural factors. He places himself on the structuralism approach.

Chapter 7 is another polemical one since it examines the history of American welfare and debates between social support and dependency. The Great Depression as well as the War on Poverty are two defining moment in American history that brought changes in perception about public benefits. The main question remains the following: What are the limits of social obligation? Examples from Kennedy, Nixon, Johnson and Reagan’s policies are striking. Iceland also provides an analysis of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act initiated by Clinton whose aim was to “transform the culture of poverty.” Today’s debate is focused on safety nets and promoting work—the author’ assessment of the 1990s Welfare Reform being positive. Nevertheless, Iceland notes that

yet history has also taught us that work in a period of strong economic growth may not suffice in a depression. We need therefore to be attentive to continuing material hardship in society and flexible in our attempts to address it. [9, 141]

The conclusion raises new questions about new immigrants and poverty, dealing with the Asian vs. Latino divide, as well as the family composition and its relatively low impact on poverty. What can we expect over the next few years?

The book is a challenging approach of the dimensions and sources of American poverty and offers a reference for all scholars, politicians, as well as policymakers. It combines historical information, statistical data and theoretical arguments. Iceland contests conventional wisdom about the relationship between individual failure and poverty in America. This understanding is critical and crucial at our time when States retreat from social interventionism. It would have been interesting to open the debate on the links between poverty and political voice or empowerment, in order to evaluate more than the economic or social impact of poverty. It will allow the inclusion of political deprivation as a measure of poverty. Debates around statistical definitions and measures do lead sometimes to forget about individual situations of deprivation. That’s what is missing in this book. Concrete experience of “living in poverty” and programs to combat poverty would have given a humane approach to the quantitative and theoretical analysis.

1. Amartya Sen, Inequality Reexamined, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992. back
2. Douglas Massey & Nancy Denton, American Apartheid, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993. back



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