Orwell's Poor and Ours

The very rich are different from you and me," F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote. "Yes," Ernest Hemingway teased Fitzgerald, in a short story of his own, "they have more money." To Fitzgerald, the rich inhabited a world apart. To Hemingway, the rich were just like the rest of us, only with nicer furniture.

Today's debates about poverty mirror the Fitzgerald-Hemingway exchange. "The poor are different," some say. They live in a separate culture, bereft of the values that could lift them out of poverty. Public policy reinforces their lassitude by encouraging their morally and socially deviant tendencies. "They just have less money," reply others. They are regular folks in a desperate situation, and they behave as any of us would in the same circumstances. Provide for their material needs, or change the incentives that confront them, offer jobs that pay a living wage, and all will be well.

Something is amiss in these contending visions of the poor—or, I should say, of poverty, for these views of poor people don't have people in them, only statistics and myths. These we have in abundance—reams of tables and figures displaying the extent of deprivation, and tall tales of "welfare queens" and scam artists buying vodka with food stamps. But where are the faces behind the statistics and the mythology, the lives of the poor themselves? In the conservative caricature, the poor remain phantoms, ciphers; their individual lives are concealed either by charts and graphs or by moralistic categories of virtue and vice. But poverty is brutal and ugly, and it is associated with many things Americans legitimately fear—crime, drugs, and the apparent breakdown of social standards, especially in cities. Many liberals, too, see poverty through a distorting lens, one that overlooks or explains away these very real and often uncomfortable facts about poverty. Some of us posit a false sameness; others see a dehumanizing degree of difference. What is missing in both views is a willingness to look hard at the actual lives of the poor.


No writer has rendered these lives more vividly than George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London. In these two remarkable books, Orwell addresses the very question that haunts discussions of poverty today—what is it like to be poor? The foremost virtue of these books is their insistent, compelling reporting of poverty from the inside. His reports of the outward effects of poverty—the decrepitude, the discomfort, the filth—are simultaneously gripping and repellent. But it is his account of poverty's effect on the soul, effects observed from personal experience coupled with keen self-knowledge, that makes Orwell unique. Orwell was also a master prose stylist, and his writing—vigorous, evocative, and utterly devoid of sentimentality—captures with masterly economy the psychological truth of poverty.

If the central image of life in poverty is dirt—and squalor is everywhere in Orwell, from the filth of poor Paris quarters and London lodging houses to grim Lancashire slums—the most vivid effect of poverty in Orwell's world is psychological. Poverty means deprivation of such basic goods as food, clothing, and shelter, to say nothing of such modest benefits as comfort and cleanliness. Life becomes a constant struggle, not for the spiritual or psychic rewards of worldly success or of a life well lived, but for survival, pure and simple. Orwell's poor live in a stultifying world, where the basic social and biological functions of life—eating, sleeping, avoiding disease—occupy so much attention that there is little time or energy left for more elevated concerns. The overwhelming experience of poverty for Orwell is ennui. The pursuit of petty vices such as drink and tobacco, the most readily available sources of enjoyment or entertainment, takes on exaggerated importance. When daily life is consumed with such concerns, they become the mind's only focus, and staying alive requires all one's acuity and resourcefulness. "You thought," he writes in Down and Out, "that [poverty] would be quite simple; it is extraordinarily complex. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring. It is the peculiar lowness of poverty that you discover first; the shifts that it puts you to, the complicated meanness, the crust-wiping."

But in Orwell's eyes, even the most visibly distasteful of the poor become sympathetic characters. Paddy Jaques, the narrator's "mate" in tramping about London in Down and Out, would not be out of place in any American city today. Jobless and homeless, he is lazy, filthy, ignorant, and generally unappealing. He lives in the streets or in shelters, cadging food and tobacco wherever he can. "He had," Orwell writes, "the regular character of a tramp—abject, envious, a jackal's character." Nevertheless, Orwell continues, "he was a good fellow, generous by nature and capable of sharing his last crust with a friend." More generally, Orwell argues that the only thing that separates beggars from "workers" is society's perception of the value of their trade. "A navvy works by swinging a pick. An accountant works by adding up figures. A beggar works by standing out of doors in all weathers and getting varicose veins, chronic bronchitis, etc." When he asks "Why are beggars despised?—for they are despised universally," his answer is simply that, "they fail to earn a decent living." A beggar "is simply a business man, getting his living, like other business men in the way that comes to hand. He has not, more than most modern people, sold his honour; he has merely made the mistake of choosing a trade at which it is impossible to grow rich." Poverty is ultimately humiliating and demoralizing. For Orwell, the detachment of the poor from bourgeois virtues—hard work, cleanliness, self-reliance, and so forth—is an effect of poverty rather than a cause.


In the 1930s, when Orwell wrote them, these books were more than simply gripping collections of stories and images; they represented an antidote to prevailing Victorian notions of poverty. Romantic and sentimental, the Victorians viewed poverty as an individual failing. The virtues of Victorian society—hard work, responsibility, independence, and the like—were those that would ensure material success. As Fitzgerald believed of the rich, so Victorians believed of the poor: They were different. Being poor was a sign of moral weakness, of indolence and profligacy (the poor were, to paraphrase Stephen Sondheim, "deprived on account they were depraved").

Oddly enough, all of this moral weakness vanished a decade later when the postwar economic boom produced an era of full employment. The indolent poor of the 1930s became the blue-collar middle class of the 1940s and 1950s. Evidently, they were all-too-willing to work hard for decent wages. What was missing in the 1930s, it turned out, were not virtues but jobs.

This lesson, however, has been forgotten. Modern-day conservatives have once again taken up the Victorian view. The poor are different. They are culturally deficient and morally flawed, an "underclass" whose behavior and values separate them from respectable society. "How does one cope with people who seem unable to advance even their own interests, let alone society's?" asks Lawrence Mead in The New Politics of Poverty.

The neo-Victorians have revived the crude moral certainties of Victorian society. In Britain, the New Poor Law of 1834 distinguished between the honest poor, those sincerely unable to support themselves, and paupers, those who were able but unwilling. Work, independence, and responsibility were the characteristic virtues of the new industrial economy in the nineteenth century, virtues that paupers conspicuously lacked. The creators of the New Poor Law wanted to punish those who shunned these virtues, and thus while the poor received relief, paupers went to the workhouse, the only alternative to "honest" work. In this way, Victorian social policy deliberately stigmatized poverty. Never mind that the New Poor Law was a willful attempt to create a low-wage army of labor to feed the mines and mills of England, the very mines that Orwell famously describes in Wigan Pier. By making the alternative to work so monstrous, the Victorians could claim that only those totally devoid of sense and virtue would opt for the workhouse.

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In The De-Moralization of Society, Gertrude Himmelfarb celebrates these Victorian virtues and decries the moral relativism of modern society. Because we have lost the capacity to judge virtue and vice, right and wrong, we have lost the ability to distinguish, as the Victorians did, between the honest poor and the shirking paupers. The problem with welfare today, she suggests, is that it does not sufficiently stigmatize the poor but instead encourages them to engage in vices such as drug abuse, crime, and premarital childbearing. Similarly, Ben Wattenberg's Values Matter Most (the book that provoked his well-publicized chat with President Clinton) argues that poverty is fundamentally a problem of personal virtue rather than social forces or economic realities. The chief moralizer of the new virtue industry, of course, is the modern McGuffey, William Bennett, whose Book of Virtues—an overstuffed sampler of cautionary tales, parables, fables, and maxims—resided atop the bestseller list for months. These books and others have resuscitated the idea that poverty is a sign of moral failure, and they effectively tap a deep well of anxiety about moral decline.

The right thus reduces the problem of poverty to a dispute over the social standards of the poor rather than the opportunities that society presents. As Herbert Gans brilliantly relates in his new book, The War Against the Poor, the "underclass" nomenclature perpetuates this view of the difference, and hence the undeservingness, of the poor, allowing the rest of us to revel in our "deservingness." The distinction between "us," the deserving middle class, and "them," the undeserving poor, only reinforces our appreciation of our own virtue.

The right also magnifies the vices of the poor, placing the onus of society's problems on the poor rather than where it belongs, on those with money and power, who set society's priorities and reap society's benefits. The poor, it seems, are neither selfish enough to help themselves nor selfless enough to protect the rest of us. This view of the poor feeds the common misperception that the poor are reaping enormous benefits from government largess. To the residents of Macomb County, Michigan, reports Stanley Greenberg in Middle Class Dreams, nearby Detroit is "just a big pit into which the state and federal governments poured tax money, never to be heard from again: ?It's all just being funneled into the Detroit area, and it's not overflowing into the suburbs.'" For these archetypal Reagan Democrats, "Detroit" equals "them"—that is, the black, urban poor who are themselves the source not only of their own misery but of broader social and political ills.


If some conservative critics demonize the poor and emphasize their differentness, others such as Charles Murray posit a false commonality. The poor, for Murray, are at bottom just like us; they respond to economic incentives, based on a cost-benefit calculus. And they would behave like the rest of us, except that the welfare state has corrupted the poor with perverse "incentives to fail" that subvert fundamental bourgeois values such as family, work, education, and deferred gratification. Over time, perverse incentives harden into perverse behaviors and values.

Tellingly, Murray illustrates this worry neither with accurate data (both his arithmetic and his propositions about the effects of welfare on such behavior have mostly been discredited) nor with careful ethnographic observation but with a "thought experiment," namely Harold and Phyllis, his hypothetical young couple in Losing Ground who maximize their income by having a child while remaining unmarried and out of work. Murray is also cavalier on the economic benefits to be derived from available work and available wages. In the ghettos of this economy, even Victorian virtue yields Victorian squalor.

In the process of rewarding indolence, Murray contends, social programs dissolved the useful distinction between "deserving" and "undeserving" poor, not by allaying the stigma of poverty but by dragging all the poor into "undeservingness." Welfare, he claims, has made it not only economically feasible but also "socially acceptable" to be unemployed and on the dole. Mickey Kaus similarly implicates welfare in creating a "cultural catastrophe." AFDC, he writes in The End of Equality, is "the underclass culture's life support system." Whatever its origins, a cultural gap separates the poor, the "underclass," from the rest of us. However they became poor, they remain so because bad incentives have created bad values.


Orwell would be appalled, not only at the conclusion that the poor are victims of their own deviance, but, more significantly, at the way in which the contemporary right reaches these conclusions. These detached and distant analyses reduce the world of the poor to a string of cultural, behavioral, and political labels without so much as peeking around the corner, whether into the ghetto or increasingly into the suburb left in the dust by the changing international economy, to see whether their labels actually fit the poor people they might find there. Recalling Orwell's clear-headed approach to exactly this question can point us toward an antidote to such cant.

After Orwell, the Victorian view that poverty is simply the product of individual moral frailty is utterly unsustainable. The modern twist, that blames poverty on deviant values, and deviant values on the welfare state, also ignores the bleak practical choices that confront actual people in poverty. Orwell reminds us that the poor are not loafers or scammers, hoping to get something for nothing, nor are they denizens of a subhuman culture, blissfully living out their lives of deprivation unaware of the indignity of it all. In Wigan Pier, Orwell tells of a train ride through Lancashire. From the window, he saw a woman huddled over trying to unclog a drain pipe behind her house, "amid monstrous scenery of slag- heaps, chimneys, piled scrap-iron, foul canals, paths of cindery mud criss-crossed by the prints of clogs." As he sped by, she looked up and he saw her face:

She had a round pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty-five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever seen. It struck me that we are mistaken when we say that "It isn't as bad for them as it would be for us," and that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums. For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her—understood as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.

The lives of the poor may not look like our lives, but their souls are certainly like our souls; anyone who thinks otherwise cannot have looked closely enough. Orwell looked closely enough, closer than most of us could stomach.

As a critic of political rhetoric, Orwell was fearless in criticizing the left as well as the right. What he saw and chronicled is that life among the poor is different, though not in the ways that the Victorians claimed—that is, poverty is not simply evidence of moral failure. But reading Orwell on poverty should give pause to the left as well. Some on the left have tried to dismiss the underclass label too sweepingly, ignoring a way of life that has indeed become dysfunctional—epidemics of drugs, crime, teenage pregnancy, multigenerational welfare dependence, compounded by racial segregation and official indifference. As William Julius Wilson has argued, the left is still recovering from its reaction to the Moynihan report on the Negro family thirty years ago—to sweep it under the rug, as if it were in bad taste to discuss such sordid matters outside the family circle, so to speak. The litany of social ills may have grown more sinister since Orwell's day, but his account of despair, hopelessness, and ennui still rings true and, if anything, cries out more urgently than ever for attention.

Fortunately, there has been in recent years a resurgence of vivid thinking and writing about America's poor—from the journalism of Jason DeParle of the New York Times and Alex Kotlowitz to the stunning ethnographic scholarship of anthropologist Elliot Liebow, sociologist Elijah Anderson, and historian Carl Husemoller Nightingale —that evokes the best in Orwell's work. "Street wisdom," for example, the complex ghetto street culture that Anderson describes, is a set of tools, strategems, and rules of thumb that allows urban residents to negotiate inner-city streets and even to build some semblance of a community on the ruins of urban civilization. For the children of the Chicago projects that Kotlowitz chronicles, the overwhelming fear of violence curtails the dreams of youth and replaces them tragically and prematurely with intimations of mortality and despair. And as Nightingale depicts his young African American friends in Philadelphia, they are hardly alienated from mainstream American values; rather, they are entirely products of those values, almost hyper-American, caught between ubiquitous cultural images of law and order, crime and punishment, violence, and consumerism on one hand and the painful, dissonant reality of their own lives on the other.

All of these writers have sought to approach poverty, particularly the poverty of the urban ghetto, not as a distant and faceless phenomenon but as an immediate and gripping reality that wreaks havoc and despair in the lives of whole neighborhoods and generations. They fall prey neither to the conservative temptation to assume the worst of the poor nor to the liberal instinct to evade the apparent pathologies of poverty. Like Orwell, they do not shrink from describing the ugly scenes of life in poor neighborhoods. Their writings are full of the same characters who populate conservative demonology—jobless men, teenage mothers, crack addicts, gang members, and fragile children. Their portraits, however, are not of soulless cardboard cutouts but of real people coping as best they can with the circumstances that society has dealt them. Writing from a stance of empathy and understanding, they do not flinch from describing the difference of life among the poor. But it is precisely their empathetic stance that reveals these differences, the "pathologies" of poverty, to be adaptive—ways of struggling to make lives out of desperate circumstances in ways that are unfathomable from the comfort of universities, think tanks, or TV rooms. These writers reaffirm Orwell's conclusion that the poor are ultimately human beings no different from you and me; that they are the victims of complex economic and cultural circumstances not of their own making, and the remedies will need to be complex as well. The new naturalistic chroniclers of poverty put the lie to the banalities of the cultural conservatives.

The clarity of Orwell's vision sets a task for progressives who recognize the urgency of addressing the shameful crisis of abiding poverty in the United States. More than at any time in the past sixty years, the American poor and working and middle classes are at common risk. Barry Bluestone calculates that the median working family, given its meager savings, is 3.6 months away from poverty should a breadwinner become jobless. The blue-collar bulwarks of the midcentury boom face increasingly the danger of losing the hard-won gains of their parents and grandparents. Poverty looms for them and their children as it has not in two generations. The time is ripe for a new New Deal coalition, uniting the poor and the working middle class, whose common anxieties and aspirations should be the basis for a powerful political message.

So long as the cultural conservatives set the imagery of the poverty debate with arguments about pathologies of poverty and the moral difference of the poor, they carry the day politically by dividing the sinking middle class from the poor they are approaching. Instead of alliance there is only contempt, relations poisoned by "us" vs. "them" rhetoric that pits Macomb Counties against Detroits throughout the country. As in the 1930s, when Orwell wrote, the poor and the working class share an interest in vigorous government action to create economic opportunity, preserve the dignity and rewards of work, and provide a cushion against what Franklin Roosevelt called "the hazards and vicissitudes of life." But these common interests are obscured, and the promise of liberal renewal is undermined, by the "underclass" rhetoric that casts the poor as the enemy within, rather than as allies in a common enterprise.

The task for liberals is to break down the "us" vs. "them" mentality on both sides of the divide. As a political task, it will require addressing the pernicious racial segregation that still poisons American life. As an intellectual task, it will require recapturing Orwell's soul-searching honesty in addressing the poor as neighbors and fellow citizens rather than as dirty and dangerous scoundrels. For conservatives to call them so—and for liberals to accede—is positively Orwellian.

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