How The Other Half Still Lives

Remember “The New Colossus” poem by Emma Lazarus from English class? Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to break free. Tacked on to the Statue of Liberty at the gateway to New York City, the poem promises an improved lot in life, greater opportunities and the rights and protections not afforded in the war- and famine-ravaged states from which immigrants come. The United States was not, in 1890, capable of meeting the promise for millions of immigrants in New York City. Nor is it today a place of promise or hope for the working classes.

My blog will take a slightly different direction as I return to nonprofit work, back in Texas and outside education. Education felt like a funnel into which a Fujita scale-busting social tornado was twisting. The scope and scale of the inequalities exposed in education are exceeded only by the humility I feel in working in the shadows those who have the courage to work in social reform. To start, I will honor one of those reformers from the 19th century, Jacob Riis, a social prophet with a silver pen.

Jacob Riis famously pioneered photojournalism with his work, How The Other Half Lives, which galled New York society enough to prompt legal and urban reform to improve the lot of the workers stranded in tenement houses. Riis did for urban reform what W.E.B. DuBois did for civil rights at the turn of the century, and Upton Sinclair for American labor. I will use photos from Riis’ work and from contemporary America to explain the parallels between past and present.

Riis’ Theory of Poverty

1. Poverty results from an economic trap of low wages and relatively high cost of living. If labor is plentiful and housing is in high demand, wages will naturally depress and housing costs will increase. Additionally, to keep prices low on goods, employers will not raise wages to prevent a wage-price spiral. Without regulations, wages will go to “the lowest he can live for and underbid his neighbor” (95). This Bohemian family will work 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, children included:

Cigarmakers in a tenement

2. Poverty results from a lack of legal protections: When the supply and demand scales are tipped to the extreme as they were in New York tenements, there is nothing to prevent exploitation of workers. Employers must be prevented from using labor as chips in cost-cutting efforts, and the same applies to landlords abusing building codes and occupancy rates. “All nine lived in two rooms…The rent was seven and a half dollars a month, more than a week’s wages” (33):

Lower East Side tenement

3. The sociology of poverty begins from economic conditions: With tight crowding, poor ventilation, backbreaking work and no opportunity, the window for what Riis called “honest poverty” would sometimes end with a suicide jump out of it onto the street below. Under incredible social pressure, Riis drew a “connection between the wages of the tenements and the vices and improvidence of those who dwell in them” (138). What else would a group of disillusioned young men do than turn to burglary for extra income and alcohol for any pleasure?

An unlicensed saloon

4. Poverty produces entitlement and defiance as forms of resistance: The director of the Atlanta Speech School told me that students behind grade level in reading often act out because they are “attempting to destroy the system which destroyed them.” In response to their neglect by society, the impoverished who have lost hope begin to shake the loose coins angrily from society’s closed purse. Riis noted “tramps and toughs profess the same doctrine, that the world owes them a living” (61).

A Growler Gang

5. Poverty chokes the growth of services such as schools and hospitals: The lack of protections for labor drew children into work and taxed the health of the those who spent hours living and working in the same tenement. The opportunity costs from the work were a lack of time for education and a propensity to outbreaks of disease, infant/maternal mortality and work-related injury. Schools can hardly gain a foothold with so many unregistered children and doctors are overloaded just finding patients on a daily basis. Doctors began tracking death rates and found them to be as high 35.75 per 1,000 in 1888 (47).

Overcrowding in Mulberry Bend

6. Poverty drives a wedge between social classes: Riis lamented the neglect by landlords, saloon owners and employers for the injustices committed against the poor of New York. Rather than progressive policies which would take decades more to produce, the poor turned to violence and the wealthy turned to defensiveness and self-justification. “The outraged citizens placed a howitzer on the dock and bade the [gang] land at their peril” (187).

Gilded Age mansion in Manhattan

Poverty and Oppression Today

21st century America may be more indifferent toward Emma Lazarus’ “huddled masses” than welcoming them. The parallels to the major concepts in Riis’ work 125 years ago are striking. A few of the privileged in the Open Carry movement are worried about “societal breakdown” and carry assault weapons with them for defense. Meanwhile, those carrying the weapons shoot and kill unarmed members of ethnic minorities. Angry protesters chase buses full of young children to scream nativist hate speech. The “harvest of tares” of which Riis spoke today sends the poor to our prisons, while we fight for the right to defend ourselves from the tares we sowed.

The rights of business are no less a debate than they were in Riis’ time. The logic of resistance to increased workplace protection still lies on lowering costs and creating jobs. There is a reasoned balance between flexibility of business to create jobs and the rights of workers to work at fair wages and benefits. However, when a lack of workers’ compensation insurance funds the “Texas miracle,” tragedy results. Texas pays less in the name of choice for business at the expense of choice and dignity by workers. As the only state lacking mandatory workers’ compensation insurance, how hollow is our miracle?

The picture introducing this blog post showed immigrant construction workers removing a rooftop by hand with minimal safety equipment and without insurance coverage should they be injured on the job. If we want a human machine, such as the Bohemian cigar-makers who can motor out 18 hour work days and lead to nothing but despair and hopelessness, then we can continue emphasizing the choice of business over the rights of individuals. But if we want to lift up the Other Half across the widening chasm in this country, then we have work to do.

Charity Isn’t Enough

What Riis called “romantic philanthropy” and charity are not sufficient to resolve issues that are collective action problems with economic causes and economic solutions. Charitable donations, Riis said, amount to “spasmodic undoings of [society’s] purse-strings” (136). Furthermore, those in poverty would rather work than receive charity, even if work is less profitable. “Poverty be the price of her independence,” (196) Riis said of working women. Neither will cutting charity be sufficient. Only an increase in the profitability of work will suffice.

The economic rights of the working class have their strongest ally in business. Don’t cut welfare programs. Create jobs in the United States with social innovation, train its workforce and invest in its health, longevity and quality of life. The culture of meritocracy and hard work to earn a living that business values will follow: “around this sound core of self-help, thus encouraged, habits of thrift and ambitious industry are seen to grow up…the boy is ‘growing’ a character” (164) Riis said of boys placed in shelters and trade schools from the street.

Poverty eats away at the values of western democracy. If the United States is today going to serve today’s Other Half, government and business must place serving individuals and untangling the economic web of disadvantage ahead of using those individuals as cases or resources. Only then will the huddled masses break free.


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