Voices from the poverty caste

Carol Birch compares British and American underclasses, then and now
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The Independent Culture
Growing Up Poor by Anna Davin Rivers Oram Press, pounds 19.95 If You Came This Way by Peter Davis John Wiley, pounds 15.95

Though the poor are always with us, the nature of their condition changes. These books present two different worlds, London at the turn of the century, and America now. The outward trappings of poverty, the dirt, stink, hunger and cold, are similar, but the substance is radically different.

Anna Davin's book, Growing Up Poor, is meticulously researched, drawing on a wide range of contemporary sources to evoke a vanished world of street games and barrel organs, bedbugs and smallpox, washdays and workhouses and crowded streets where children rise at dawn to work for a living.

Davin's main concern is with the experience of children, particularly girls. In 1870 schooling became compulsory. Davin is suspicious of the motivation of a middle class which attempted to impose its own values on the poor. By whose definition, she asks, is a moral inference to be drawn if a child is unruly, shabby, still up and on the streets at midnight? Schools, and the many other reforms introduced over this period, are presented as moral straitjackets, creating stigma, enforcing gender roles and curtailing children's independence, reinforcing the consolidation of a modern national identity, and, in effect, ``taming the working class.''

For all the hardships, a strong ethos of mutual support seems to have existed. According to one contemporary source, ``As long as one person has anything to share, they are willing to share it. Hungry children are given meals ... the starving can always secure help from neighbours in distress.'' A sort of self-policing seems to have existed too, and, says Davin, open brutality towards children was not tolerated. The filter of the past can, of course, all too easily cast a warm sepia glow. Of working- class children, another source claimed ``experience has taught them to anticipate kindness at the hands of all they meet.''

In stark contrast, where a sense of community ameliorated the lot of the London poor, the lack of it is one more deprivation suffered by America's poor. The research for Peter Davis's book If You Came This Way took him to ``an American hell'' and outrage, compassion, grief and fear accompanied him. This is an intensely personal book, movingly honest. A lifelong liberal, he was, he admits, ``forced to see that part of me hates them (the poor). I owe a good deal of my support for `progressive' poverty solutions to that hatred. I hate them so much I want to do away with them.''

Though he came across cases of heroism, devotion and selflessness, the overall picture is one of a people so overwhelmed by impossible odds that hopelessness is simply the medium in which they exist. Davis mixed with the ``impacted'' or persistently poor of all ages and races. He saw ``snowbabies,'' the children of coke-addicted mothers, trembling through withdrawals that would leave many of them permanently retarded, and grew fond of a gentle, affable teenager who as a child had been left by his father in a disused well for nine days, and survived by eating maggots. The well becomes a symbol for the streets: ``I was living my life down there in that well, and I was on my own.''

There is in America now, says Davis, a ``poverty caste, an inherent underclass who are locked into their station and out of any other by virtually every institution they come in contact with.'' He sees intervention as essential. Though critical of a welfare system which in effect ensures that four fifths of ghetto children are fatherless, he is adamant that to stop welfare would be disastrous. Capitalism, he maintains, having in part caused the situation, must now alleviate it. He wants business to enter the ghettos, ``early childhood intervention, educational outreach, job training.''

Ironically, such anti-interventionist leanings as Anna Davin expresses in her book have become redundant a hundred years on, in a country where individual freedom is enshrined in the constitution and rightsism is all the rage.