In a year marking the 50th anniversary of the launch of the War on Poverty, The Hedgehog Review, an interdisciplinary journal published by the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, devotes its fall issue to how we think about the poor.
“Our accepted ideas about the poor tend to obscure the reality of how varied they, their lives and their conditions are,” editor Jay Tolson said. “Yet for all their crudeness, these oversimplified generalizations persist and have powerful consequences, not just for the poor but for our entire society and nation.”
The issue’s contributors, including a historian, two anthropologists, a literary scholar, an educator and a noted novelist and critic, challenge those generalizations by exploring a number of important and sometimes delicate questions: What is life like inside the social safety net? How does it feel to fall from the middle class into poverty? What institutions sustain and give hope to those who are struggling to improve their lives? And how do certain ideas about the poor influence research and social policies in ways that often neglect larger economic problems?
Tackling the last question, historian Alice O’Connor, a respected specialist on American social science research and its impact on public policy, writes that voluminous studies have done little to challenge the view that poverty is something that happens to other people. While many of the programs of the New Deal and the Great Society have brought significant benefits to low-income individuals and households, she explains, “The myth of otherness associated with being poor in America persists and cuts across ideological lines. … It is ingrained in the dominant tradition of poverty research.”
Researchers Michael and Ines Jindra file an intimate report from the front lines of poverty: the shelters and agencies where a varied host of people go to recover their lives or just borrow enough money to keep the electricity turned on. They include unemployed people (or the underemployed), victims of domestic abuse, disabled or disturbed individuals, single mothers and people suffering from addictions. “Any analysis of poverty that aims at some sort of comprehensiveness must take into account these varied and complex structural, cultural and individual factors,” the Jindras write.
Pulitzer Prize winner William McPherson offers a first-person account of how his life as a Washington Post editor, critic and journalist transformed into the grinding reality of a writer barely making ends meet. “It’s humiliating to be poor, to be dependent on the kindness of family and friends and government subsidies,” McPherson writes. “But it sure is an education.”
The issue also features a photo essay, “Picturing the Poor: Photographs of Poverty in America,” which includes images by social-reform photographers Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, as well as ones by Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, renowned for their Depression-era work. Other photographs document racial injustice and urban decay, the effects of Hurricane Katrina on a low-income neighborhood in New Orleans and homelessness and poverty among America’s service veterans.
Several free-standing essays address other questions relating to The Hedgehog Review’s signature concern with cultural change in the modern world.
In “Nietzsche Transformed,” intellectual historian and Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture faculty fellow Chad Wellmon tells how the decorous philologist and scholar of antiquity became the fiery iconoclastic philosopher declaring the death of God and resolving to put the wisdom and formative practices of ancient Greece in service to modern life.
Anyone who has recently passed through a TSA checkpoint may wonder, as Mark Edmundson does in “One Nation Under Fear,” why Americans have become so obsessed with security, so relentlessly anxious and fearful? Edmundson, University Professor at U.Va., would have us school ourselves once again in the virtues of courage and resilience.
In “The Emptiness of Modern Economics,” Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture fellow and religion scholar Christina McRorie urges contemporary economic theorists to reconnect with the foundations of their intellectual discipline, especially Adam Smith’s profound understanding of human nature.
The Hedgehog Review is published three times a year. The spring issue, due out Jan. 1, will look at boundaries of the public and the private.