In 1890 the great photojournalist Jacob Riis published his now classic book about immigrant tenement poverty in lower Manhattan, called How the Other Half Lives. During the past few months I have tried to retrace some of Riis’s steps through modern New York’s pain and deprivation. As New York’s (and America’s) economy has turned bleaker and bleaker, I hung out in unemployment offices, food-stamp application centers and the occasional job fair, where lines of job-seekers were never short. I traveled around in a van with volunteers from the Coalition for the Homeless as they distributed free hot meals at night to the city’s most defeated and destitute inhabitants.
I visited union halls, food pantries, immigrant community centers and the dreadful Emergency Assistance Unit (EAU) in the Bronx. I interviewed community organizers, economists, politicians, leaders of nonprofit advocacy groups–as well as the jobless, homeless and hopeless. I wanted to understand better how the other half lives now, and who was responsible for this misery in the midst of this new, twenty-first-century Gilded Age of excess produced by the money culture, corporate scandal and the concentration of wealth and power.
What I learned was that in some ways little has changed since Riis published his reportorial findings in 1890. The poor are still largely invisible to the complacent majority. Most Americans don’t see the everydayness of poverty. It is segregated in “bad neighborhoods” and in impersonal government waiting rooms. We don’t see all the people being told there are no applications for food stamps available at that location; all the people postponing medical treatment for their children because they don’t have health insurance; all the people trying to find a job with their phone service shut off because they couldn’t pay the bill; or all the deliverymen for drugstores and supermarkets paid only $3 an hour, which is illegal.
In one way we are even worse off than we were 113 years ago: We have no Jacob Riis now humanizing poverty, making the satisfied see it and smell it. We have no American Dickens or Orwell, no James Agee and Walker Evans, no Michael Harrington, no John Steinbeck, no Edward R. Murrow.
Something else in addition to poverty’s invisibility that harks back to the first Gilded Age is the widening economic disparity between the rich and poor. During the Reagan presidency, the poor lost tremendous ground. And during the Clinton presidency, the rich did fabulously well. In 1998 the top 1 percent of households collected almost 17 percent of the nation’s income. And now Bush is proposing a tax cut that gives the richest 5 percent of taxpayers most of the economic gain. This is a class-warfare policy of shooting the wounded and looting the amputees.
What is amazing is that this expansion of inequality took place without ever becoming a noticeable issue in American politics. This growing concentration of wealth has given the superrich domination over politics through extravagant campaign contributions and media ownership, which has made large elements of the media sound like Republican echo chambers. The increasing gap between rich and poor and the erosion of democracy by vast wealth are not hot-button talk-show issues because so few politicians with a national following agitate about them with continuing conviction. Only Ted Kennedy, John McCain and the late Paul Wellstone come to mind. None of the leading Democrats seeking the 2004 presidential nomination are talking about the maldistribution of wealth or mobilizing a new war on poverty or a massive jobs program. Cerebral, suburban Gary Hart was quoted in a February 2 New York Times Magazine profile as saying: “How do you make the principles of equality and justice and fairness work in a time when everyone’s well off?” I would gladly take Hart on a tour of New York’s communities of sorrow.