Sheldon H. Danziger and Robert H. Haveman , Understanding Poverty. – Eds – book review
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001. $55.00 hardcover, $24.95 papercover.
Social scientists have long been aware that the incidence of income poverty is susceptible to economic trends, rising when economic conditions deteriorate and falling when the economy experiences sustained growth. It was not surprising, therefore, that the boom years of the 1990s witnessed a fall in the poverty rate in the United States. In some parts of the country, labor shortages became chronic and, as wages rose, the incidence of poverty declined. These trends seem to vindicate the belief that a vibrant capitalist economic is the answer to the poverty problem. With talk of a New Economy based on high tech and high productivity, and a belief that permanent prosperity now characterized American society, some even argued that poverty was a thing of the past.
In the last two years, these optimistic beliefs have been countered not only by the collapse of the dot-com industry and numerous corporate scandals, but by more careful research into poverty trends in the 1990s which suggest that while the overall poverty rate did indeed decline, a sizable number of very poor people were left behind. This research also revealed that many middle income workers did not experience significant improvements in their incomes and standards of living. The idea that the economic boom of the 1990s solved the poverty problem now seems a hollow one.
It is in this context that Danziger and Haveman’s book should be recognized for making a major contribution to social science research into poverty. In seeking to understand poverty, the book shows how different factors interact in complex ways to perpetuate poverty at times when wider economic conditions would suggest that poverty should be significantly reduced. Although the book is not specifically intended to address the issue of poverty in the context of the economic prosperity of the 1990s, its numerous contributors deal with aspects of the problem that have direct bearing on the question of why poverty and deprivation persist in wealthy societies such as the United States where the values of material success and prosperity are deeply institutionalized.
This weighty tome consists of no less than 15 chapters and amounts to about 500 pages. It begins with an overview of the issues by the editors both of whom are among the most prolific and important scholars in the field today. The first part of the book deals with the extent of income poverty in the United States and its relation to family structure and mobility. It also contains a useful chapter which situates poverty in the United States in the international context. The second part of the book is concerned with anti-poverty policies ranging over topics such as income support programs, welfare reform, health and human capital investments. Part III focuses on the spatial dimension paying attention to community based interventions and housing programs for low income people. The final part of the book addresses issues of race, and the current state of research into poverty.
Despite its size, this is an extremely useful book which should be consulted by students, researchers and general readers alike. It is easy to read and summarizes a huge amount of important information in a systematic way. Although some will be critical of its atheoretical approach, this is not a major limitation. Even though theory is neglected, the book finds an appropriate balance between descriptive and policy approaches and, in this way, offers a succinct overview of what governments, communities and nonprofit agencies can do to address the poverty problem. The book offers an excellent overview of the field and will be a widely used resource for many years to come.
COPYRIGHT 2003 Western Michigan University, School of Social Work
COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group