Karen Bankston has joined the ranks of those who have fought poverty in CincinnatiDan Hurley “It has been tremendously challenging to do this work,” says Karen Bankston, the CEO of the Childhood Poverty Collaborative. Bankston is a member of a long line of Cincinnati leaders who have worked to alleviate the effects of poverty. The challenges she faces have certain echoes in the past, but also a dangerous new set of assumptions.
Over the decades most descriptions of poverty have largely come from the perspectives of the wealthy. At the very time local boosters bragged that this was the “Queen City of the West” and the “Paris of America” in the 1860s, early workers at the Children’s Home of Cincinnati noted that recent immigrants and rural migrants to the city were trapped in “narrow lanes and fetid alleys, among stagnant pools of liquid poison, offensive smells and dirty houses.” The Home’s 1872 annual report noted that “hundreds of poor and almost abandoned children” had to scratch out an existence in the streets.
An 1878 report from the Ohio Bureau of Labor Statistics called out the horrible conditions in tenement housing in Cincinnati. Tens of thousands lived in flats in which the only source of fresh air was the building entrance, which often was also the site for the only indoor privy in the building. As a result, “it is almost impossible to prevent the gaseous exhalations arising from it being disseminated through the entire building.”
Bankston feels that today, those with privilege and power—she includes herself in that group—are not good at listening to what the poor want. That is not new. One bold experiment to give the poor a voice and power was the creation of the Mohawk-Brighton Social Unit in 1917. Neighborhood residents, organized by blocks, had power to direct the medical services to be delivered by doctors and nurses. Within two years, Mayor John Galvin declared the Social Unit “a serious menace to our municipal government and but one step removed from Bolshevism.” Months later, the Social Unit was run out of town.
From the very beginning, wealthier Cincinnatians, even those engaged in alleviating poverty, often blamed the poor for their situation. Today it is drug addiction, but in earlier decades, reformers pointed to the affinity of Irish and German immigrants for “King Alcohol” as the cause of widespread poverty.
Those anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, racist prejudices blended easily into the rising popularity of Social Darwinism in the 1880s and then into the wave of eugenics in the early decades of the 20th century. These ideologies not only blamed the poor for their suffering, but also argued for a laissez faire response. Helping the poor would simply interfere with natural selection of the fittest that over time would weed out those not capable of succeeding.
Twentieth century Progressive reformers, on the other hand, rejected the idea that poverty was not an inherent condition, but the result of the systems that trapped certain people in poverty. Housing reformers began by calling for stricter regulations on tenements. After WWI, Jacob Schmidlapp led an effort to privately build dignified, affordable housing.
Local poverty workers captured national attention with two studies. Edward Clopper’s 1912 “Child Labor in City Streets” alerted people to degradation experienced by newsboys, messengers and others. Frances Rich’s 1927 Wage Earning Girls in Cincinnati focused on women and the industrial jobs they were able to access.
The Great Depression of the 1930s was a pivotal turning point. Jean Leach started her career as a social worker in 1933. She remembers traveling up the Mt. Adams Incline and then working her way down the side of the hill, visiting practically every flat in every tenement. They were all on her caseload.
In the face of massive, grinding poverty, private relief was overwhelmed. Only the federal government had the resources to address the issues; whether support of the elderly, employment, food or housing, the government increasingly took the lead. In the case of federally funded “public housing,” even Sen. Robert Taft, the leading opponent of the New Deal, supported government involvement in affordable housing. The role of the federal government increased steadily, especially under President Johnson’s War on Poverty beginning in the 1960s.
Collectively, the proliferation of public and private anti-poverty programs and changes in tax policies beginning in the 1970s resulted in an unprecedented widening income gap. Combined with the destruction of millions of traditionally middle class industrial jobs, Bankston faces a new set of challenges. For the first time in American history she encounters poor people who have given up on the “American Dream.” Equally problematic, she also encounters those with wealth who have abandoned the belief that the American Dream ought to be available to everyone. The reality is that large sectors of American society, at either end of the economic spectrum, accept the idea that poverty is the inevitable state of millions.
Addressing poverty has always been hard, but Bankston has come to the work at a time that is especially challenging.