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In the Midst of Plenty

May 1, 1961, 10:30 AM UTC

As his first executive action on becoming President of the richest nation on earth, John F. Kennedy doubled the quantity of flour, corn meal, dried milk, and other surplus commodities that the federal government is today distributing to some three million needy Americans, and subsequently added pork and dried beans to the ration. This was welcome news to the little mining town of Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania (left), where some thirty-five of the town’s hundred-odd families are subsisting on this kind of relief, and to the state of West Virginia, where nearly 15 per cent of the entire population is dependent on such emergency aid. But President Kennedy’s action also had much larger implications. It dramatized, and was meant to dramatize, that for all its wealth and progress the U.S. has still too much distress and poverty in its midst, and that here surely is one frontier which clamors for attention.

It is, of course, a very old frontier—one of the oldest in the human story. To diminish poverty has always been the American business—the business of the individual, the corporation, private philanthropy, and, by changing means, the business of government. What has given this business new urgency in 1961 is the contrast between two very different trends—the relatively high rate of unemployment during the past six months, and the deeper and broader advance against poverty that, decade by decade, has measured the success of the American system. This second movement, while less in the headlines today than the problem of unemployment, is a lively part of every American’s sense of the reality around him. Indeed, it is precisely because the U.S. has made such progress in reducing the margin of poverty that its further reduction is not just a distant hope but represents rather a tremendous practical opportunity.

For America is not a land where the rich have grown richer and the poor more numerous. It seems likely that a generation ago nearly half of the people of the U.S. were poor by today’s standards. The rapid advance of recent years is shown by a study made for Senator Douglas’ Joint Economic Committee by Professor Robert J. Lampman of the University of Wisconsin. In 1947, according to his calculations, some 26 per cent of all Americans were in the “poverty” group (using a current income of $2,500 for a family of four as a rough yardstick). By 1957, in a single decade, this figure had been reduced to 19 per cent, or in Professor Lampman’s telling phrase, “one-fourth of the way to zero”; and another generation of progress, he believes, could virtually eliminate poverty as we know it today.

Even so, some 32 million Americans are still living at or below the threshold of poverty, as defined above. This is too many in a country whose 1960 gross national product reached $503 billion. The force of the judgment “too many” is strengthened by the prevalence of unemployment, even though unemployment and poverty are not the same thing. Using Professor Lampman’s study as a guide, some 25 per cent of the poor are over sixty-five, and most of them are not seeking jobs. Similarly, about one-quarter of those in the lowest income group are living on the land, where they are probably at work though they may be desperately poor. There is also a high concentration of poverty among Negroes, whose basic disadvantage is educational and social; millions of others are physically handicapped or the victims of their own or of another’s irresponsibility. In short, a majority of today’s poor would be so in good times as well as bad.

But while unemployment is not the chief operational cause of poverty, it represents a pitiful waste of resources, and it is also the aspect of the problem that is most malleable to public policy. Of the 5,385,000 unemployed in January, over half represented short-term frictional and seasonal unemployment—normal in a dynamic and mobile economy. Longer-term unemployment of fifteen weeks and over ran to about 1,300,000, of which perhaps 700,000 had been out of work for over half a year. The task is to crack this hard core of unemployment, and at the same time to encourage a general business expansion that would allow millions of other workers—including those underemployed on the farms—to move up the income ladder into higher-paying occupations. Public policy cannot guarantee an uninterrupted upward movement; it can, however, widen the paths of individual opportunity and reduce the penalties of failure.

Today the country has before it a spate of proposals for achieving this goal as well as for the immediate relief of distress. Before we appraise some of these proposals it is important to draw away from the statistics and to make further contact with the substance of poverty in this affluent land. To do so no American has to cross a county line: let him step out of his own door and walk through the slums of our great cities or the streets of shacks that long have clustered not too far from Capitol Dome in Washington, D.C. Yet while poverty is widespread, it stands out in starkest and loneliest relief precisely where men through no fault of their own have lost their means of livelihood—the so-called “distressed areas” (technically defined by the Department of Labor as areas where unemployment has been high and persistent). These areas are also far-flung, including Butte, Montana, and Atlantic City, New Jersey, but are most closely bunched in a single broad region—Appalachia. The observer who treks through this region from south to north will see most clearly why the continuing struggle against distress is still the great “unfinished business” of America.

The road to Hazard

The Appalachian Mountains lack the ruggedness of the Rockies or the ultimate cruelty of the Andes, but they contain some tough country—tough topographically and tougher in terms of the human condition. Enter this region, say from Lexington, Kentucky, and the landscape at first has a deceptively pleasing mien. This is the Bluegrass, large estates, for the most part, with neat white fences, and behind the fences grazing cattle or grazing horses whose owners and guests will drink bourbon juleps on Derby Day. Farther on, however, the road begins to climb through the western spurs of the Appalachians, and the farms are pressed into the narrow bottom lands. Here, if a man owns a precious allotment for tobacco, he may do pretty well—eking out perhaps as much as $1,000 from a single acre. But up the “hollows” are many less fortunate, earning a precarious $400 or $500 per year in cash from hillsides so tilted that as the moonshiners say, “The only way you can get corn down from those hills is in quart jars.” Eastern Kentucky and much of Appalachia is full of this kind of subsistence farming where men are “underemployed” as surely as they are in many parts of the deeper South. Says one who knows the region well: “The people in these low-income farms don’t come within the province of organized labor, which would dramatize the situation. If you have 5,000 unemployed in Dayton the uproar is terrific. But 50,000 underemployed on the farms and no one cares about it.” There are, as a matter of fact, easily one million farm families in America who are living below subsistence levels, and the rugged regions of eastern Kentucky have their full quota of this undramatized poverty.

Turn southward now into Leslie County, and as the road passes a cliff face, dark streaks—coal—appear in the rock and driving becomes more hazardous due to thundering coal trucks, tearing downgrade from strip and auger mines to deliver their black burden to a railhead. Mining is temporarily flourishing in Leslie County, where employers, having broken with John L. Lewis’ United Mine Workers, are paying $10 to $15 a day to miners in the small seams (as against $24.25 a day in the deep mines where the union holds sway). But coal is a fickle master. Beyond Leslie County the country roughens still more; the dump heaps of abandoned cars beside the roadway multiply, as do the signs, “Are you ready to meet God?” Come then to Hazard, county seat of Perry County, and well named. Hazard too was once a boom town, but those days lie in the past. The sign on the road leading into town reads: Population 6,850; but the population in fact is now down to about 5,500. Not so many years ago there were a dozen or more major coal companies operating in and around the town including the Blue Grass mine, Black Gold Coal, Columbus Mining, and Four Seam Coal. Now most of these deep mines are closed down, caught between falling prices for coal and rising costs due to union pressure on wages and also to exhausted or semi-exhausted seams.

All that remains of the famous Blue Grass mine, right across the Kentucky River from Hazard, is a dark hole in the hill’s face and a smashed and rusting tipple. Below the mine the Blue Grass mining camp still stands—thirty or more houses in various stages of dilapidation laid out with specious precision on deeply mudded streets. Mining families still live here, some on pensions, and some finding other work. Others have been less fortunate. In the vicinity of Hazard a small shack clings to the side of the mountain, supported on one side by long stilt-like poles, with an errant mountain stream nearby. The boards on the front porch are rotting, and the glass of one window is broken and papered over. An extraordinarily fine-looking woman opens the door, and ushers the visitor into a bedraggled room with an open coal stove. At one side is a tumbled bed with two children lying on it. There are four more children at school; an older son and daughter have moved away. The father, an unemployed miner, is seeking work “somewhere in Ohio” and can contribute little to the family. How does the woman live? “I get surplus food when they pass it out—flour, corn meal, and the like. I don’t eat much meat myself, sometimes buy a little for the children.” She plants a garden in the summer months. She belongs to the Holiness Church, and the meetings mean a great deal to her. “I don’t expect to be around too long,” she says. “You’ve got to be ready to go.” And again, brooding: “Life ought to be forward—a widening out.” Her voice trails off. The door opens and closes, and one is outside again in the harsh snow-banked valley with the thought that talk about rapid national growth and more federal “programs” is here irrelevant compared to the older assuagement of distress—the healing work of charity.

Even mushrooms help

Such destitution represents the extreme, but by any standard Hazard and Perry County (population 35,000) are hurting badly. During last winter unemployment in the county was running to 4,500, or about 50 per cent of its working force. Of the unemployed, about half were drawing unemployment insurance, but 1,500 or more had run through their claims and 12,000 people were drawing on federal food distribution. Hobart Wooton, Hazard’s city manager for the past five years, has little hope of attracting new industry until he can better the town’s facilities. Wooton has grabbed at every type of federal assistance he can lay his hands on. Under the federally backed urban-renewal program the city tore down some dilapidated buildings in the center of town and built a three-level parking garage. Other public works include a new courthouse, a new school, and a new public housing unit costing $1,200,000. Says Wooton ruminatively while the town’s water-control meter ticks on in his office: “We would certainly like to see a federal relief program like the old WPA but handled differently—on a local basis and combined with job retraining.”

Multiply Wooton’s problems many times over and one takes the measure of distress across the border in West Virginia, where towns like Beckley, Logan, Morgantown, and Bluefield have all been hard hit. Ten years ago there were more than 76,000 miners employed in West Virginia’s rich bituminous fields; today there are less than 50,000, and many of these are on a short work week. Yet West Virginia is also trying to fight back. At Beckley one former miner now has some 200 men employed in a mine growing mushrooms. In the past few years Beckley citizens have put up $124,000 for a ski slope, $190,000 to match funds from the Methodist Church to establish a child-care center, and they are now raising $250,000 to encourage factory construction.

Other parts of West Virginia have, of course, benefited through the big investments of Union Carbide, du Pont, Monsanto, and American Viscose. Yet the chemical industry, while long on invention and the transmutation of coal into such products as paints, detergents, and new fabrics, characteristically works with a high input of capital and relatively low input of manpower; and when all is said and done it seems unlikely that new industry will ever wholly make up for the decline of employment in mining. For the older displaced miner this means suffering and the need of continuous relief. For the younger generation it may well mean, as it does to the young people of eastern Kentucky, seeking jobs elsewhere. In the past ten years the population of eastern Kentucky has dropped by some 125,000 and that of West Virginia by 145,000—the biggest loss of population for any state in the nation. Such migration is inevitable and salutary in a flexible economy, provided that the migrants can find jobs in other regions.

A case of location

But can they? The issue comes into focus as one presses northward through Appalachia, where the seeds of new industry are already sprouting as old ones decline. Pennsylvania, for instance, has been hard hit by the toppling of King Anthracite as well as the decline of bituminous coal. But it has about held its own in population, thanks to the diversity of its industry and the strength of its agriculture plus an alert and aggressive administration in Harrisburg. Its most persistent “distressed areas” center on Johnstown and Altoona, the first just waking up to the fact that it must do something to hold its own, the second more fully alert to the danger.

Johnstown’s basic problem is one of location. It grew up as a steel town plentifully supplied with local coal and even iron ore, but now these must be railed in overland from a long distance. To keep its Johnstown plant competitive, Bethlehem Steel has poured in new investment but at capacity output employs the same number of men—about 14,000—as it did a decade ago. Last winter the mill was running far below capacity with employment down to about 8,600 blue-collar workers; and the long line at Main and Walnut streets to sign up for unemployment benefits was an accepted fact of life. Other things about Johnstown—its winter fog, its declining rail service, its distance from a major highway—weigh heavily on the mind of Mayor George Walter, a perky professor of sociology who was elected last year on the Democratic ticket but who keeps his teaching job at the University of Pittsburgh as his own built-in unemployment-insurance scheme. Johnstown realty values, he points out, were about $79 million in 1930, and are just about $5 million less than that today despite inflation. Actually, Johnstown has begun an effort to attract industries other than steel, and enough money has been raised to guarantee (with aid from the state) new low-cost plants. So far the nibbles have been few and far between. One reason often mentioned: high and rigid wage rates set by steel, where the average blue-collar rate is $2.90 per hour, and the near certainty that any metal-fabricating plant will be at once organized by the Steelworkers. “It isn’t so much organization itself that scares away customers,” says one citizen. “It’s rather that any wage decision in Johnstown has to be “cleared with Pittsburgh,” making local collective bargaining a joke.”

Out of the roundhouse

Sixty miles to the east lies Altoona, which at first glance looks far worse hit than Johnstown owing to the decline of the shops and yards of the Pennsylvania Railroad, which flows through the city like a giant alimentary canal. Last winter the Pennsy’s famous “Biggest Roundhouse in the World,” built for the age of the steam locomotive, stood in the midst of Altoona’s yards and tracks as mournful as a deserted carrousel and far more foolish looking, with one wall and its roof stove in. In the yards little moved save for a wistful puff of steam from a small power plant. Hundreds of freight cars lined the tracks, deserted and huddled in drifting snow. On knobby thrusts of land on either side of the Pennsy right-of-way rose drab clapboarded houses, some occupied and some deserted, many with flapping pieces of polyethylene tacked over windows to repel the cold. The hilly streets of Juniata at the eastern end of the town were snow-packed and invited sledding, but few children were to be seen. An old Altoona resident remarked: “My daddy came from the mines to work on the railroad. He had four sons. You know how many work for the road now?” and he makes a circle with his forefinger and thumb.

The fact is that declining rail traffic, and even more dieselization, have indeed played hob with Altoona, where employment in the engine and car shops has declined from some 11,000 workers to well under 5,000 today. As a result unemployment in surrounding Blair County is running to about 12 per cent of the labor force and 13,800 people are drawing federal food rations. “Altoona,” remarks one labor leader, “is in a fix, and don’t let anyone tell you different.” But other Altoona citizens do tell you something different and they have some evidence on their side. Despite unemployment, Altoona’s 1960 retail sales ran close to 1959 levels—a cool $137 million. Construction is holding up well, thanks partly to the building of a Catholic cathedral. More to the point, businessmen in Altoona saw the decline of railroading early, and responded. In 1946 they formed Altoona Enterprises, Inc., to attract new industry, and in 1954 launched a campaign with the somewhat corny slogan of “Jobs for Joe,” through which employees as well as employers contribute to a $1-million revolving fund for financing—with state and local banking aid—new plants at low cost. The effort—similar to one in Scranton, Pennsylvania—has paid off. Partly as the result of the effort, and partly because Altoona’s car-shop unions have never exercised the influence of Johnstown’s steel union, Altoona now has some 5,000 men and women employed in light industry who are quite independent of the ups and downs of railroading. Out to the west of the town, in Pleasant Valley, companies such as Veeder Root, SKF Industries, and Sylvania Electric Products, all have modern and up-to-date establishments. Walk through the air-conditioned, immaculately clean plant of Sylvania Electric and you get a very different picture of the effects of modern technology from what you get brooding over Altoona’s car shops. Here intricate machines, some costing as much as $150,000, tended by women but repaired by displaced railroad technicians, turn out thousands of radio tubes a day, for a price to the consumer of about $1 per tube. To make the same tube by hand might cost as much as $50. Without such technological advance there would be no radio and no communications industry today as we know it. “People talk about automation as if it were something new and terrible,” says Sylvania’s plant manager, Bill Bowes. “The fact is that we have been automating from the beginning. That’s what allows us to grow.”

“Electronics Alley”

The remark has implications that go far beyond the making of radio tubes or the specific problems of Altoona. Technological advance, including automation, may cause short-term dislocation, but in the long term it has its own beneficent effects, as witness the case of the New England states. Not many years ago New England seemed doomed to decline as its once great textile industry moved south and came under increasing competition from the Far East. It has been largely saved by the proliferation of new industries. The payoff figure perhaps is that whereas a decade ago textiles ranked as the No. 1 industrial employer in Massachusetts, it now ranks sixth, with the No. 1 position held by electronics, which ten years ago scarcely existed at all. Boston has developed its famous “Electronics Alley” along Route 128, and Lowell has moved electronics plants into its old brick factories along the Merrimack, once known for its “Mile of Mills.” Other industries, such as the making of precision parts and plastics, have multiplied, and the strength of New England now lies precisely in this diversity.

New England, too, has been the home of “Operation Bootstrap,” and it is a rare town that does not have its citizens’ committee to attract new business. Some of these have been widely publicized, as in the case of Sanford, Maine—”the town that refused to die” when its textile mills were closed down; and in most cases local initiative has paid off handsomely. This is not to say that New England has solved all its problems. By the Department of Labor’s definition, it still has some eleven “distressed areas, “including Lewiston in Maine, Bristol and Norwich in Connecticut, Providence and Pawtucket in Rhode Island, and, despite progress, Lowell, Lawrence, and Fall River in Massachusetts. Indeed, this winter, unemployment in Fall River was edging up toward 12 per cent of the city’s labor force due to its still heavy commitment to textiles. Some of New England’s unemployment today, however, is temporary, resulting from cyclical cutbacks in durable-goods industries in 1960. President. Kennedy, who knows his Nantucket Sound, has referred to the salutary effects of a “rising tide.” Given such a tide in business, New England seems admirably set to catch it; and even today, says one responsible citizen of Lawrence, “the panic we felt in 1952 is gone … the big job is to retrain workers for newer industries.”

“Programs” vs. standards

So much, then, for this brief survey of some of the more forbidding as well as some of the more hopeful distressed areas. What now of the remedies that are pouring in such profusion out of Washington? The measure that strikes closest to the problems we have been analyzing is the Administration’s “distressed areas” bill itself, which would make federal loans to these regions for attracting new industry and for certain types of public works. But President Kennedy has made plain that this legislation is only a small part of a campaign for moving against distress and poverty. In his far-ranging economic message of February he touched upon a multiplicity of measures looking to this end; some of them need not concern us here—notably his farm program (still at this writing to be unveiled) and his plans for overhauling old-age insurance. The measures that do need discussing, besides the distressed-areas bill, are those affecting unemployment insurance, relief to the needy, and more general proposals for increasing economic output and speeding long-term growth.

In approaching even this much of the President’s program, two things are necessary—first, a sense of proportion, and second, some clear-cut standards. On the first point it is well to remind ourselves that against total unemployment in January of 5,385,000, of which over half is normal, some 64,500,000 Americans were gainfully employed. And as against the 32 million that for purposes of analysis we have classified as “poor,” 150 million people were “above the line.” This should not lead to complacency but it does suggest two viable standards of judgment. In the first place, advocates of remedial measures must show that they really will assuage distress. In the second place, such measures should strengthen or at least not weaken the general system of competitive enterprise, which is the main engine for economic progress.

The safety net

If we apply these criteria to the more pertinent parts of the President’s program, some obviously pass muster and others may be given benefit of the doubt. So long as the country is burdened with huge farm surpluses, for instance, it is the part of common sense and humanity to use these stocks for relief purposes. It should also be recognized that the U.S. faces a serious problem with respect to cash relief payments made to the needy—the ultimate safety net for those who have run through their unemployment-insurance claims or more often than not have never had any. In 1960 federal, state, and local contributions to all forms of public assistance ran to about $3.8 billion, of which about $2 billion was contributed by the federal government to aid the blind, the permanently handicapped, certain older people, and dependent children. Help to the latter, however, is available only when the breadwinner is not living with the family—with the result that in many cases a husband must desert his wife so that she can collect relief for her children. President Kennedy has rightly called for the elimination of this archaic provision of federal law and this should be a first order of business.

High priority should also be given to bolstering up the nation’s system of unemployment insurance, which is under heavy financial strain due to the recession of 1958 and the downturn of 1960. As of January of this year, some 3,400,000 persons were drawing insurance (up 33 per cent from early 1960) and some 500,000 persons had exhausted their benefits, with the figure likely to rise sharply in the first six months of this year unless there is a sharp business pickup. Under the circumstances the President’s suggestion that the federal government assist the states for at least one year in extending their benefits beyond normal duration seems justified as an emergency measure. Further proposals for overhauling and strengthening the system will be the subject of a special presidential message this month. It is likely to reopen controversy on state vs. federal authority and likewise on how far and how high taxes on the employer can be pushed. In this matter the long-term goal of the Eisenhower Administration seems a practical guide—i.e., to encourage all states to raise their unemployment benefits to at least 50 per cent of the recipient’s weekly wage (as against about 33 per cent today), and to extend their duration permanently to at least twenty-six weeks.

The economics of employment

Relief and insurance, however, are at best measures for assuaging distress and unemployment. The far bigger task is to see that job opportunities open up both in the distressed areas and in the country at large. At first glance it would seem that Senator Douglas’ distressed-areas bill (S. No. 1) would contribute significantly to this end. Under its provisions the government would set up a new Area Development Authority, empowered to make $200 million of loans for financing new factories in industrial centers and in sub-marginal rural areas, and would allocate another $100 million for the alteration and expansion of public facilities (such as water, electric power, and sewage-disposal systems). A little reflection, however, must raise doubts as to whether we need all this new apparatus to accomplish the generous ends Senator Douglas has in view. In the first place, it seems dubious whether it is the lack of capital that today impedes industry from entering many of the distressed areas (vide the experience of Johnstown and Altoona). In the second place, the federal government already has a wide option in deploying money for public works (and military contracts) to different parts of the country. Finally, it should be noted that while some areas are chronically distressed, many others shift in and out of this category with every change of the business cycle. (In January alone some twenty-five areas were added to the list, including such normally healthy regions as St. Louis, Cleveland, and Philadelphia.) And there is considerable danger that the new authority would needlessly overlap in function more general efforts to turn the tide of the cycle and to stimulate the economy.

In any case, as the Douglas task force made plain, the prerequisite for helping the distressed areas is the resumption of over-all business expansion. This point has also been firmly grasped by Administration advisers like Paul Samuelson, who is against any panicky recourse to emergency government public works and relies instead on credit and fiscal policy to turn the economy upward and to speed economic growth. While much can be said for this kind of measure, the thinking of the Kennedy Administration has nevertheless been weak in one important particular. It has failed to emphasize that if business is to expand, then the vital margin between costs and prices—which determines profits—must widen, and that the cost push is dangerous not just for its inflationary effect tomorrow but for its immediate “unemployment effect” today.

On straight Keynesian analysis, which underlies so many of the Administration’s monetary prescriptions, a rapid rise in costs now will simply dissipate and abort the possible positive effects on employment of increased government spending. For this reason the Administration’s proposal to hike the country’s minimum wage from $1 to $1.25 in the next two years is wholly out of place in a recovery program since it would decrease job opportunities; and by the same token union pressure on wages should be resisted at this point in the cycle. What will help-all American workers most right now is not further wage demands but something quite different—the expansion of total payrolls. And what will help the economy to fulfill its potential in the years ahead is a gentle rise in wages in line with gains in national productivity (perhaps 2 to 3 per cent a year) combined with passing on much technological advance to the consumer in the form of lower prices, and the general expansion of markets.

A community of interest

It is a hopeful sign that a general consensus is emerging among competent economists on the above truths, and their importance can scarcely be overemphasized if we wish to achieve higher levels of employment and healthy growth. The problem is to get them accepted. In his economic message President Kennedy at least referred in passing to the adverse effect on employment inherent in the cost-price push. Something may also come in Secretary of Labor Arthur J. Goldberg’s idea of bringing union leaders and employers together away from the heat and sparks of the bargaining table to discuss not only wage policy but the more explosive subject of work rules. What is certain is that unique responsibility falls on the union leader in view of the unique privileges and exemptions given to unions under the existing law of the land. In meeting these responsibilities labor leaders should realize that the improvement of wages is not the only field in which they can find outlets for their energies. The proudest monument to John L. Lewis may be not the $24.25 daily wage prevailing in the organized mine fields but rather the great U.M.W. hospitals, which succor some of the darkest regions of Appalachia. One of the earliest and certainly one of the greatest functions of unionism is social rather than economic.

Even larger responsibilities fall on the businessman if we are to make steady progress in increasing real output and real incomes, which is the way to reduce the margin of poverty in the nation. It is the businessman’s investment in new plant and new equipment that bit by bit raises man-hour productivity and levers the economy to new heights. Since investment, and indeed all enterprise, involves risk-taking, and since profit is the reward of risk, the businessman need make little apology for keeping his eye firmly fixed on his profit-and-loss statement. It is the profitable firm, after all, that creates jobs, and it is in the pursuit of profit that business produces the goods the public wants in response to free consumer choice and option. But while it is the vital function of business to earn money, its task surely does not end there. In an age of technological advance, business firms do have a responsibility for retraining workers for other occupations when they see changes coming—a job in which Armour & Co. among other corporations has pioneered. Beyond this the modern manager should come to share even more than he does today in the trials and tribulations of his local community, which technological advance may often temporarily disrupt. The modern corporation has learned how to decentralize its operations. Has it also learned to decentralize responsibility? A local mayor, asteam with new plans for improving his city, is not overly encouraged when the local manager responds: “It’s a good idea but wait a while till I clear it with New York.”

The uses of progress

The businessman, in short, no less than the labor leader, is a citizen, and it is through a reawakened sense of citizenship that many a distressed area of today may achieve a brighter outlook tomorrow. The means through which good citizenship expresses itself are many, as befits a pluralistic society. It is a fact worth noting that before paying taxes last year of over $133 billion Americans paid out no less than $8 billion in gifts to educational, philanthropic, and religious organizations of all kinds. The churches in particular need more from this affluent society. Anyone who has kicked around the darker localities in America knows that some of the human problems are too deep to be wholly cured by unemployment insurance and social-security checks. The government clerk is no substitute for the social worker, and the social worker is no substitute for the priest or minister who knows his parish.

This is not, in conclusion, to underrate the role government has to play in the conquest of poverty and distress. Its services are manifold and some of them do need to be expanded at the federal no less than at the state and local level. But in the long run, government’s most important function is to maintain the framework wherein millions of individuals can help themselves, and within which the creative forces of a free society—economic, social, and religious—can continue to work. It is these forces that, in half a century, have made the radical diminution of poverty in America a realistic possibility for the first time in history. And it is on these forces that we must depend if we are to eradicate the blight of our cities, the rural slum, and the dismal conditions along what we have described as the “road to Hazard.” This is public business of the first order; and the strength of the American system is precisely that it can bring multiple means to its transaction, given the will, the determination, and the spirit. For it is the spirit which gives purpose to the material blessings of progress and which can channel such progress to the assuagement of the human condition.

This article originally appeared in the March 1961 issue of Fortune.