From Cradle to Grave

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

More American citizens live in poverty in the 1990’s than at any time since the declaration of the government War on Poverty in 1964, writes Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jonathan Freedman. Besides the scope, the scale of such numbers can get lost without a human face. Freedman provides the faces and the feelings in case studies of ordinary people of various ages caught in webs of economic privation. They are all struggling to get out, to get back to the American Dream and the promises of those who worked hard and did right. Some survive the strain and stress. Some do not.

Two-income families and elderly people, infants and single parents from far beyond Appalachia and the rural South, beyond inner cities and the “underclass,” all are affected, writes Freedman, whose effort recalls Michael Harrington’s THE OTHER AMERICA from thirty years ago. Not that any such poverty was tolerable, but ghetto residents and poor farmers are no longer the biggest segments of poor America. Everywhere, it seems there is little job security; there is even less social stability.

“The prime cause of poverty in American families is the financial abandonment of children, notably by absent fathers,” he writes. Families who are one emergency away from bankruptcy or homelessness are numerous. Children who suffer the consequences of poverty are countless.

Somehow, Freedman finds hope here and there—in the stories and experiences of the people he found on a long trek across the country. There is the working-poor couple Tim and Cindy Miller, whose premature baby A. J. and his illnesses drained his lifetime insurance benefits and the family’s budget. The Millers discovered Indiana’s ridiculous government assistance rule, and Cindy successfully lobbied to change them.

Fifty-year-old Lee Sliwinski is a less happy example. A factory worker from Wyandotte, Michigan, Sliwinski was laid off from three jobs and eventually was placed on permanent unemployment. Social programs such as unemployment benefits can help, Freedman writes, diagraming a “railing” of assistance to accompany Americans up each step of life.

The first step, however, is seeing the problem. Freedman helps.