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Smithsonian American Art Museum


Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
A seated woman in rags nursing a child, with two other children on either side of her. Verso: Rough graphite sketch of a figure bending forward.

Poverty point objects, mostly biconical

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

1931 Depression: Rural Poverty

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Fight Poverty, Create Jobs

National Museum of American History

Poverty in America

National Portrait Gallery
Time’s cover story about poverty in America was about “a nation within a nation,” a portrayal of the country’s needy eking out an existence in the midst of unprecedented wealth and affluence. Time reported that more than twenty-nine million men, women, and children—“black, white, red, yellow and brown”—were living below the poverty line. This figure represented 15 percent of the U.S. population and seemingly gave validity to President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” initiative, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. Much of this legislation, however, was dismantled in 1996 during the Clinton administration. Still, programs such as Head Start, Volunteers in Service to America, and the Job Corps have proven to be successful and continue today.

La pobreza en Estados Unidos

El artículo de portada de Time sobre la pobreza en Estados Unidos hablaba de “una nación dentro de otra nación”, relatando cómo los más pobres del país apenas lograban subsistir en medio de una época de riqueza y abundancia sin precedentes. Time reportó que más de veintinueve millones de hombres, mujeres y niños (“negros, blancos, rojos, amarillos y marrón”) vivían por debajo del nivel de pobreza. Esta cifra constituía el 15 por ciento de la población estadounidense y parecía validar la iniciativa “Guerra contra la pobreza” del presidente Lyndon Johnson, plasmada en la Ley de Oportunidades Económicas de 1964. No obstante, gran parte de esta ley fue desmantelada en 1996 durante la administración de Clinton. Aun así, programas como Head Start, Volunteers in Service to America y Job Corps ha probado ser exitosos y continúan hoy en día.

Joseph Piccillo (nacido en 1941)

Carboncillo sobre cartón, 1968

Portada de Time, 17 de mayo de 1968

Poverty Point Objects

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Don't Gamble on Poverty

National Museum of American History

Fight Poverty NOT the Poor

National Museum of American History

Did we "win" the War on Poverty?

National Museum of American History

Last year marked the fiftieth anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson declaring what would come to be known as the War on Poverty. In his 1964 State of the Union address, Johnson outlined a number of ideas that were meant to level the playing field for Americans. Many of the programs created or enhanced by the Johnson Administration are still in action, including Head Start, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicare, and Medicaid. While poverty today is very different from the poverty of fifty years ago, the fact remains that a significant number of Americans face some economic threat to their livelihoods.

On Tuesday, April 28, 1–2 p.m. EDT, we will host the National Youth Summit: The War on Poverty, a live webcast discussing the history and current state of the War on Poverty and its related initiatives. During my museum internship, I’ve been lucky enough to work on this project since the beginning, and I'm beyond excited to see it come to life.

Logo image for the National Youth Summit: War on Povery, featuring Pres. Johnson shaking a man's hand

A number of local experts on poverty and the economy will join us for the discussion. We will begin the program with history professor Marcia Chatelain and law professor Peter Edelman, both of Georgetown University. They'll share insights on the history of the War on Poverty and discuss President Johnson's and other legislators' intentions behind the laws. I'm especially excited about this part, because not only am I really into presidential history, but Johnson is my favorite American president. I've always thought of him as one of the most sincere and compassionate presidents—I admit I even wrote a poem about him when I was an undergraduate. Just consider these words from a speech he gave in Cumberland, Maryland, in 1964:

"I have come here today to ask for your heart and your hand, to ask you to join us in a similar cause. Help us to build a better land. Help us to build a greater society. Help us to open wide the doors of opportunity and invite all to come in, for when we have done this, it will one day be said of America that she was a burning and shining light in man's journey on earth."


At the Summit on Tuesday, we'll also hear from policy experts Melissa Boteach, vice president of the Center for American Progress' Half in Ten, and Michael Tanner, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, about ways that poverty is still present in the United States and what ordinary Americans can do about it. Students and teachers from across the country can log on to watch the conversation and ask their own questions through a chat feature on our website.

Earlier this week, in preparation for the Summit, I got a sneak peek at some of the museum's objects that are related to the history of the War on Poverty. Harry Rubenstein, curator and chair of the Division of Political History, showed us objects that illustrate how Americans, both in government and as private citizens, have worked for equal rights. We saw copies of posters outlining Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedoms, and Harry discussed how Johnson's Great Society was an outgrowth of the New Deal. We saw campaign literature from Johnson marking his commitment to the War on Poverty, as well as opposition to his work in the form of an anti-Johnson comic book. Harry will share other objects from the collection on Tuesday afternoon, so be sure to tune in to see more.

Pres. Johnson dressed in super hero outfit with cape, pointing at earth, text says "Great Society"

The webcast will also be archived on our website afterwards, but wouldn't it be way more fun to watch live? To see the action as it unfolds, be sure to join us on Tuesday, April 28, starting at 1 p.m.. You can watch and listen here as well as send in your own questions. Please register for the event so that your participation in this important conversation is counted!

White pennant flag with photograph of Johnson

Stephanie Maguire is an intern in the Office of Programs and Strategic Initiatives. She recommends this episode of our Founding Fragments video series to learn more about political comic books.

Intern Stephanie Maguire
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Wealth, Poverty, and U.S. Government Spending

National Museum of American History
To understand American business history, follow the trends. See how America was settled over time, how people moved from farms to cities, how gross national product grew, how stocks went up and down, and how income was distributed. One thing is certain: in business, things constantly change. This video is featured in the "Constant Change" section of the American Enterprise exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Section link: Exhibition link:

Save Your Child from Autocracy and Poverty

National Museum of American History

Poverty and corruption compromise tropical forest reserves

Smithsonian Libraries
We used the global fire detection record provided by the satellite-based Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) to determine the number of fires detected inside 823 tropical and subtropical moist forest reserves and for contiguous buffer areas 5, 10, and 15 km wide. The ratio of fire detection densities (detections per square kilometer) inside reserves to their contiguous buffer areas provided an index of reserve effectiveness. Fire detection density was significantly lower inside reserves than in paired, contiguous buffer areas but varied by five orders of magnitude among reserves. The buffer : reserve detection ratio varied by up to four orders of magnitude among reserves within a single country, and median values varied by three orders of magnitude among countries. Reserves tended to be least effective at reducing fire frequency in many poorer countries and in countries beset by corruption. Countries with the most successful reserves include Costa Rica, Jamaica, Malaysia, and Taiwan and the Indonesian island of Java. Countries with the most problematic reserves include Cambodia, Guatemala, Paraguay, and Sierra Leone and the Indonesian portion of Borneo. We provide fire detection density for 3964 tropical and subtropical reserves and their buffer areas in the hope that these data will expedite further analyses that might lead to improved management of tropical reserves.

Poverty, from the Virtues and Vices

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Demons of illness and poverty stalking the lucky gods

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

In the Past 40 Years, 105 City Neighborhoods Gentrified; 2,000 Slipped Further Into Poverty

Smithsonian Magazine

According to a new report that looked at how 51 U.S. cities changed from 1970 to 2010, while 105 census tracts (representing around 4,000 people each) have been rapidly reshaped by gentrification, nearly 2,000 slipped even further into poverty, says the Guardian.

While gentrification is endlessly argued over in the media, the reality is that, while sometimes richer people do take over a low-income neighborhood, the predominant trend is slightly-less-poor people leaving downsliding neighborhoods. As these people move to nicer neighborhoods, the people who are left make up an even poorer population. With money flowing out, not in, landlords let buildings slip in to disrepair, making those homes less desirable to richer tenants.

“Because the slow decline is more common and less visible, it is seldom remarked upon, while gentrification, when it happens – which is both unusual and dramatic – is far more evident change,” says the Guardian, quoting the report.

In the report, economist Joe Cortright writes that the major underlying narrative for America's urban poor is not gentrified replacement. It's persistent or expanding poverty.

Three-quarters of 1970 high-poverty urban neighborhoods in the U.S. are still poor today. ...[T]hree times as many urban neighborhoods have poverty rates exceeding 30 percent as was true in 1970 and the number of poor people living in these neighborhoods has doubled.

The result of these trends is that the poor in the nation’s metropolitan areas are increasingly segregated into neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.

Poverty Linked to DNA Changes That Could Lead to Mental Illness

Smithsonian Magazine

What is the true cost of poverty? For kids in the United States, growing up poor can spell long-term economic troubles. One 2008 study showed that children who grow up in poverty make about 39 percent less than the median and reduce gross domestic product by 1.5 percent each year. And an increasing body of evidence shows that kids who grow up poor are prone to behavioral and educational problems. But there’s another cost: New research shows that poverty is linked to actual changes in a child’s DNA structure that are associated with depression.

The study, which was published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, followed 183 adolescents over the course of three years. After sampling their blood and testing them for depression symptoms, researchers showed them pictures of fearful faces while scanning their brain activity. Prior research shows that the amygdala—the brain center mainly associated with emotional reactions—of children prone to anxiety and depression have exaggerated, “fight-or-flight”-style responses to scared faces.

The research team repeated these tests over the course of three years, comparing each child’s results and looking at how the SLC6A4 gene—which is associated with serotonin production—changed over time.

During the course of the study, poor children had greater methylation of SLC6A4—a modification that suppresses how the gene functions. Poor participants’ brains also had more active amygdalae.

Overall, the results linked lower socioeconomic status to this change in the DNA structure, which is associated with changes in how the amygdala responded to perceived threats. For kids with an existing family history of depression, amygdala activity seemed to activate future depression—a pathway that might explain why kids who are exposed to the constant stress of poverty are more likely to develop mental health problems later on.

It’s not the first time DNA has been linked to poverty—in 2014, for example, scientists found that growing up in poverty and stress shortens DNA sequences. But the discovery of this link between DNA changes and subsequent depression in kids is noteworthy. As behavioral geneticist Robert Philipbert tells Nature’s Sara Reardon, the study suggests that changing a kid’s environment can change their neurodevelopment.

Next, writes Susan Scutti for Medical Daily, the team plans to see if there are other markers of genetic changes linked to poverty that can help predict depression. Perhaps continued research can fuel the fight to raise the one in three U.S. kids growing up below the poverty line into a higher socioeconomic bracket.

Register for the 2015 National Youth Summit on the War on Poverty

National Museum of American History
On April 28, 2015 at 1 pm Eastern, the National Museum of American History will convene a National Youth Summit to link high school students across the country in an engaging program on the history and legacy of the War on Poverty. The summit will include interviews with a panel of experts including Peter Edelman, Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Law and Public Policy at Georgetown University, faculty director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality and a former aide to Robert Kennedy; Marcia Chatelain, associate professor of history at Georgetown University and creator of the #fergusonsyllabus Twitter discussion on teaching history and contemporary events; Melissa Boteach, Vice President of Half in Ten and the Poverty and Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress; and Michael Tanner, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, as well as student moderators. Just over 50 years ago, in 1964, President Lyndon declared an “all-out war on human poverty,” pledging “the most Federal support in history for education, for health, for retraining the unemployed, and for helping the economically and physically handicapped.” In September 2014, the Census Bureau reported that 14.5% of Americans live below the poverty line, while UNICEF reported that 1 in 3 children in the United States lives in poverty. The Pew Research Center has reported that, by some measures, income inequality is the greatest in American history, and wealth inequality is even greater. So, how do we assess the legacy of the War on Poverty? Do we need a new War on Poverty? What can and should young people do about this issue? “This is such an important ongoing issue. Last year was the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty and it went largely uncelebrated because the problem is so persistent and the solutions so challenging. But, for those reasons we really must continue the conversation and invite young people to participate and develop solutions,” said Christopher Wilson, Director of the Program in African American Culture at the National Museum of American History and developer of the National Youth Summit series. The National Youth Summit is designed to provide students with an opportunity to share their views and debate an issue, and the program aligns with the Common Core Standards for Speaking and Listening. Panelists and the audience will explore the history of the War on Poverty and contemporary approaches to addressing poverty and economic inequality. The program will also focus on the role of young people in shaping America’s past and future. Classroom teachers and other participants will receive a conversation kit, designed to provide ideas for leading discussion topics in age-appropriate ways. The project is funded in part by the Verizon Foundation. This is the fourth in the National Youth Summit series, which regularly draws students from more than 40 states and a variety of countries worldwide. Previous National Youth Summits addressed the 1961 Freedom Rides, the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project (also known as Freedom Summer), the Dust Bowl, and abolition and modern-day slavery. The National Youth Summit on Freedom Summer is presented in collaboration with and Smithsonian Affiliations, a national outreach program that develops long-term collaborative partnerships with museums, educational, and cultural organizations to enrich communities with Smithsonian resources. More information is available at / Five Smithsonian Affiliate organizations will join to simultaneously host the Regional Youth Summits with local poverty activists, scholars and youth. Affiliate Summit sites enable young people from across the country to participate in the conversation originating from the Smithsonian, allowing them to submit questions for the national panel through the webcast’s online chat. Participating museums are: Arab American National Museum (Dearborn, MI) Cincinnati Museum Center (Cincinnati, OH) HistoryMiami (Miami, FL) Museum of History and Industry (Seattle, WA) Oklahoma History Center (Oklahoma City, OK) Through its collections, research and public outreach, the National Museum of American History explores the infinite richness and complexity of American history. It helps people understand the past in order to make sense of the present and shape a more humane future. The museum is currently renovating its west exhibition wing, developing galleries on business, democracy and culture. For more information, visit

How Growing Up in Poverty May Affect a Child’s Developing Brain

Smithsonian Magazine

A mounting body of research shows that the circumstances and chronic stresses of poverty interrupt the development of the brain. Image via US Dept. of Education

Once upon a time, scientists thought that the human brain was a rigid, predictable organ, not tremendously different from the lungs or liver. Based on a person’s genetics, it developed in a predetermined way, endowing an individual with a particular level of learning capabilities, problem-solving abilities and baseline intelligence.

Now, though, as part of emerging research into brain plasticity, neuroscientists are recognizing that the brain is a responsive, constantly evolving organ that can change at both the cellular and large-scale levels due to environmental influences and experiences. Much of this research is hopeful: It’s shown how in people with impaired vision, for instance, areas of the brain normally devoted to processing sights can be repurposed to analyze sound.

Over the past few months, though, a series of studies have emphasized that the brain can change for worse, as well as for the better. A child’s brain, not surprisingly, is especially vulnerable to such effects—and this research has shown that growing up in difficult circumstances dictated by poverty can wreak damage to a child’s cognitive skills that last a lifetime.

An October study by researchers from the University of Michigan, for instance, used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging)—which detects blood flow in various areas of the brain as a reflection of brain activity—to study the regulation of emotions in young adults who were part of a long-term study on poverty. They compared a participant’s family income at age 9 (based on survey data collected at the time) with his or her current neural activity in different brain regions, and found that those who grew up in poverty showed increased activity in the amygdala (believed to be involved in anxiety, fear and emotional disorders) and decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex (which limits the influence of the amygdala, putting long-term decision making over impulse) when the participants were shown emotionally-upsetting images.

It’s impossible to know for sure, but the researchers suspect that a range of chronic stresses that can accompany growing up in poverty—things like crowding, noise, violence, family turmoil or separation—impact the development of the brain in childhood and adolescence, potentially explaining this correlation.

Another October study, meanwhile, took a more basic approach, examining the relationship between nurturing during childhood and the growth of brain tissue in children between the ages of six and 12. In it, Washington University in St. Louis researchers found that among the 145 children studied, those whose parents had poor nurturing skills had slowed growth in white matter, grey matter and the volumes of several different areas of the brain involved with learning skills and coping with stress. Based on the differing growth rates between children who resembled each other in terms of other key factors, it seemed as though the experience of growing up with adults with less nurturing skills effectively set back their mental development a year or two. And impoverished parents, they found, were more likely to have poor nurturing skills.

Sure, attempting to objectively evaluate the parenting styles of the adults in this study might be a bit heavy-handed, but the study identified chronic stresses experienced by the children as a key element as well: Children who grew up in poverty but had fewer stressful life events (as part of a larger program, they’d gone through annual assessments from the age of three onward) demonstrated smaller reductions in neural development.

Others have even looked into very specific behavioral effects of poverty. A recent Northwestern University study found a link that children with lower socioeconomic status tended to have less efficient auditory processing abilities—that is, the area of their brains responsible for processing sound showed more response to distracting noise and less activity as a result of a speaker’s voice than control participants. This might be an effect, the researchers say, of the known correlation between low income and the amount of noise exposure in urban populations.

Of course, most of these are limited by the very nature of a longitudinal study in that they’re correlations, rather than causations—ethics aside, it’s impossible to actively alter a person’s childhood circumstances in a controlled manner and then check the results, so researchers are forced to observe what happens in the real world and draw conclusions. Additionally, in most of these cases, it’s unknown whether the effects are temporary or permanent—whether children exposed to poverty are permanently left behind their peers, or whether they’re able to catch up if given the chance.

But the fact that correlations between poverty and altered mental function when stressed has been repeatedly observed across a range of study designs, circumstances and research groups makes it likely that these effects aren’t aberrations. Additionally, even if they are temporary effects that can be resolved by changing a child’s environment, there’s other recent research that dishearteningly reveals a neurological mechanism that helps to perpetuate poverty, by making it difficult for parent to make choices that change these circumstances.

An August study in Science found that being preoccupied with the all-consuming concerns of poverty—struggling to pay medical bills, for instance—taxes the brain, leaving less extra bandwidth to solve complex cognitive problems and harming long-term decision making ability. In a pair of study groups (shoppers in a New Jersey mall and sugar cane farmers in rural India), simply getting the participants thinking about economic problems (asking them what they’d do if they had to pay $1500 to repair their car, for instance) caused them to perform more poorly on tests that measure IQ and impulse control than otherwise.

The bandwidth problem they identified is temporary, not permanent, but it does explain how making the difficult decisions that might allow someone to get ahead are harder for a person immersed in poverty. It also highlights yet another stressor for parents seeking to ensure that their children escape poverty—they might be inadvertently contributing to an environment that keeps their children from rising above their circumstances.

The EPA Has a New Tool For Mapping Where Pollution and Poverty Intersect

Smithsonian Magazine

Open up the Environmental Protection Agency’s new EJSCREEN tool, click into the map and pull up your neighborhood. Are you exposed to higher then average amounts of particulate matter? Or are you close to bunch of Superfund sites ridden with hazardous waste? And how do those environmental factors overlap with the demographic breakdown of your block?

EJSCREEN, which anyone can use through the EPA's website, pulls in the agency's pollution data and intersects it with census data, so users concretely see where groups and industries are being particularly destructive to the environment, and where people are being disproportionately exposed to pollution. It overlays 12 environmental indicators, such as air particulate matter, lead paint and proximity to waterway dischargers, with six demographic indicators, including low income populations and percent minority.

The maps are color coded to reflect different levels of pollution, with grey at one of the spectrum representing minimal levels of discharge to bright red at the other for the highest ones. For example, an area in South Seattle, which is in the 80th percentile for minority popluations, is also in the 80th percentile for ozone pollution, and the 90th for water pollution discharge. The map is splashed yellow and red in that neighborhood. The surroundings areas, which are less than 50 percent minority, have much lower rates of both kinds of pollution.

“EJSCREEN also provides standard reports that bring together environmental and demographic data in the form of EJ indexes. These are summarized as percentiles to put the information in perspective and facilitate comparisons between locations,” says the agency’s technical document about the tool.

Environmental justice is the idea that all people, regardless of their background, race or income level should be held to the same environmental risk standards. Yet, the reality is that low income, diverse areas are often exposed to significantly more environmental pollutants than other socioeconomic groups and neigborhoods. Environmental discrimination is a subset of almost every other kind of prejudice.

In 1990, the EPA established the Environmental Equity Workgroup to address the allegation that "racial minority and low-income populations bear a higher environmental risk burden than the general population." Since then, the EPA has used various mapping programs to try and quantify the issue. But in the last few years, as data visualization has improved, the agency has been able to increase the detail, and make it easier to use.

“In 2009, when then Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe was touring EPA regional offices, he found that each region had a different environmental justice screening tool and method for characterizing areas that may have vulnerable populations and pollution burdens,” says EPA Press Officer Jennifer Colaizzi. Perciasepe decided the EPA needed a consistent, nation-wide way to analyze environmental injustices, so in 2010, the agency started working on a  mapping program that they could make available to the public. Different regions had mapping projects, but they weren't consistent, so the agency pulled in the best parts of them for a tool—first EJVIEW, for internal use, and then EJSCREEN.

The EPA is using the tool to identify areas with undue environmental burdens, to pick project areas and to show progress in active cleanup efforts. But it might be even move valuable for individuals and local groups wanting concrete details about what’s going on in their own communities. The data is open source, and the tool is easy to use. Community groups, such as the Mississippi Conference of Black Mayors, can use it to show the state government how unhealthy their area is and lobby for change and funding. Colaizzi says she can see it being used for grant writing and educational programs in addition to giving communities a baseline for their health. State governments are using it to put pressure on industries to take resposibility for cleanup projects, and to inform their state policy. The non-profit Houston Advanced Research Center is using the data to analyze air pollution in three communities near ship canals. And the public can use it to keep themselves informed. "By itself, the tool is useful for understanding the demographic and environmental characteristics of your neighborhood or a place of interest," says Colaizzi.

The EPA says it’s a “screening level look” and that more steps need to be taken to determine the existence or absence of environmental justice concerns in a given location. But the assessment can be a way to start the conversation, and to provide a clear marker for how different areas compare.

"One well-documented example [of environmental injustice] stems from the clustering of Mississippi’s swine concentrated animal feeding operations in low-income, minority communities," says Johnny Dupree, mayor of Hattiesburg, Mississippi and president of the Mississippi Conference of Black Mayors. "Location and demographics should not prevent anyone from gaining the same access to important resources."

The Life of John Brown, no. 4: His ventures failng him, he accepted poverty [painting] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Nesbett, Peter T. and Michelle DuBois, "Jacob Lawrence : paintings, drawings, and murals (1935-1999): a catalogue raisonne," Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2000.

"Over the line: the art and life of Jacob Lawrence," Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2000.

Orig. negative: 4x5, Safety, BW.
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