Kenneth L. Kusmer, Down and out, on the Road: The Homeless in American History . (New York: Oxford UP, 2002). Pp. ix+332. ISBN 0-19-504778-8 (cloth).
Kusmer's new book is the first comprehensive study of homelessness in the United States and a major contribution to American social history. The author shows that, although its level and nature changed over time, homelessness has been a constant phenomenon in American history, one that he traces back to the colonial era, when warfare often disrupted the existence of families in frontier settlements.
Additionally, contrary to the stereotype of the homeless as "Other," whether illiterate immigrant as in indictments of the turn of the 20th century, or mentally ill and addicted to drugs as in contemporary denunciations, the people without a fixed abode or employment have always been similar in educational/occupational level and ethnic background to the rest of the population.
In the nineteenth century, the mechanization of production, combined with the availability of cheap labor due to recurrent waves of immigration, made unemployment a likely occurrence even for skilled workers. The present shift to a post-industrial economy, analogously, has eliminated a large number of industrial semi-skilled jobs and made the homeless once more a visible feature of the urban landscape. Finally, although the percentage of ethnic minorities in the homeless population has increased since 1975, white, native-born Americans have been as likely as other groups to experience negative mobility.
Kusmer writes a complex, multi-faceted narrative of homelessness in America. He records not only changes in the nature of homelessness, but also shifts in the response to the problem, both in terms of public attitude and institutional tactics to alleviate it. For instance, while the "tramp" of the 1870s, the homeless who would travel illegally by train, was generally an unattached male, the Depression Era saw the emergengence of the homeless family.
The representation of the homeless in popular culture also evolved over time: while in the post-Civil War era the tramp had been seen as a dangerous criminal and possible political agitator, by the end of the century even middle class commentators were portraying the homeless man as either the victim of a fluctuating economic system or as a romantic hero who rejected an emasculating urban existence in favor of an invigorating life on the road.
The institutional response to the problem of an indigent population varied as well. In the 1840s, the homeless were allowed to spend the night on the floors of police stations; in the 1880s they could repair to municipal wayfarers' lodges where they would be given temporary housing provided they passed a test designed to test their work ethic; in 1933 they were offered long-term shelter by the effective but short-lived Federal Transient Service, the only national program to provide for the homeless in American history.
While he writes a chronological narrative, Kusmer is very careful not to write a totalizing one. He devotes as much attention to synchronic variations as to historical modifications. For instance, he explores how the response to homelessness was fractured along class and ethnic lines. Workers and African-Americans were always much more sympathetic towards the homeless than the middle class, possibly because they recognized the tenuous line which separated the working poor from the unemployed and homeless.
Although the presence of a large number of ethnic minorities in the homeless population is a fairly recent phenomenon, moreover, Kusmer carefully records the presence of African Americans among tramps of the late nineteenth century and argues that life on the road had a special allure for Blacks because mobility was a tangible mark of freedom.
Finally, whereas the "scientific philanthropists" of the Progressive Era, concerned with an alleged decline of the work ethic among American workers, insisted in discriminating between the "worthy" and the "unworthy" poor and providing only for the former, individual citizens and private charitable organizations always gave without inquiring into the worthiness of the recipient and out of a sense of moral duty.
I find this sense of the complexity of homelessness and the reactions to it somewhat lacking from the last two chapters of the book, which deal with the homeless from 1935 to the present and which seem hurried compared to the rest of the study.
In the last section of his study Kusmer argues persuasively against the tendency to describe the current homeless population as radically different from that of the past. In spite of new factors, among others the increased number of Blacks and Hispanics, who were hit by de-industrialization harder than other groups, the presence of women with children, victims of cuts in the welfare system, and the decrease in the number of older men since the Social Security reform of 1972 raised old-age pensions, Kusmer finds elements of continuity. As in the 1870s, the public response to the homeless is negative. And, as in the past, the institutional response is partially punitive (the homeless are routinely arrested when they wander into business streets or close to tourist sights), and temporary rather than long term (the homeless are given short-time shelter but not affordable housing or job training).
Despite the validity of the thesis, the last section of the book does not have the methodological sophistication of the rest. For instance, Kusmer does not replicate for the homeless of today his analysis of the novelistic and cinematic representation of homelessness at the turn of the twentieth century. Most importantly, he does not recover the voices of the modern homeless like he had done for those of the past. In fact, one of the strengths of the study up to the Depression Era is the analysis of several tramp memoirs and the comparison between the construction of the homeless as powerless victims in dominant culture and the homeless' own representation of themselves as rebels against the tediousness and discipline of industrial labor.
All of this is conspicuously absent from the last two chapters. That contemporary homelessness be treated in less detail is a pity, especially in an academic book so lucidly written that it could reach a broad audience and affect public opinion on a phenomenon which, Kusmer shows, is a pervasive aspect of American society concerning people not unlike the rest of us. Still, his superb exploration of the complexity of homelessness and the responses to it in the past will no doubt be a model for future studies focused on the present.
Arkansas Tech University