Good Essay On Jacob Riis And The Urban Poor

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Poverty, Social Issues, Life, Discrimination, Family, Photography, United States, Racism

Pages: 3

Words: 825

Published: 2020/11/05

When 21 year-old Jacob Riis came from Denmark to America in 1870 with only a few dollars to survive him, he experienced how it was to live as a one of the countries lower-class. Despite the difficulties, he worked harder and eventually landed a job as a journalist. Inspired by the previous life he initially experienced and saw in Urban America, he was committed to find ways to improve the living circumstances of the lower-class. Jacob Riis wanted to show the conditions of the urban society, and he made it through writing and photography. He wrote How the Other Half Lives and took photographs to document the poor living conditions in the slums.
Prejudice and discrimination was prevalent during the time when many immigrants came to the United States in the late 19th century. In sociology, prejudice is defined as a negative attitude based on faulty generalizations directed toward members of a group or social category. It is a chain of beliefs founded on the overgeneralization on the characteristics of a group, and are often based on stereotypes. Discrimination on the other hand, is the action that differentiates or excludes other groups on the basis of gender, status, ethnicity or race. During the late 19th century, Jacob Riis made use of documentary photograph to get the message of prejudice and discrimination that was often experienced by the disadvantaged during that time.
In a documentary photo entitle Five Cents Lodging, Riis depicted the room that was available to people who immigrated to the United States during the growth of industrialization that created the need for intense labor. Housing became a problem as many immigrants came into the center of industrialization. The photograph shows how a small room can be shared by a number of people. According to Riis, there are no lodging houses that charges less than seven cents for a bed of canvas strip, and those that do not have license charged five cents for the right to sleep on the floor. The prejudice and discrimination is observed, as the landlord and who is also the employer of the tenant would allow the worker to live in such condition. He would charge a fee for accommodating his worker, and not content with that, would dictate the wages as he sees it fit. The family that lives in the quarters in these slums has to work hard; their inability to speak the English language prevented some to get better paying jobs (Riis).
In another documentary photograph, entitled Bandits Roost, Riis depicted how poverty in the slums resulted to criminal behavior. Gangs became prevalent in areas where scarcity is felt by the inhabitants. Riis showed through this photograph that there is danger in living in the slum areas as the neighborhood as community is a home to people who are prone to criminal behavior. In Street Arabs in Sleeping Quarters, Riis depicted how children in slums suffer the most due to poverty. More often small children are left in the quarters as both parents needed to work. In many instances, the children who are able are also required to work to augment the family income. In another file photo entitled A Growler Gang in Session, Riis employed children to depict how they are affected by the neglect by their parents and society. Crimes committed by teenagers were common in poverty stricken areas (Curtis).
Jacob Riis’s The Other Half of How They Live depicted the life of the lower class that was not known to the society in the middle and upper class. In most of his documents, Riis wanted to portray that poverty, crime and undue behavior are all related and that the other half of society can do something to ease the condition of the underprivileged. During that time, those who are wealthy or in the upper class are indifferent to the poor and Riis supposed that exposing the humiliating conditions of the slums may raise awareness and concern among the well off and the government. It was fortunate that the effort of Jacob Riis to reveal the condition of the urban poor paid as he was able to gain the attention of the government.
Though there are many cases of poverty in the United States, it is with great relief that the government has done much for the lower-income population. Far in contrast to the time of Jacob Riis, today’s policies are inclined to help the disadvantaged in the society. For example, the improvement of the health care program in one way to alleviate the condition of the poor. In addition to that is the number of legislations that aims to improve the economic conditions of low-income families. It is with hope that the prejudice that once was felt for those who have less in life will be changed into a sincere empathy and eagerness to lift them out of poverty.


Curtis, J. "Making Sense of Documentary Photography," History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web,, June 2003
Kneebone, E. and Garr, E., The Suburbanization of Poverty: Trends in Metropolitan America, 2000 to 2008, Brookings Opportunity Series,
Riis, J. How The Other Half Lives (1890). Retrieved from http://www.amerianistik.uni-

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