A devastating picture of poverty in the richest country of the world

The American Way of Poverty:

How the Other Half Still Lives

"I’d like to have electricity, but electricity costs too much,” says John, a disabled air force veteran, living with his wife, daughter, son-in-law, and grandkids on the edge of the rainforest in Hawaii. “We leave the generator on four hours a day; at the end of the month, 2 hours a day. . . . We go to bed about seven o’clock, because it’s dark and you can’t see. When we turn the generator on, that’s the only time we can use the bathroom, because we don’t have running water otherwise.”

John’s is one among the many tales of destitution told throughout Sasha Abramsky’s The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Live. The book is the product of two years Abramsky spent touring the country, interviewing and photographing those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. These and other stories are also collected at The Voices of Poverty website (http://thevoicesofpoverty.org). Together, they describe life for a segment of the population, growing since the Great Recession, living at the margins of modern society, many without adequate access to food and health care, some without such modern amenities as heat and light.

While Abramsky’s book has its limitations, its strength is his exposure of the scandalous depth and breadth of poverty in the richest country in the world. Abramsky takes an uncompromising stand against the blame-the-victim rhetoric that has dominated the response to poverty of both political parties for decades. From Reagan’s ranting about “welfare queens” to Clinton’s ending welfare in the name of “personal responsibility,” the idea that antipoverty programs breed dependency and undermine the “work ethic” has been used to shrink and restrict these programs. Abramsky sees these arguments for what they are—nothing more than an abdication of any collective responsibility for poverty and inequality in our society.

Abramsky sets out to show that poverty is so pervasive and its causes so diverse that it defies any stereotype or generalization. “Poverty is . . . as diverse as the United States itself,” he writes. 

There are people with no high school education who are poor, but there are also university graduates on food bank lines. There are people who are poor because they have made bad choices, gotten addicted to drugs, burned bridges with friends and family—and then there are people who have never taken a drug in their lives, who have huge social networks and who still can’t make ends meet. There are people who have never held down a job, and others who hold down multiple, but always low-paying jobs, frequently for some of the most powerful corporations on earth. There are military veterans who have struggled to find a place in civilian life, middle-aged and middle-class people falling down the economic ladder as the recession fails to fully lift, and elderly people cascading into destitution as savings evaporate and expected equity in their homes fails to materialize.

The stories in The American Way of Poverty paint a picture of how the Great Recession, the collapse of the housing market, spectacular natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, on top of the lack of health care and a shredded safety net have thrown millions into new-found poverty and entrenched the misery of those already there.

Abramsky cites the growth of the number of people in what the Census Bureau calls “deep poverty,” defined as below half the federal poverty line, as well as the record number of people receiving food stamps and other nutritional assistance. He deplores a 2012 UNICEF report which showed the US to have one of the highest child poverty rates of thirty-five developed countries, second only to Romania. 

Abramsky’s book also emphasizes that it’s not the generosity of government programs that keep people in poverty by breeding dependency. Rather, many people are thrown into poverty because of the uncoordinated nature of our patchwork social safety net, as well as unreasonable eligibility and work requirements.

Take, for example, the story of a mother/guardian of seven, who worked all her life at near-minimum-wage jobs. When her husband, a construction worker, had a stroke, neither had health insurance, and they were bankrupted by medical bills. Their house was underwater from the collapse of the housing market, and their van was repossessed. Yet they were deemed ineligible for Medicaid because of their assets—two burial plots they had purchased years ago.

Or a family in New Mexico who lost housing benefits, food stamps, and Medicaid when the father got a dollar-an-hour raise at his truck-mechanic job. When the mother came down with pancreatic cancer, the family was quickly bankrupted and thrown into poverty.

Abramsky also shows how eligibility and work requirements make programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the main cash assistance program to families, inaccessible to most people in poverty. Enrollment in TANF fell even through the initial years of the Great Recession, despite the obvious increase in need by all other measures. Indeed, in a country of 314 million people, with more than 50 million living in poverty, only 4.5 million people receive TANF, half or more who are children. 

Abramsky puts forth many good suggestions for addressing poverty, many of these ideas coming straight from service providers and experts he interviewed in his research. He calls for expanding and easing access to existing programs as well as creating new initiatives like energy subsidies. He points out that creating high-quality programs that benefit more people can win more public support. He emphasizes the need to improve education and supports creating publicly funded educational accounts for all children. He calls for increasing the minimum wage and creating jobs through government investment in infrastructure and the environment. To pay for these policy changes, he suggests increasing taxes on corporations and the rich, a stock-transfer tax, increasing capital gains and estate taxes, windfall taxes on oil companies, and taxing companies that don’t pay their workers living wages. 

The central weakness of the book, however, is the discussion of how implementation of any of these antipoverty measures can be won. Abramsky recognizes that the problem is not one of resources or ideas but of a lack of political will. He sees that change is mostly likely to come from grassroots efforts but, as he admits, “this is not primarily a book about grassroots politics.” As such, Abramsky’s focus is on the moral vision of various leaders, rather than the history of the struggles of poor and working-class people that led to the creation of safety nets in the first place. The stories he relates are mostly isolated vignettes of poverty and despair, reinforcing a one-sided view of those in poverty as passive victims, as opposed to potential actors in the fight for a more just society. 

In his discussion of Roosevelt and the New Deal, Abramsky does not mention the massive upheavals in the early 1930s that forced the government to enact anti-poverty measures, such as the 43,000 military veterans and their families who camped out in Washington DC in the spring and summer of 1932 to demand cash payment for their service and who had to be cleared by federal troops; or the unemployed movement, when people occupied relief offices, forcefully resisted evictions, and marched in the thousands in cities across the country. These and other actions forced the passage of the Federal Emergency Relief Act and the whole host of programs that created the modern welfare state.

Likewise, in Abramsky’s treatment of Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society programs of the 1960s, there is little discussion of the great social upheaval of the time, the Civil Rights movement and the urban riots of the mid-1960s that forced the government to act. There is no mention of groups like the National Welfare Rights Organization, which organized to demand access to programs and an end to paternalistic and degrading practices by the welfare system. 

Thus, while Abramsky is disappointed in our community-organizer-turned- President, he still holds out hope that, in his second term, Obama will live up to the kind of moral vision he ascribes to Roosevelt and Johnson. He calls on Obama not only to enact comprehensive antipoverty programs but also “take the country with him as he explains the moral imperative of a fairer social compact [and] employ all of his extraordinary narrative powers to craft a new American story in which tens of millions of citizens feel that they have a stake.” 

Because Abramsky underestimates the degree to which the Democratic Party has been integral in the attack on the social safety net and driving down wages in order to maintain corporate profitability, he also underestimates what kind of movement it will take to force the government to enhance real antipoverty measures.

The American Way of Poverty exposes the breadth and depth of poverty in the US, a reality that is often removed from public discourse, and his call for a wider and stronger social safety net is refreshingly unapologetic.

Issue #82

March 2012

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