In our current climate of economic insecurity, 47 million Americans are on food stamps. Yet, Congress recently voted to cut $40 billion from the federal Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program over the next three years. Without food assistance, millions of Americans are put at risk of hunger and malnourishment -- problems many people associate only with developing countries. If Americans are to take progressive democratic ideals seriously, journalist Sasha Abramsky says we must make it a priority to tackle the issue of poverty in the United States.
In "The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives," Abramsky brings together research and storytelling in an effort to make sense of why there is not more outrage over the tens of millions of people who struggle to make ends meet in the richest country in the world. He details the continuing erosion of the Great Society programs established by President Lyndon B. Johnson to assist America's most vulnerable citizens, while making the case that growing economic inequality is eroding American democracy.
Many people view poverty as an individual moral failing rather than a symptom of embedded social inequities, though it is difficult to reconcile this position with the reality of who is poor and why. As national wealth increased over the last century, so did child poverty. America has the second-highest rate of child poverty in the developed world, and today one in four children in America are poor.
Abramsky believes we have reached a critical time in US history. I recently spoke with him about what is at stake if Americans are unable muster the moral and political will to tackle economic inequality.
How did you come to write a book about American poverty in the twenty-first century?
I've been working on poverty issues as a writer for nearly twenty years, and for a lot of that time, I was looking at the criminal justice system. It struck me that in some ways this was less a criminal justice story and more a social story. It was about ways of responding to poverty and ways of financing State interactions with poor people. After a while, I figured I'd said what I wanted to say about criminal justice.
At that point, I'd spent a lot of time in poor communities. There wasn't a lot of reporting on poverty, and there was a lack of understanding of what it means to be poor in modern day America. So, I started writing stories on issues like low wage work and food pantries. I spent a lot of time thinking about what the real triggers to poverty in America are, and a lot of them have to do with things like housing, low wages, unemployment, or health care. This book is my attempt to synthesize and address all these issues at once.
What does poverty in America look like today?
It's very hard to reduce it to a set of simple characteristics, and the more I research this issue, the less I am able to tell you what poverty looks like. In some ways, it's easier to talk about what it doesn't look like. It doesn't look like the stereotypes. Our political narrative has an assumption that poverty is caused by things like addiction and mental illness. Partly it is, but it's so much more complicated than that.
If you want to get a good idea of what poverty is, you could almost as easily go to a suburb than a slum, because there are so many people who lost their jobs in the recession, lost their houses in the foreclosure crisis, or lost their savings. You can find retirees whose retirement funds have gone down the tubes because their companies skirted pension obligations.
I interviewed an accountant who had lost her job. She went from making over fifty thousand dollars a year to nothing, and in her current situation, she makes about twenty thousand dollars a year. This woman had the mannerisms of an upper-middle class person, but she didn't have the income to go with it. For me, poverty is just too complicated to say it looks like one thing.
Poverty is quite pervasive in America, so why isn't it more visible?
In a sense, poverty tends to make itself invisible. One of the collateral effects of losing income is that you can't afford to socialize in public. In America, socializing usually costs money. When you're literally counting pennies, you have to make hard decisions about what to buy -- food or school supplies, a prescription or rent, telephone bill or gas bill -- and that means you remain at home instead of going out. You go to work and come back. It becomes this progressive process of marginalization.
If you don't live in poverty, it's fairly common to pretend you don't see it. But when one in six Americans live in poverty -- and that's just by the government's measure, which is fairly inadequate -- it takes effort not to see it.
Poverty has moved closer to the forefront of American political discourse in the last five years. Why is now the time for its reemergence?
We got here not because we are a poor country, but because we are a very unequal country. For forty years, we have galloped toward ever-greater inequality, and we have tolerated a level of inequality between the very wealthy and the poor that no other industrial democracy tolerates. We've essentially corroded our public structures. We've deregulated a lot of the workplace requirements and allowed companies either to not pay benefits to workers or be quite stingy with the benefits they give out. These are policy choices that have deep and long-term implications.
We've hued to a set of economic policies that have unleashed inequality in a way that hasn't been unleashed in nearly a hundred years. When you have profound levels of economic inequality, you also have profound levels of inequality of access to the political system. We've become a country with a small elite that has vastly disproportionate political and economic interest, and with that democracy is no longer accountable. These things have consequences on people's lives and on our political system. We have the structure of a democracy, but we're becoming a plutocracy.
Behavioral economists tend to talk about decision-making in terms of rational self-interest. Why is working to alleviate poverty in the interest of people who are more economically secure?
Even though Henry Ford was anti-union, he understood that it was in his interest to pay his workers enough that they could afford to buy his cars. As a society, very few people are bettered if vast numbers of people are rendered too poor to participate economically. It's fashionable for a lot of politicians to talk about a zero-sum game, and say that if we spend more on poor people then it means we have less for everyone else -- but that's simply not true. In fact, the way we got out of the Great Depression was by investing in poor people, giving them the ability to have a livelihood and spend money. The same thing holds true today.
Obviously, not all spending is going to generate wealth, but there are ways of using government spending wisely in order to trigger growth and increased economic opportunity. Even if people don't care about the moral issues of poverty -- and there are certainly enough people in poverty in America that it should be viewed as a moral issue -- countries do better economically when they don't leave tens of millions of people behind. Societies that allow the level of poverty like the one we have in America are committing collective suicide.
Is encouraging greater empathy the answer?
We have a fairly paralyzed political process, and we have a very cynical, distrustful electorate. A lot of times that cynicism and distrust is deserved. We live in a place where the political rhetoric is that people who need government assistance are somehow morally polluted.
On the other hand, there are a lot of politicians, academics, think tanks, and grassroots groups who are talking about not just poverty, but the deeper causes of that poverty, including some of the structural problems within our society. There are a lot of people thinking about how to remedy it, and that ranges from localized approaches to piecemeal or band-aid approaches to more systemic analyses of what's going on and how it impacts people's lives.
I don't think the American public lacks empathy; I think the way our politics works at the moment lacks empathy. When you talk to individuals, they can be very empathetic. But when they are presented with abstract concepts like the welfare class, that's when the lack of empathy kicks in. That doesn't mean they go out in the streets and protest injustice, but they may donate to their local food bank or give someone a job. There is a well of empathy, but it needs to be channeled.
Who does a good job of channeling empathy on a broader level?
When Obama ran for election in 2008, a lot of his young volunteers went through a training school called "Camp Obama." It was crafted in large part by community organizers and teachers of narrative storytelling. The idea was to develop a cadre of young, political activists who knew how to knock on doors and get people to care about other people's lives. It was a breathtakingly effective strategy, and I don't think it was entirely done for show. I think Obama's community organizing background made him understand the importance of empathy.
The Obama administration hasn't been as good at pursuing the empathic narrative while in office, but if there's a way to harness those stories and give the broader public a sense that those stories are worth telling, that is a precursor to the kind of change that's worth pursuing.
In the book, you talk about the need for poor people to be more politically engaged, but there are a number of barriers to their engagement. What are those barriers and do you see a way around them?
Many people don't vote because they feel like they aren't listened to when they do vote. They don't feel like politicians are speaking to their needs or interests. That's a barrier that's quite pervasive, particularly the lower down the economic ladder you go. But there are a lot of other barriers as well.
If you're a single, working mother, your entire life is established around a set of needs and expectations that have you rushing from place to place. You don't have the time or energy -- and maybe even the inclination -- to take part in the broader political processes. Many people I talked to who were living in profound poverty felt really disempowered. They had neither the time to do things politically nor the confidence to do them.
Obviously, there are many exceptions. There are plenty of people who are in poverty and very active politically because they understand the importance of their involvement. The most inspiring changes in American history have occurred when a critical mass of people in communities has gotten together to demand and create it.
The second half of the book details what you call a "blueprint for a new War on Poverty." What actions can be taken to address poverty in America?
What I've tried to do is create something that will trigger a conversation and create ripples. I spent a lot of time talking to people who work on different issues -- housing, health care, education -- to get a sense of what policy changes, tax code reforms, and other things can be done that would have the greatest impact on people's lives.
When it comes to education, one of the big reasons younger people are in poverty is the amount of education debt they have. How do we create funding structures that make higher education more affordable? At the same time, many young people are being forced to give up their dreams of going to college because they need to get a job and work to help support their families. That's the story of child poverty in America, and it's the kind of choice no child should have to make.
When it comes to health care, we have one party that is implementing an approximation of universal health care and another party that says, "Universal health care is un-American, and it's expensive." There is nothing more expensive than leaving millions of people uninsured and waiting until they can use emergency rooms for medical treatment. That is the most expensive form of medical service there is. We need to put ideology aside and have a more sensible conversation about financing health care.
If we're really going to talk about ending poverty, we have to talk about raising taxes and having a more progressive tax system; there's just no way around it. These are the important conversations we need to have. I've tried to think about them holistically and comprehensively, and I hope the book encourages others to do the same.
Are there things that can be done outside of the political system by community groups and cultural producers?
When you go into a poor community, you see overpriced junk food, a lot of liquor stores, and a tremendous number of payday loan companies. These are among the most predacious and dishonest companies, and they can't be legislated out of existence. But you can offer viable alternatives.
We've got to give poor people better choices, and there are a lot of nonprofit groups trying to do that. They are establishing programs like farmer's markets to bring affordable and healthier foods into poor neighborhoods. They are getting farmer's markets to accept food stamps. There are things that can be done to increase choices. You see the worst kind of exploitation when you see the least amount of opportunity to make a different choice.
There are also a lot of writers, journalists, photographers, and documentary filmmakers who are putting a lot of effort into telling the stories of poor Americans. This is partly because those stories are morally worth telling, but it's also because we're always looking for something fascinating to explore. One of the roles of a writer is to find a narrative that's compelling. The story of why tens of millions of people are living hard lives is a fascinating one.
Mandy Van Deven is a writer, editor, and digital media strategist. Her work has been published in The Guardian, Salon, AlterNet, GlobalPost, and Marie Claire. Learn more at mandyvandeven.com.
Photo: Flickr user Timothy Krause, creative commons licensed.