January 18, 2018
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The American Way of Poverty

by Sasha Abramsky

Charity Hicks was young, African American, and living in Detroit. Luann Prokop, by contrast, was in her mid-fifties, white, and from a small town in Appalachia. On the surface, their worlds were far apart. Yet in many ways, Prokop’s experiences of the past few years were similar to those of Hicks. She felt abandoned, betrayed, and forgotten, resting as firmly atop the communal trash heap as was Willy Loman, the battered Joe-Everyman in Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman.

“When I picked up the phone to call for unemployment benefits, I broke down crying with the woman— because I was never unemployed in my life, worked solidly for twenty-five years, felt capable in what I was doing. I just really felt alone. It’s created this chip on my shoulder; I don’t think a day goes by that I can’t believe the amount of bad luck that just seems to keep rolling my way. It’s very frustrating. A lot of days I’m very anxious, very nervous. But I try to keep my head up. Keep going.”

So, too, in Prokop’s daily scramble to survive, to pay her bills, to keep her house her own and her utilities on, and to retain her sense of hope while so doing, was her story related to that of Luann, the 65-year-old restaurant owner I met an hour’s drive from Prokop, who had had to drop her and her husband’s health insurance several years earlier because the cost had risen to an unaffordable $16,000 per year. They had then been hit with a $30,000 bill when her husband lost an eye following a carpentry accident. For the rest of their lives, they would be playing an unwinnable game of financial catch-up.

And Luann’s story shared key points with that of Matthew Joseph, the out-of-work steel worker and cathedral deacon from Stockton, California, who had found himself curled up in the fetal position on his bed, “thinking that life was over,” wondering how he and his wife could avoid losing their beautiful suburban home to the bank.

Joseph talked about his erstwhile middle-class neighborhood being pockmarked with dozens of garage sales, at which desperate residents sold off personal possessions for pennies on the dollar to pay their bills. Other common sights included vagrants picking through garbage bins in front of homes, scrappers going into abandoned houses and stripping them of copper wires, and others stealing catalytic converters from underneath parked cars.

The leftovers of the new poor, in their misery, were being scavenged by an ever more desperate old poor. These are the denizens of what the journalist Chris Hedges termed 'America’s sacrifice zone'.

“Is it ever going to turn around? Somebody has to have a plan for something else,” Joseph questioned. At the beautiful old red brick cathedral in which he was a deacon, the unemployed metal worker encountered parishioners who told him, “ ‘I cannot afford to go to the hospital; I can’t afford to feed my family.' The amount of people at Thanksgiving and Christmas, not looking for gifts but looking for food. It’s the ordinary people, the old, doing things they never had to do before. People are stealing more. My neighbor got his gas syphoned. I haven’t heard about that in a long time.”

And so we return to the challenge that Michael Harrington laid down in 1962: How should the world’s wealthiest nation respond to the vast levels of poverty that lie, hidden in plain view, just below the country’s affluent surface?

A half-century after Harrington wrote The Other America, poverty remains in many ways as deep and as intangible as ever. We do not have the luxury of saying “We didn’t know.” For the truth is that we did. We knew because of the work that journalists such as Jacob Riis did more than a century ago. We knew because of the expose that Harrington himself penned in 1962. And we knew because, if we were honest with ourselves, as the twenty-first century unfolded we saw the effects of poverty on a daily basis: in the dilapidated trailer parks alongside freeways that we passed on the way to work or while traveling on family vacations, in the lines for free food that we routinely witnessed in our cities and suburbs, and in the stories of jobs lost and homes foreclosed on that we encountered every day in our newspapers and on our television news shows. We knew then, and even more so, we know now.

We know why so many people are born poor, why so many people become poor, and why so many people remain poor. We know how different problems affect people’s economic well-being at different stages of their lives. And, as I have detailed [here], we know if not how to entirely eliminate these scourges, then certainly how to limit their scope and mitigate their damage.

The cost of such an effort would be large— many hundreds of billions of dollars— but for a nation as wealthy and as blessed with natural and human resources as is America, not unaffordable. More to the point, the cost of inaction is far larger, in terms of potential wasted, lives truncated, and communities corroded. The necessary big-picture changes include how we fund and maintain our safety net programs, from the smallest of local systems to the largest of federal ones. How we subsidize, through the tax system and through cash benefits, the incomes of both the out of work and the lowly paid. How we regulate the wages and benefits employers provide their employees. And how we ensure that the federal government steps in with public works programs during deep recessions and periods of prolonged mass unemployment. They must encompass how we educate children, from the preschool years through high school graduation—and how we extend the opportunity of college education to more young adults. How we provide healthcare to more Americans, protect pension systems, build up affordable housing stocks for those who can’t afford market rents or mortgages, and open up job training opportunities for those left unemployed or jobless by long-term economic shifts.

How do we pay for such an ambitious set of projects? Partly through targeted, sensible, fair tax increases: raising the capital gains tax, increasing the income tax on the wealthiest Americans, eliminating the upper limit for Social Security contributions, reintroducing an oil windfall profit tax, creating a viable financial transactions tax, and imposing estate taxes on large inheritances that are more in line with the taxes levied by countries such as England and Germany. We un-starve the beast that is social assistance for the poor, the young, and the elderly, that is, after all, a far less harmful beast than that of the new plutocracy— which has spent the past several decades fattening itself at the public’s expense; insulating its monies from taxation; and ensuring the uninterrupted transfer of wealth, privilege, and power down the generations.

Voters recognized that reality on November 6, 2012, reelecting a president who campaigned on a pledge to increase taxes on the wealthy; voting in a slew of senators, such as Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who openly talked about the positive role that government should play; and passing state initiatives, such as Proposition 30 in California, that raised sales taxes and income taxes on top earners so as to better fund schools, universities, and departments responsible for overseeing public safety.

Partly, we fund such programs through paring other areas of the budget— for example, limiting defense spending increases and restricting the percentage of healthcare dollars that can be used to feather the nests of insurance company executives. And by asking consumers to pay marginally more— for goods bought at big box stores and fast food restaurants, for example— so as to provide mechanisms to boost the wages of the working poor.

And partly, through designing them well, we make sure that these programs help fund themselves: Increasing the EITC, for example, by providing low-income families more money to spend on nutritional food and on preventive healthcare, reduces the medical costs associated with large numbers of low-weight and premature babies. Creating a guaranteed minimum income, using taxes imposed on the extraction of states’ natural resources to distribute annual checks to residents of specific states, or seeding businesses in poor communities through an expansion of micro-credit— all would help circulate money through depressed neighborhoods. Boosting employment through public works would lead to a virtuous circle of economic growth.

How do we generate the political will for such an overarching, and holistic, project? We educate. We empower people. We convince enough Americans that no matter how much money from big-dollar donors floods the political system, a democracy as vibrant as America’s can, and should, respond to the fundamental needs of its populace. If there is one single message to be learned from the election results of November 2012— the first presidential election to be held in the wake of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision— it is that ordinary voters don’t like seeing elites trying to lock them out of the political process. They don’t respond well to the assumption that wads of cash thrown into political races by shadowy political action committees and irate billionaires can determine a country’s destiny.

Those election results present a tremendous political opportunity over the coming years: They provide room for progressive political leaders in Washington, D.C., and organizers on the ground to embrace the language of economic and social justice rather than continually to run from it. Explain the connections between political democracy and economic opportunity, between empowerment at the ballot box and empowerment economically, and a host of previously out-of-reach goals suddenly seem reachable.

As did Pericles two and a half millennia ago, when he warned that raging economic divides threatened the Athenian citizen democracy, and as did Polanyi sixty years ago, we detail the dangers to freedom that necessarily accompany a stampede toward ever greater levels of inequality. And we highlight a set of values and a slate of policies that can block that journey into plutocracy.

All of this is doable. All of it is pragmatic. And all of it would increase the quality of life for tens of millions of people who have somehow been allowed to fall outside of the American Dream.

If, in the year 2062, another journalist has to revisit this issue again, to comment on poverty’s stubborn presence on the American landscape a century after Harrington’s cri de coeur, it will be because of a failure of wills far more than a failure of intelligence or a lack of resources. We know the challenges that we face, we know the byways of the American Way of Poverty. To deny them is to thumb one’s nose at an unpleasant reality.

And now, knowing the challenges, and hearing the demands of conscience, our task is to act.

Sasha Abramsky is a Senior Fellow with think thank Demos and author of The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives (in paperback this August), from which this article is an excerpt and reprinted with permission from Nation Books. Testament to the fragility of life for America's vulnerable, Charity Hicks, whose story appears in greater detail in Sasha Abramsky's book, was tragically killed in a hit and run automobile accident earlier this Summer. Learn more at www.sashaabramsky.com.