From the book POVERTY, BY AMERICA by Matthew Desmond [pp.9-17; 155-160]. Copyright © 2023 by Matthew Desmond. Published by Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
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The Kind of Problem Poverty Is
I recently spent a day on the tenth floor of Newark’s courthouse, the floor where the state [of New Jersey, US,] decides child welfare cases. There I met a fifty-five-year-old father who had stayed up all night working at his warehouse job by the port. He told me his body felt heavy. Sometimes when pulling a double shift, he would snort a speedball—cocaine mixed with benzodiazepine and morphine, sometimes heroin—to stay awake or dull his pain. Its ugly recipe was laid bare in the authorities’ toxicology reports, making him look like a career junkie and not what he was: an exhausted member of America’s working poor. The authorities didn’t think the father could care for his three children alone, and their mother, who had a serious mental illness and was using PCP, wasn’t an option either. So the father gambled, surrendering his two older children to his stepmother and hoping the authorities would allow him to raise the youngest. They did. Outside the courtroom, he hugged his public defender, who considered what had happened a real victory. This is what winning looks like on the tenth floor of Newark’s courthouse: giving up two of your children so you have a chance to raise the third alone and in poverty. […]
[W]e can’t hope to understand why there is so much poverty in America solely by considering the lives of the poor. But we need to start there, to better understand the kind of problem poverty is—and grasp the stakes—because poverty is not simply a matter of small incomes. In the words of the poet Layli Long Soldier, that’s just “the oil at the surface.” […]
Poverty is pain, physical pain. It is in the backaches of home health aides and certified nursing assistants, who bend their bodies to hoist the old and sick out of beds and off toilets; it is in the feet and knees of cashiers made to stand while taking our orders and ringing up our items; it is in the skin rashes and migraines of maids who clean our office buildings, homes, and hotel rooms with products containing ammonia and triclosan.
Poverty is not simply a matter of small incomes. In the words of the poet Layli Long Soldier, that’s just “the oil at the surface.”
In America’s meatpacking plants, two amputations occur each week: A band saw lops off someone’s finger or hand. Pickers in Amazon warehouses have access to vending machines dispensing free Advil and Tylenol. Slum housing spreads asthma, its mold and cockroach allergens seeping into young lungs and airways, and it poisons children with lead, causing irreversible damage to their tiny central nervous systems and brains. Poverty is the cancer that forms in the cells of those who live near petrochemical plants and waste incinerators. […]
On top of the pain, poverty is instability. Over the past twenty years, rents have soared while incomes have fallen for renters; yet the federal government provides housing assistance to only one in four of the families who qualify for it. Most renting families below the poverty line now spend at least half of their income on housing, with one in four spending more than 70 percent on rent and utility costs alone. These combined factors have transformed the United States into a nation where eviction is commonplace among low-income renters. Churn has become the status quo. […]
Poverty is the constant fear that it will get even worse. A third of Americans live without much economic security, working as bus drivers, farmers, teachers, cashiers, cooks, nurses, security guards, social workers. Many are not officially counted among the “poor,” but what then is the term for trying to raise two kids on $50,000 a year in Miami or Portland? What do you call it when you don’t qualify for a housing voucher but can’t get a mortgage either? When the rent takes half your paycheck, and your student loan debt takes another quarter? When you dip below the poverty line one month then rise a bit above it the next without ever feeling a sense of stability? As a lived reality, there is plenty of poverty above the poverty line.
And plenty far, far below it. In the land of the free, you can drop all the way down, joining the ranks of the lumpenproletariat (literally the “ragged proletariat”). According to the latest national data, one in eighteen people in the United States lives in “deep poverty,” a subterranean level of scarcity. Take the poverty line and cut it in half: Anything below that is considered deep poverty. The deep poverty line in 2020 was $6,380 annually for a single person and $13,100 for a family of four. That year, almost 18 million people in America survived under these conditions. The United States allows a much higher proportion of its children—over 5 million of them—to endure deep poverty than any of its peer nations. […]
Also on the Forum Network: Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain's Underclass by Darren McGarvey
Some believe poverty is the result of an unjust system. Others believe the system performs well and that people who cannot overcome their difficulties must take more personal responsibility. Whatever the truth, the conversation about poverty is, itself, an unfortunate by-product of the very inequality at the root of the issue.
Empower The Poor
Those who have amassed the most power and capital bear the most responsibility for America’s vast poverty: political elites who have utterly failed low-income Americans over the past half century; corporate bosses who have spent and schemed to prioritize profits over people; lobbyists blocking the will of the American people with their self-serving interests; property owners who have exiled the poor from entire cities and fueled the affordable housing crisis. Acknowledging this is both crucial and deliciously absolving, directing our attention upward and distracting us from all the ways (many unintentional) we also contribute to the problem. Just as global warming is not only caused by large industrial polluters and multinational logging companies but also by the cars we choose to drive and the energy we choose to buy, poverty in America is not simply the result of actions taken by Congress and corporate boards but the millions of decisions we make each day when going about our business.
Social ills—segregation, exploitation—can be motivated by bigotry and selfishness as well as by the best of intentions, such as protecting our children. Especially protecting our children.
To live and strive in modern America is to participate in a series of morally fraught systems. If a family’s entire financial livelihood depends on the value of its home, it’s not hard to understand why that family would oppose anything that could potentially lower its property values, like a proposal to develop an affordable housing complex in the neighborhood. If an aging couple’s nest egg depends on how the stock market performs, it’s not hard to see why that couple would support legislation designed to yield higher returns, even if that means shortchanging workers. Social ills—segregation, exploitation—can be motivated by bigotry and selfishness as well as by the best of intentions, such as protecting our children. Especially protecting our children.
These arrangements create what the postwar sociologist C. Wright Mills called “structural immorality” and what the political scientist Jamila Michener more recently labeled exploitation “on a societal level.” We are connected, members of a shared nation and a shared economy, where the advantages of the rich often come at the expense of the poor. But that arrangement is not inevitable or permanent. It was made by human hands and can be unmade by them. We can fashion a new society, starting with our own lives. Where we decide to work and live, what we buy, how we vote, and where we put our energies as citizens all have consequences for poor families. Becoming a poverty abolitionist, then, entails conducting an audit of our lives, personalizing poverty by examining all the ways we are connected to the problem—and to the solution.
We can vote with our wallets, reevaluating where we shop and what we buy. To the greatest extent possible, we should withdraw our support from corporations that exploit their workers. This requires doing our homework, looking into a company’s track record. [….] Increasingly, American consumers are considering the environmental impact of their purchases. We should consider their poverty impact, too. […]
Consumer activism brought us cheap goods and services borne on the backs of others, and consumer activism can help reverse this trend, punishing poverty-creating companies and sending a message that we will no longer support their exploitative ways. Since exploitation pays, this could dampen our portfolios’ stock performance. Banking and shopping in ways that express solidarity with the poor could mean we pay more. And by acknowledging those costs, we acknowledge our complicity. When we cheat and rob one another, we lose part of ourselves, too. Doing the right thing is often a highly inconvenient, time-consuming, even costly process, I know. I try, fail, and try again. But that’s the price of our restored humanity.
Find out more about Poverty, by America. Copyright © 2023 by Matthew Desmond. Published by Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
Learn more by reading the OECD report on New Perspectives on Well-being and Global Inequality since 1820
How Was Life? New Perspectives on Well-being and Global Inequality since 1820, presents new estimates of working hours, biodiversity loss, social spending and GDP (accounting for the 2011 round on purchasing power parities) as well as measures of inequalities in wealth, longevity and educational attainment, gender disparities and extreme poverty.
And check out the OECD Economic Surveys: United States 2022
OECD’s periodic surveys of the United States economy. Each edition surveys the major challenges faced by the country, evaluates the short-term outlook, and makes specific policy recommendations. Special chapters take a more detailed look at specific challenges.