Why does so much poverty persist in the U.S., the richest country in the world? That’s the question Matthew Desmond tries to answer in his book “Poverty, By America” out this year.
It’s the latest in a long tradition of efforts to unravel this supposed conundrum, from Ben Franklin’s 1776 newspaper editorial “On the Price of Corn, and Management of the Poor,” to “From the Depths,” a 1957 book on the subject, and for my generation Michael Harrington’s 1962 “The Other America,” which helped create support for Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.
One in eight Americans still lives in poverty—that’s over 42 million human beings. Millions more live close enough to poverty to feel its hot breath on their necks knowing that countless things out of their control could plunge them into destitution, homelessness, food shelf dependence. Why must so many millions of people endure lives of chronic insecurity?
Says Desmond, “When it comes to poverty reduction, we’ve had fifty years of nothing.”
He points out the obvious, obvious at least to those who have been paying attention to this obscenity. Exploitation in America is widespread. This affects everyone, but the poor are especially vulnerable to predators like slumlords and check-cashing sharks and payday loan vultures who move in after the big banks have taken their cuts in steep fees and service charges on meager checking accounts easily overdrawn.
He shows how the rest of us, the non-poor, also exploit the poor by living lives subsidized by their labor. We like the low prices made possible by sub-subsistence wages for workers who have to depend on food stamps (now SNAP), just as Walmart likes having its workers’ wages subsidized by our taxes.
All of us who claim mortgage interest deductions on our tax forms are receiving a government handout, but few of us acknowledge our refunds as our welfare checks. The more the middle and upper classes claim as their share of the federal bounty, the less remains for the poor.
Especially galling is that “today the biggest beneficiaries of federal aid are affluent families” to the tune of $1.8 trillion lost to their tax breaks in 2021. That does not include another trillion dollars a year lost to unpaid owed taxes, “most of it going to tax avoidance by multinational corporations and wealthy families.”
Compared to these massive sums, Desmond proposes that for only $177 billion we could make “immense headway” in reducing if not eliminating poverty. He says we can easily pay for it by cracking down on tax fraud.
How can we make that happen? Unfortunately, Desmond’s action plan amounts to little more than more of the same. We should as consumers be more conscientious about the labor practices and tax sheltering of the companies we buy from. We should help the poor by better guiding them through the bureaucracies providing aid. We should attend local planning board meetings to encourage sanctions against bad landlords. We should “audit” our alma maters to see how they are treating their employees and investing their endowments.
We should turn away from segregation and “give up some comforts and familiarities” by
welcoming affordable multi-unit housing into our single-family (gated?) neighborhoods. Of course, Desmond also urges the usual political action: writing letters, working on campaigns, voting for candidates committed to fighting poverty.
Consider recent surveys reporting Americans feeling overwhelmed by busy schedules
with insufficient time for sleep. How likely are they to start monitoring their local planning boards as “poverty abolitionists”? And if political action were the key to eliminating poverty in a country where politics is our secular religion, it would have disappeared long ago.
Sure, the new anti-poverty movement he encourages would be welcome, but it seems a
large number of aggrieved interest groups are trying to build movements these days and the competition is stiff.
Curiously, Desmond, a Princeton professor, overlooks one of the most glaring contributors to an America divided into haves and have-nots — our dual public-private educational system. For the masses there are the state-supported public schools, community colleges and universities. For the wealthy (and a select few others based on “merit”) there is the private system comprising some 35,000 K-12 prep schools and 1,660 private colleges and universities.
This system funnels enormous financial resources into the education of the upper class and away from the rest of us. Every year the public system must go a-begging to state legislatures for tax money to educate the children of poor and working families as well as
most of the middle class. The private system makes do with steep tuitions and enormous
endowments from wealthy alumni.
Here’s my suggestion (not Desmond’s) as to why poverty remains with us: Many among
us like it. They like having someone they can compare themselves to and feel superior. Ours is a very competitive, status-conscious culture. It’s reassuring to drive by those homeless encampments and feel that there, but for my hard work and self-discipline and good genes, could go I.