While discussion of poverty has been lacking since President Reagan railed that the poor were responsible for their own plight, new signs of concern and fresh thinking have emerged, according to author Sasha Abramsky, who offers possible solutions in “The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives.”
What happened to the “War on Poverty” that began in the ’60s with the publication of Michael Harrington’s seminal, The Other America?; How did the efforts to achieve a “Great Society” of care and abundance turn into a widening chasm of economic injustice?
Truthout talked with Sasha Abramsky – who revisited Michael Harrington’s exposure of massive poverty in the United States – and how 50 years later it has only gotten worse. Abramsky details the gloomy reality and offers options for returning to strategies that can dramatically reduce the vast swaths of the poor in a nation of abundance for the few.
Are you eager to finally see a war on poverty? Read Abramsky’s The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives. Get it right now by clicking here.
Mark Karlin: Let me play the devil’s advocate. You end the chapter before your coda (epilogue) with the idea of “putting more deposits into the empathy bank.” Isn’t that a hard sell when the political conventional wisdom since [President] Reagan is that outside of family and local community, poor people are responsible for their own plight?
Sasha Abramsky: One of the reasons that I think there’s an opening here is that the Great Recession laid bare a reality that had emerged over decades: that a vast number of Americans exist from paycheck to paycheck, live without basic benefits such as health care and pensions, and experience insecurity as the norm rather than the exception. Increasingly, from 2008 onward, that insecurity percolated into the middle classes. Poverty became something one could see and experience firsthand, no matter where one was on the economic ladder; it became something you could viscerally experience through the lives of friends, family, neighbors, colleagues. I’d venture to say it’s a rare person in 2013 America who knows nobody who lost a job in the recession, or knows nobody whose home went underwater or who went into foreclosure.
I think it’s the proximity so many people now have to these events that, paradoxically, opens up windows for change. When I talk about an “empathy bank,” I don’t mean literally opening up a bank and putting in deposits. What I mean is that the more we can, as individuals and as members of a community, empathize with, understand the pain and uncertainty economic crisis causes other people, the more we lay the groundwork for political change.
Status quos survive when a critical mass of people either can’t imagine an alternative, or don’t see why they should imagine an alternative. Conversely, they start breaking down when critical masses of people see their workings as flawed – and as antithetical to their well-being as well as to that of those they are close to.
So, while you’re right that politicians of all stripes have, since at least the Reagan era, crafted a narrative that largely blames the poor for their own plight, it seems to me that that narrative is increasingly unconvincing. Reagan, and before him, Nixon, and before Nixon, a slew of conservative politicians going back through American history, have played to the idea that the great majority of poor people are somehow “undeserving,” and being undeserving, merit at best very limited, oftentimes deeply coercive and humiliating, government interventions to better their finances. That narrative isn’t about to disappear overnight; but it strikes me as being like a weak gruel – there’s no sustenance in it, no heft behind the argument. After all, how does one blame a person working two jobs, both of which pay minimum wage, when that person still runs short of cash to buy food for their kids? How does one blame a middle-aged worker, laid off after decades on the job, who can’t make their mortgage payments? How does one blame a one-time professional, who, after years of unemployment, finally gets rehired but at a wage that is only a fraction of what they used to earn?
These are the sorts of questions that fueled Obama’s candidacy in 2008. The failure of the first Obama administration to really deliver on a new War on Poverty and a new language to explain these societal challenges in some ways provided the fuel that led to the Occupy Movement a few years later. And, while Occupy was a somewhat transitory phenomenon, many of the activist groups that emerged during this period are still out there, and still working on reshaping the political debate around taxes, around welfare, around government assistance to the poor, around debt relief for students, and so on. All of these play into a rather interesting discussion that is emerging at a national level on poverty, on economic insecurity, on income inequalities and so on. We’re by no means out of that Reagan moment yet, but I do think there’s some fresh thinking and fresh ways of discussing these issues, which are starting to come to the fore.
MK: Your book is directly related to the 50th anniversary of Michael Harrington’s The Other America, which inspired JFK and Lyndon Johnson to declare a “War on Poverty.” Hasn’t that devolved into a war ON the poor?
SA: The War on Poverty was, in some ways, a victim of its own success. Medicaid and Medicare were of huge importance in alleviating poverty – especially for the elderly poor. The expansion of nutritional programs – from food stamps to school breakfasts and lunches to WIC – largely eliminated actual malnutrition in the country. The creation of community mental health infrastructure, job training systems in poor neighborhoods, drug treatment programs and so on, all of these did work to tackle both causes and symptoms of deep-rooted poverty. But what they didn’t do was to actually eliminate poverty. And over time, this became a huge issue, because the architects of the War on Poverty were so stunningly ambitious in their aims. They wanted not just to limit poverty but to literally end poverty in America.
In failing to achieve that utopian goal, the War on Poverty was set up to fail. And, in failing, it unleashed a ferocious conservative backlash. As you say, that backlash largely blamed the poor for their plight, drastically oversimplified the arguments around what caused poverty and what perpetuated it, and utilized a deeply pessimistic language that stressed government’s inability to fundamentally alter the behavior and expectations of individuals.
But, that said, there’s no reason this has to be a permanent state of affairs. After all, when Michael Harrington wrote The Other America, poverty was virtually a taboo topic in American politics. Almost no federal and state politicians were talking about it as a live issue in the early 1960s. It didn’t gel with the underlying narrative of American prosperity, of the rise of a permanently affluent society and of the idea of technocratic progress sweeping all social problems away. Yet Harrington’s work was so persuasive that he almost single-handedly embarrassed the political classes into revisiting poverty and reimagining a slew of social policies. In the space of two years, this country went from ignoring poverty, thinking about it as a long-gone symbol of the Great Depression, to launching one of the greatest domestic policy initiatives in the country’s history to tackle poverty.
That it was an incomplete project doesn’t negate its importance. The War on Poverty massively reduced the percentage of Americans living beneath the government-defined poverty line. That so many of the symptoms of poverty that preoccupied Johnson’s team are now back with us is a tragedy. That more than one in five children in America live in poverty is a scandal – a toxic consequence of political neglect, deliberate in some cases, accidental in others, which has pushed millions of Americans back into destitution. I suspect, however, that we’re reaching a turning point. It seems to me that large numbers of people are now paying attention to poverty and that large numbers now understand that blaming the poor and the insecure for being poor and insecure is as unseemly as is schoolyard bullying. In that realization lies hope for a reinvigorated discourse around poverty and inequity in modern-day America.
MK: Harrington’s book was a revelation at a time when the news media didn’t cover the poor and didn’t really write or broadcast about the extent of the problem. Haven’t we arrived at that point again? Most of our mass news media is about celebrity news or passing headline sound bites? The corporate mass media knows that there are not going to be high ratings, and therefore not big advertising buys, in covering poverty topics.
SA: There’s a paradox here, which is that today there are a huge number of think tanks working on poverty-related issues; there are books written on the topic; and university centers being created to study poverty. So we’re not in exactly the same situation as was Harrington a half-century ago, when almost no one was talking about and studying and analyzing poverty. But, at the same time, the media has a terribly hard time with this issue; it’s not sexy, the people in poverty, almost by definition, aren’t celebrities; it’s very hard to convince editors and publishers to devote resources to complex investigations of the lives of America’s poor. And, as a result, too often poverty is portrayed in stereotypes, in sound bites, in a few pat images rather than in its full Technicolor complexity and diversity.
An example of this: Too often the media assumes that “poverty” is an African American or a Latino issue. Of course, that’s nonsense. While a higher percentage of the African American and Latino population does live in poverty as compared to the white population, when overall numbers are looked at, it is clear that people of all races, ethnicities, and colors, are represented amongst America’s poor.
The reliance on stereotypes is in part the result of a structural problem within the media. There are too few journalists with an in-depth knowledge of these issues. Most newspapers have a business beat, with a number of highly trained journalists who know how to cover companies, trading, the markets and so on. But almost none have labor reporters anymore, and to my knowledge, none have full-time poverty-beat correspondents. And all of this helps to render invisible the lives and the life stories of tens of millions of Americans.
MK: Many studies, depending on how one calculates it, indicate nearly half of the nation is on the edge of poverty or in poverty, and it keeps getting worse with declines in salaries for those with just high school educations. How do you read where the United States is in terms of percentage of the population in or near poverty in 2012 as compared to the early ’60s?
SA: Well, it depends on the demographic. One of the most durable successes of the war on poverty was to dramatically reduce the number of elderly poor in America. That’s still true today. But, by contrast, child poverty has shot up over the last few years: A decade ago, about 16 percent of children in America were poor – which is a shockingly high percentage. But it’s not as shocking as today, when we see that 22 percent of kids live in poverty. Similarly, despite all of the civil rights gains of the past several decades, when it comes to economic opportunity, African Americans and Latinos still experience far more unemployment than do whites and Asians, average wages are lower, and household wealth is lower. A smaller percentage of African Americans and Latinos attend, and complete, college, than is the case with whites and Asians, and a higher percentage end up in prison. All of these are indicators of massive disparities in opportunity, and these disparities are mirrored in poverty data.
There’s also the issue of geographic location: Big cities like New York are thriving, economically, culturally, in terms of real estate values, and by a slew of other measures. Yet, at the same time, much of the country has been utterly hollowed out. In California, where I live, affluent coastal cities such as San Francisco and the Silicon Valley hubs have lower than national average unemployment, higher wages, higher tax bases. Meanwhile, there are inland counties in California where there’s still nearly 20 percent unemployment.
These are huge fissures, and they’ve gone largely ignored in America over the past few decades. We’re living through an era of higher income inequality than the country has experienced since before the Great Depression. It’s almost trite at this point to reiterate that almost all the income gains of the past few years have gone to the top one percent of earners. Meanwhile, most people are running in place, and those in the bottom quintile of the economy are being swept backward year in and year out. A worker with a high school education today is likely to earn less in real terms than did their parents and grandparents in the early 1970s. Not coincidentally, while overall life expectancy is increasing in America, for those with low levels of education it’s actually declining.
Again, by all measures, parts of the population are being swept backwards. What makes this all the more worrying is that large parts of the political establishment seem intent on rolling back the surviving parts of the Great Society, the New Deal, and even the Progressive era. If they end up winning the great debates on these issues, it won’t augur well for those at the bottom of the economic ladder.
MK: How can there be a lifting of such a large segment of our population out of poverty without more employment at living wages, which seems unlikely given the current trends of global capitalism to find workers at the lowest wages in situations of economic desperation overseas?
SA: There can’t be. You can’t lift people out of poverty simply by tweaking the tax system, or by raising the minimum wage by a few cents, or by reducing student debt slightly. These might be necessary components of a larger anti-poverty program, but you have to accept they are pieces of a much larger puzzle.
To really tackle poverty, politicians, activists, academics will all have to think outside their boxes, will have to start developing much more integrated approaches to these problems. And a large part of this will involve working out ways to push for living wages. Partly this will involve re-empowering the union movement, which has been massively weakened in recent decades. Partly it will involve legislation and ordinances such as that proposed in Chicago a few years back, which would have mandated Big Box companies – Wal-Marts and other large stores – to pay a defined living wage to workers. Partly it will involve a willingness to restructure tax codes to penalize companies that don’t provide basic benefits and decent wages to employees. Partly it will involve an education campaign aimed at consumers, and designed to show both the desirability of increasing wages for workers and also the affordability of so doing. It’s easy for companies to scare their customers, to get them to believe that raising wages for workers will massively impact their pocket books. But it’s actually not true because most company expenses aren’t labor-related, and even in industries that are labor intensive, most of those wages aren’t paid to those earning minimum wage or below, so increasing those wages doesn’t have a huge impact on prices. That’s been shown with the Immokalee workers in Florida, who managed to secure significant pay raises for tomato pickers without hurting consumers; it’s been shown in Santa Monica, which implemented a living wage and yet didn’t see its fabled beachfront hotels go out of business. It’s been shown in Santa Fe and other cities with living wage ordinances.
So, I do think there are ways to increase wages significantly, even in a global era. But you have to take voters and consumers with you on this journey – and that involves a tremendous, and long-term, public education campaign.
MK: How do you react to what has happened in Detroit, for example, when it comes to basically abandoning people to poverty as their government is foreclosed upon and as they lose their right to determine their municipal leaders by popular vote? The automakers and the manufacturers pulled the plug on the city, and then the governor just stole it. Can you see any turnaround from a situation such as this?
SA: Well, I spent some time in Detroit while researching my book. It’s a fascinating place, because things are so bad there that the dystopia has almost become utopian. People know they can’t rely on the state, that public infrastructure is broken, and they’ve taken their own measures. There are thousands of urban gardens in Detroit, where people are growing their own food and selling their produce to local stores and restaurants. It’s certainly not a fix-all; Detroit’s problems are too deep-rooted for quick-fix solutions. But it’s a hopeful sign. Detroiters are crafting their own solutions rather than being passive in the face of the city’s and state’s actions and inactions.
Of course, there’s also a massive crisis of democratic legitimacy in Detroit. Its education system is a shambles; it has stunningly high illiteracy and poverty rates; it is plagued both by massive abandonment of houses and also, at the same time, by homelessness; and it is so cash-strapped that public pensions are on the chopping bloc. All of these corrode any sense of communal engagement or common purpose. We see similar things in cities like Gary, Indiana; Stockton, California; Providence, Rhode Island; and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
As a country, we have to find a way to keep our cities solvent. If large numbers of cities no longer have the necessary tax base, we have to find federal methods to intervene. If we don’t, there’s a risk of dozens of cities simply being left to their bankrupt fates – and I can’t see how that serves anybody’s interests in the long run.
MK: What are some of your suggestions for the chapter, “Breaking the Cycle of Poverty” in the second part of your book?
SA: Well, it seems to me that simply pumping money into broken systems doesn’t really work as a long-term solution. The poverty we see in America is now too widespread, and too complex, for easy fixes. But I do think we can reimagine many of our institutions and can create new ones in ways that would be effective. We could, for example, create social insurance systems, similar to social security, for funding higher education and also for creating public works reserve funds for use during employment emergencies – such as that we went through in 2008-9. We could create a financial transaction tax, oil profit taxes and a fairer estate tax system, and we could plow much of the revenue raised from these into job training programs, into better education infrastructure, into an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit.
In my book, I stress that the country has tough financial choices ahead. But I don’t believe our long-term financial interests or security are served by a slash-and-burn approach to our public infrastructure. Quite the reverse: If we cut education systems to the bone, we fail to equip young Americans for tomorrow’s economy. If we skimp on health-care spending, we end up with expensive public health emergencies. And so on.
In fact, I argue that in the long run, this country would be on a far more financially secure footing if we recalibrate how we spend about two-to-three percent of the country’s GNP, using state and federal taxes to create pools of money for spending on America’s poor – which would, as numerous economists have argued in recent years, create virtuous spending circles, since those on lower incomes spend more of each extra dollar in their possession than do those on higher incomes.
I lay out, in my book, an ambitious set of interrelated policy changes, all designed to both reduce economic inequality and to bolster the spending power of those in the bottom half of the economy – those who are either poor or at risk of becoming poor if one or two things go wrong for them. I’m not sure I like the term “War on Poverty, mark two,” but that, essentially, is what I outline: a blueprint for systemic change that would both ameliorate the situation of those already in poverty and, at the same time, prevent large numbers of additional people falling into poverty over the coming years.
MK: In our national media and political dialogue, it is pretty much verboten to talk about the growing chasm of wealth and struggling to get by in the US with any frequency or depth. How can one discuss poverty as a public policy issue when our press won’t come out and say income has been redistributed upward in an unprecedented scale the last four decades increasing the plight of our poor – and pushing more people onto the edge of poverty?
SA: I’m not sure I agree with that premise. Yes, I think that discussions of poverty and inequality were largely sidelined from the Reagan period into the 2008 period. But I do think in recent years that more people, including more journalists, are starting to ask these questions and discuss these problems. And, to me, that’s a good thing. It means there’s finally at least some room for a sensible, intelligent, discussion. Take President Obama’s speech to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech; the president spent half his speech talking about poverty. Does that mean he’s about to pull an LBJ and invest a huge amount of political capital in putting poverty center-stage? Not necessarily. But it does suggest he’s willing to be pushed on the issue. It provides an opportunity for the grassroots to start reframing the debate, to start highlighting the moral challenges posed by rampant inequality.
MK: What are some of your suggestions presented in your chapter, “Boosting Economic Security for the Working Poor”?
SA: Again, to return to my earlier answer, I talk about changes to the tax code – ways, for example, to bolster the Earned Income Tax Credit; ways to do what Alaska did a few decades back, when it implemented an oil profit tax dividend, which gives every Alaskan additional income each year; ways to provide states with incentives to create their own state Earned Income Tax Credits. I talk about ways of ensuring that all Americans could get access to higher education funds, via a social insurance system that I term the Educational Opportunity Fund, which would make higher education far more affordable than it currently is – and I link this in with reforms to the social security system that would ensure low-earners end up with more social security money than they currently do.
I also talk about ways to create more affordable housing units in America and ways to expand access to affordable health care. Since housing and health care are two of the biggest stresses pushing families into poverty, it seems to me that suggesting very specific reforms in these areas is absolutely essential in order to generate more economic security.
MK: Given the huge advantage of money and power held by the plutocrats and their ability to frame the conversation about poverty, how optimistic are you that Americans can move from a culture of blaming the poor (and race plays a role in this even among white poor who resent black poor) to a society that sees mutual economic and social support is for the common good and benefits society overall?
SA: Let’s say I’m a cautious, realistic, optimist. I recognize there are huge vested interests in play here, that individuals and organizations with tremendous financial clout and open access to the political system in the post-Citizens United era, are going to fight tooth and nail against a reinvigorated War on Poverty. But I also think that the elections of 2012 showed the limits of big money in politics, and the willingness of a majority of voters to really think these issues through for themselves.
I’m not saying that Obama represents a panacea; he doesn’t. But I do think his better instincts, those that were on display at his Lincoln Memorial Speech on August 28, push him to recognize the moral gravity of America’s poverty epidemic. And I do think that many of those who have worked in his administration over the years also understand, and care about, these issues.
It would be foolish to think any of this will be easy. But one could have said the same thing in 1962, when Harrington published The Other America. And yet that book helped to utterly shift the discussion on poverty in America. These things can happen. And, I think, after years of under-the-surface rumblings, they can burst out onto the political stage remarkably quickly. They did so during the Progressive era, in the wake of the publication of books such as Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives. They did so in the 1930s, and again in the 1960s. It seems to me entirely possible that they could do so again in our era.
Are you eager to finally see a war on poverty? Read TheAmerican Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives. Get it right now by clicking here.