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Sasha Abramsky's "The American Way of Poverty"

How the Other Half Still Lives

by CHARLES R. LARSON

Some of us can remember reading Michael Harrington’s ground-breaking study of poverty in the United States: The Other America (1962).  Sadly, Sasha Abramsky’s The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives is an updating of Harrington’s book—just as vital today as ever and, above all, the strongest critique of our failures as a nation to mitigate poverty that I have ever read.  I didn’t say eliminate poverty because we will never do that, but you would think that with America’s vast economic wealth we ought to be able to assist those at the bottom and make their lives a little less miserable.  Abramsky isn’t even writing about the people the right consider worthless, as less than human.  Rather, his study is a “narrative of millions of Americans who had economic security, enjoyed something of the comforts of an affluent society, and then lost it.”

Perhaps this review should end here.  CounterPunch readers are already informed about the reasons why we have failed: prejudice, greed, a lack of empathy by those at the top and their enablers in congress, a rigged tax system to mention the most obvious reasons.  If you already have billions of dollars (the Kochs, the Mars, the Waltons) you probably need a few more.  The idea of a living wage is unfathomable to most of these people, protected 24/7 inside their bubbles, so they don’t have to encounter the great unwashed.  As the system continues to work for them, they get richer and richer and everyone else gets poorer.  As the economists, Jon D. Wisman and Aaron Pacitti, have demonstrated, “Between 1983 and 2007, total inflation-adjusted wealth in the U.S. increased by $27 trillion. If divided equally, every man woman and child would be almost $90,000 richer. But of course it wasn’t divided equally. Almost half of the $27 trillion (49 percent) was claimed by the richest one percent — $11.7 million more for each of their households. The top 10 percent grabbed almost $29 trillion, or 106 percent of the total. Meanwhile, the bottom 90 percent suffered an average decline of just over $16,000 per household.”

And these figures are about what happened before the economic downturn, which is also why the details in Abramsky’s book are so horrifying.  Part I of The American Way of Poverty chronicles the lives of the recent poor, people who lost their jobs in the downtown and now live lives of quiet desperation.  Many are educated; they had decent jobs before the debacle.  Now they have little or nothing because the part-time jobs many of them have acquired pay the minimum wage and no benefits.  Abramsky writes tellingly of their loneliness and embarrassment at their current lot, their diversity (not just ethnicity, but age and education), and their resilience when given a chance.  And their children, the saddest factor of all.  “In May 2012, UNICEF reported that of the world’s developed countries, the United States had the second highest rate of child poverty, with more than 23 percent of its kids officially poor.  Only Romania, still struggling to shed itself of the awful legacy left by Nicolae Ceauşescu’s dictatorship, had worse numbers.”

Question: What do you say to America’s children living in poverty?  That their parents are riff-raff and they need to get their parents to work harder?  Will that comfort them and give them hope?

Abramsky cites Marshall Ganz: “What turns poverty into a scandal rather than a tragedy is the political landscape out of which it bubbles. ‘It makes a difference if we treat it as a bug [in our system] or a feature,’ argued longtime community organizer and Harvard Kennedy School of Government senior lecturer Marshall Ganz.  ‘Is it a bug in the system for which we provide a safety net, or a feature of the system?  It’s a moral, the_american_way_of_poverty_book_coverpolitical, and economic crisis.  It’s a process of suicide.  When countries stratify themselves into a wealthy few and an impoverished many, they go down the tubes.” My hunch is that conservatives care not at all if the country implodes as long as they can increase their money and hide inside their bubbles.  Abramsky calls it “poverty in the land of plutocrats.”  Too bad that naming it won’t alleviate the problem.

Page after page of terrifying statistics are buffered by astute observations that one wishes could be widely discussed, even though discussion in America is mostly shouting.  The poor continue to be blamed for the country’s finances, even though Abramsky shows that most people in poverty are not on welfare.  Tragedies resulting from natural disasters and corporate downsizing get treated as the fault of residents of impacted areas and the recently-fired.  The two million bankruptcies each year ought to tell us something about the desperation of our people, but they don’t.  The median yearly wage peaked in 1973.  1973?  Yes, 1973.

Question:  If corporations are people, shouldn’t corporations pay the same taxes as people?  If my taxes for years have averaged 28 to 34 percent, shouldn’t corporations pay the same?  How naïve can I be.

We all know the whole system is rigged.  Lousy education keeps the uniformed uninformed.  Talk radio and barf TV supports the corporations that operate them. Even The Wall Street Journal (Sept 3) admitted that “Some of those who have left the labor force are unlikely to return.  More than 9.9 million Americans were receiving federal disability payments in August, 1.8 million more than when the recession began.  Experts suspect many of the new recipients would have kept working in a healthier economy; research as found that once people begin receiving disability payments, relatively few return to work.”

The second half of The American Way of Poverty provides multiple solutions for alleviating poverty in the United States but they all involve money, mostly tiny increases in taxes or the implementation of new taxes (again, almost microscopic in size), such as taxing financial transactions (stock sales, for example).  But Abramsky himself is not particularly optimistic about their implementation in this “politically deranged environment.” Conservatives generally do not want to invest in the future (education, for example).  For decades, we have known what to do—how to fix Social Security and Medicare, for example—but we prefer to let conservatives drag the country into darkness.

What do I know about any of this?  I’m a retired professor of English.  Let me provide an analogy.  Why can’t young people, students, write well?  Simple explanation.  Writing can only be taught by students writing exhaustively and teachers marking their papers (also exhaustively).  With five sections of English and thirty students per class, no teacher can mark the papers that need to be assigned.  Solution?  English teachers need to teach much smaller classes so they have sufficient time for paper marking.  But that won’t happen because additional English teachers will need to be hired and that costs additional money.

It’s the same with all of Abramsky’s solutions described in his book.  More money that the rich and their political enablers cannot afford.

Go figure.

Sasha Abramsky: The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives

Nation Books, 355 pp., $26.99

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.