It Wouldn’t Be Hard to End Poverty in America

If we were willing to share the wealth. From Jacobin Magazine:

The poor in our nation are often blamed for their own crises, with lawmakers and even service providers citing bad behavior or ignorance as the cause of individual poverty.

In Broke in America, Joanne Goldblum and Colleen Shaddox reject that narrative. US policies that benefit the wealthy cause poverty, they insist — and changes to those policies can end it.

Fran Quigley interviewed Goldblum and Shaddox for Jacobin.


Almost immediately in this book, you confront the maxim, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime”: “Antipoverty efforts should stop making assumptions about people’s fishing abilities,” you write. “It’s past time to stop judging and give that hungry person a fish.” Why did you take that on?


That saying summarizes everything that’s wrong with how the United States addresses poverty: we say the problem is the person, so we need to fix the person and what that person lacks in skills. But does he even have a fishing pole? Is he too weak with hunger to go fish? Is the “he” in question actually a woman, and women aren’t allowed to fish there?

It’s so paternalistic and so horrible. Yet people say it all the time, like they’ve said something wise and caring.


At the policy level, we create systems that actually make it harder for people to be self-sufficient.

For example, many people who are part of the TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) or workforce development programs are trained to become certified nursing assistants, CNAs. That’s a very important job that we need to do. But it is a poverty-wage job. By and large, people who work in those positions don’t have workplace benefits and are not paid a living wage. But the government trains someone to be a CNA and then it can feel like it’s done something because it’s gotten that person off of the rolls.


You devote a good deal of the book to reviewing the data and the stories that describe US poverty, but you always circle back to solutions, refuting the idea we often hear that “the poor will always be with us.” Why do you think we can, as your subtitle promises, end poverty in the United States?


Because poverty is simply not having enough money to meet your needs. There is nothing more complicated about it than that. And we live in the richest nation in the world, where there is plenty of money. So if we have the political will, we could end poverty.

There are lots of different ways to do it. A living wage is necessary . . . We talk in the book about universal health care, housing supports, about making water and electricity and heat a public good. Other countries do all this, and there is no reason we could not do so as well. If we just tax people appropriately, we can have the money to do all this.


We write about challenges in affording car insurance in places where you need a car to get to work, the difficulty in keeping the lights on, not being able to afford medicines. Being in poverty is like walking across a rotted floor — there are so many ways you can fall through. And it all comes down to money.

[There] is a lot of money that’s churning around in our economy, but it’s not being shared appropriately. And by “shared,” I don’t mean some generous act. I mean that the worker in the warehouse who is making everything run deserves a fair share of the revenue he is generating. We don’t have that now.


You both have worked with poor people in the United States for a long time. But you write that it took a while for you to come to your own realizations that our approach to confronting poverty is fundamentally flawed.


I was a social worker doing direct service with chronically homeless families. When they did have homes, they often did not have heat and hot water. One mom who I worked with never had toilet paper and often did not have clean diapers. . . . It turned out there was no choice involved: there was nothing more than the fact that she couldn’t afford these basic necessities. . . .


At the soup kitchen where I worked, you would always have people after the meal asking, “Do you have 75 cents for the bus?” I used to think, gosh, we should teach them planning skills, how to think more long-term. Because they knew when they came to the soup kitchen, they had to get back home. Later on, I realized: they were hungry, and they got 75 cents somehow to come to the soup kitchen to eat in the first place. That was the wise survival strategy.

So often we make judgments about poor people’s motivation and cognition that are really a reflection of not having resources. I do a lot of work in the criminal legal system, and motivation is a big deal. Do they show up for their appointments? Do they return phone calls?

Well, to show up for an appointment, you need transportation and childcare. To return phone calls, you need a working phone. The written notices may be written in a language they don’t speak. And on and on. It’s very much like that woman who didn’t have toilet paper: she didn’t need a lecture on being a better parent; she needed toilet paper. And the guys at the soup kitchen that I was making judgments about — they needed 75 cents for the bus.


You have your own experiences addressing poverty, you spoke with experts, and you did your own policy research. Why did you consider it important to include in the book the stories of people living in poverty?


These stories matter. There is a certain symbolic annihilation of people in poverty in this country. You watch a situation comedy, and everybody lives in a house with a glittering kitchen with granite countertops. We don’t represent poor people in the world in either nonfiction or fiction terribly much. And when we do, we often reduce them to stereotypes. Colleen really insisted that we interview people from all over the country, to make it clear that poverty exists everywhere in the United States, and that it is not one community, one group, one area, one city. You can go anywhere and find people who are experiencing these issues.


As frontline service providers who have dealt with these practical problems of poverty, why did you include chapters on racism, sexism, and denial of political power?


When you look at any indicator of poverty — who doesn’t have water in their house, who has food insecurity, who dies sooner — you see that race matters. And you can say the same for gender. Women are more likely to be in poverty, more likely to be in extreme poverty. It’s not just that the world is unfair to poor people. It’s doubly unfair when you belong to another oppressed group. There were some communities that are not just left behind, but consciously excluded from prosperity.


That means that part of ending poverty is taking down structures that block access to the political process, educational opportunities, and on and on. For example, we write in the book about redlining and racism in housing policy at all levels. Colleen and I were very intentional about saying these things out loud and clearly, so people cannot pretend that racism and other structural inequalities don’t impact the struggles we are talking about.


You mention other nations’ approaches to basic needs. The United States has a dramatically higher poverty rate than other wealthy nations and dramatically greater levels of income and wealth inequality. What are other countries doing right that we don’t do here?


They establish some sort of floor. There is no floor in the United States — there is no depth of poverty that you can’t fall to. We have made TANF time-limited, we have enacted policies to make SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly Food Stamps] time-limited. You can be literally left out in the cold here.

One of the biggest things that’s different about the United States than most other countries is that you can become bankrupt due to medical debt. Not having guaranteed health care and the likelihood of accumulating debt related to health care is uniquely American and incredibly dangerous. . . .You talk to people around the world, and they just are gobsmacked that we allow this. . . .


What led you down the path of devoting your professional careers to anti-poverty work?


From the time that I can remember, the work that I felt called to do was being a social worker. My mother was a social worker who focused on reproductive rights, and my father was an attorney who did a lot of pro bono work with the ACLU and other causes. . . .

I grew up in New Jersey and was very lucky to go to Hunter College School of Social Work, which teaches what they refer to as Jane Addams social work: not therapy in an office, but changing systems and working to support people.


Probably the defining moment of my life was when I was a very young child, about five or six. My mom was a waitress who worked incredibly hard to support us all. At night, when her feet were just aching, she would put her feet in a tub of Epsom salts. One night I was sitting on the floor playing next to her and I saw the basin fill up with blood because her calluses and blisters had cracked. And I remember thinking: People don’t know how hard her life is, because if they knew they would help. When I grow up, I’m going to write stories about people like my mom. . . .


I know Colleen is an active Democratic Socialists of America member, and Joanne describes herself as “a little left of liberal.” How far removed from our current U.S. political reality are your prescriptions for ending poverty?


I am a socialist. But you can have onions in a soup without it being onion soup, right? Many of the policies we’re calling for are things that could be labeled socialist, but they’re going on in other capitalist countries. For example, Japan is a very capitalist country where childcare is free. We have just taken capitalism to a really toxic extreme in the United States.


There have been a lot of books written on poverty, and certainly a lot of media coverage. Who were you aiming to reach with this book?


We wrote this for people who consider themselves to be progressive and may be sympathetic to the poor. But they also have heard the line that poverty is an individual failing or think that it is unsolvable. It’s not.

Eviction vs. Conviction

We hear a lot about criminal justice in America and how it adversely affects the lives of black men in particular. A similar story should be told about housing in America and how it adversely affects the lives of black women. Lots of black men get convicted. Lots of black women get evicted.

Katha Pollitt’s 2016 review of “Evicted”, by Matthew Desmond, in The Guardian:

What if the dominant discourse on poverty is just wrong? What if the problem isn’t that poor people have bad morals – that they’re lazy and impulsive and irresponsible and have no family values – or that they lack the skills and smarts to fit in with our shiny 21st-century economy? What if the problem is that poverty is profitable? These are the questions at the heart of Evicted, Matthew Desmond’s extraordinary ethnographic study of tenants in low-income housing in the deindustrialised middle-sized city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

You might not think that there is a lot of money to be extracted from a dilapidated trailer park or a black neighbourhood of “sagging duplexes, fading murals, 24-hour daycares”. But you would be wrong. Tobin Charney makes $400,000 a year out of his 131 trailers, some of which are little better than hovels. Sherrena Tarver, a former schoolteacher who is one of the only black female landlords in the city, makes enough in rents on her numerous properties – some presentable, others squalid – to holiday in Jamaica and attend conferences on real estate.

Desmond follows the intertwined fortunes of eight families and a host of minor characters. Arleen Belle and Doreen Hinkston are black mothers clinging to the edge of low-wage employment; Crystal and Trisha are fragile young black women whose upbringing was violent and chaotic; Lamar is a genial black father of two who lost both his legs to frostbite when he passed out on crack in an abandoned house; Scott is a white male nurse who lost his licence when he stole opioids from his patients; Larraine, also white, is a slightly brain-damaged sweet soul. It is sometimes a little hard to keep up with the storylines as they weave in and out of the text, but no matter. What is important is that Desmond takes people who are usually seen as worthless – there is even a trailer-dweller nicknamed Heroin Susie – and shows us their full humanity, how hard they struggle to retain their dignity, humour and kindness in conditions that continually drag them down.

The main condition holding them back, Desmond argues, is rent. The standard measure is that your rent should be no more than 30% of your income, but for poor people it can be 70% or more. After he paid Sherrena his $550 rent out of his welfare cheque, Lamar had only $2.19 a day for the month. When he is forced to repay a welfare cheque he has been sent in error and falls behind on rent, he sells his food stamps for half their face value and volunteers to paint an upstairs apartment, but it is not enough. People such as Lamar live in chronic debt to their landlord, who can therefore oust them easily whenever it is convenient – if they demand repairs, for example, like Doreen, or if a better tenant comes along. Sherrena liked renting to the clients of a for-profit agency that handles – for a fee – the finances of people on disability payments who can’t manage on their own. Money from government programmes intended to help the poor – welfare, disability benefits, the earned-income tax credit – go straight into the landlord’s pocket and, ironically, fuel rising housing costs. Public housing and housing vouchers are scarce. Three in four who qualify for housing assistance get nothing.

Even in the Great Depression, evictions used to be rare. Now, each year, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of renters are put out on the street. Even a paid-up tenant can be easily evicted. Arleen loses one apartment when her son Jori throws a snowball at a passing car and the enraged driver kicks in the front door, and another when the police come after Jori when he kicks a teacher and runs home. Any kind of trouble that brings the police can lead to eviction, which means women can lose their homes if they call 911 when their man beats them up. Think about that the next time someone asks why women don’t call the cops on violent partners.

As Desmond shows, the main victims of eviction are women. Why? They are paid less than men for doing the same job. They are less able to make deals with their landlord, who is almost always a man, to work off part of their rent with manual labour. The main reason, though, is that women are raising children as single mothers. They not only have all the costs and burdens of childrearing, they need bigger apartments – which, since landlords dislike renting to families with young children, are harder to find and a lot harder to keep. Other sociologists – Kathryn Edin, for example – have found that single mothers often get help under the table from their children’s fathers, but Arleen, Doreen and Doreen’s adult daughter Patrice get mostly trouble from men, who are variously abusive, addicted, vanished or in prison. In one of the book’s many small sad moments, Arleen claims she receives child support in order to seem more stable and respectable to a prospective landlord. In fact, she gets nothing.

Desmond lays out the crucial role housing plays in creating and reinforcing white privilege. In Milwaukee, one of the most segregated cities in the US, all black people suffer from housing discrimination and all white people benefit at least a little from the racial dividend – a landlord who will rent to them but not to black people, for instance, or offer them a nicer apartment. Black people have the worst housing in the worst neighbourhoods – the great fear of the trailer-park people, who are all white, is that they will end up on the black side of town. Eviction hits black women hardest of all, and the bleak benches of housing courts, which deal with disputes between landlords and tenants, are full of black women and their children: “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighbourhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”

An evicted woman watches as a removal company moves her property out of her rented apartment on to the pavement.
An evicted woman watches as employees of a storage company remove her belongings to place them on the pavement in front of her rented apartment. Photograph: Sally Ryan/Zuma Press/Corbis

What are the social costs of eviction? It puts incredible stress on families. It prevents people from saving the comparatively small sums that would let them stabilise their situation. They are always starting over from scratch, losing their possessions in the chaos of removal, or putting them in storage and losing them when they can’t pay the fees. An eviction on your record makes the next apartment harder to get. Eviction damages children, who are always changing schools, giving up friends and toys and pets – and living with the exhaustion and depression of their parents. We watch Jori go from a sweet, protective older brother to an angry, sullen boy subject to violent outbursts who is falling way behind in school.

Eviction makes it hard to keep up with the many appointments required by the courts and the byzantine welfare system: several characters have their benefits cut because notices are sent to the wrong address. Eviction destroys communities: when people move frequently, they don’t form the social bonds and pride in place that encourage them to care for their block and look out for their neighbours. “With Doreen’s eviction, Thirty-Second Street lost a steadying presence – someone who loved and invested in the neighbourhood, who contributed to making the block safer – but Wright Street didn’t gain one.”

“There is an enormous amount of pain and poverty in this rich land,” Desmond writes in his conclusion. That is easy to say, and many books by journalists and academics have done so. By examining one city through the microscopic lens of housing, however, he shows us how the system that produces that pain and poverty was created and is maintained. I can’t remember when an ethnographic study so deepened my understanding of American all and safeguarding our independence.

Dollars and Poverty

Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, is worried that the federal government spends too much money trying to help poor people:

“The question isn’t whether the federal government should help; the question is how,” Mr. Ryan said at [a committee] hearing on Wednesday. “How do we make sure that every single taxpayer dollar we spend to reduce poverty is actually working?” 

Can you imagine someone like Ryan ever wanting to make sure that every single dollar spent on the military is actually working? I can’t.

The quote above comes from a New York Times article called “Changed Life of the Poor: Better Off But Far Behind”. The article describes the economic situation facing the poor today: 

Two broad trends account for much of the change in poor families’ consumption over the past generation: federal programs and falling prices.

Since the 1960s, both Republican and Democratic administrations have expanded programs like food stamps and the earned-income tax credit….

As a result, the differences in what poor and middle-class families consume on a day-to-day basis are much smaller than the differences in what they earn.

“There’s just a whole lot more assistance per low-income person than there ever has been,” said … a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “That is propping up the living standards to a considerable degree,” he said, citing a number of statistics on housing, nutrition and other categories.

[At the same time], the same global economic trends that have helped drive down the price of most goods also have limited the well-paying industrial jobs once available to a huge swath of working Americans. And the cost of many services crucial to escaping poverty — including education, health care and child care — has soared.

So, for example:

Tammie Hagen-Noey, a 49-year-old living in Richmond, Va., tapped at an iPhone as she sat on the porch of the group home where she lives… She earns $7.25 an hour at a local McDonald’s, and makes a little extra money on the side from planting small plots of land for neighbors….A few months ago, she sold her car for $500 to make rent.

Almost everybody could manage their spending better (even members of Congress) and that woman in Virginia presumably didn’t spend hundreds of dollars to buy the latest iPhone. Human beings get into all kinds of trouble, because of their own mistakes or through no fault of their own, and will continue to need help from the rest of us, even if every single dollar intended to help them doesn’t “work”. Republicans claim that cutting taxes and reducing regulations will create lots of better-paying jobs, allowing us to spend less on government assistance for the poor. What they’re really advocating is a race to the bottom, with more inequality, dangerous workplaces, pollution and unsafe food. Since we have to compete in a global economy, we’ll end up closer to the economic middle in future decades (nobody stays on top forever), but we shouldn’t race to become worse off.

Us, Them and Incentives Again, But Briefly

Remember when Clinton was President and the federal government briefly ran a surplus? The Republican response was: “Cut taxes!” Their justification was: “It’s our money, not the government’s!”. Since then, the surplus having been eliminated, the Republican response has been: “Cut taxes! That will lead to growth and reduce the deficit!” Which isn’t completely relevant to “Us, Them and Incentives”, but I’m getting there. It’s another example of how adherence to a political ideology can lead to inconsistency, especially when you try to justify what you already want to do. 

In writing about the Republican approach to incentives this week (less income for the rich will make them less productive, but less income for the poor will make them more productive), I may have been unfair. Maybe the Republican position makes sense based on the relative economic success of the rich and the poor.

After all, rich people are doing well, you might say, so they must be doing things right. Therefore, let’s reward them. That way they won’t get discouraged and stop doing things right. Poor people, however, aren’t doing well, so they must be doing things wrong. Obviously, we shouldn’t reward them for doing things wrong. And, if we don’t reward them, maybe they’ll start doing things right. In a capitalist nutshell, economic incentives should be given to productive people, and economic disincentives should be given to unproductive people.

This approach sounds an awful lot like social engineering, which the Republicans are supposed to be against. Putting that aside, however, the question is whether it’s a good idea to make life harder for people who are struggling and make it easier for people who aren’t. If you view life as a total morality play, in which good people prosper and bad people don’t, maybe it does makes sense. That is, we all know, the reason for heaven and hell (which St. Thomas Aquinas understood so perfectly).

But people are doing well or badly these days, economically-speaking, for lots of different reasons: skills, health, age, location, connections, work ethic, luck, education, competition and so on. In fact, one major hindrance to doing well economically is being poor to begin with (when you’re poor, it’s harder to get around, harder to fit in, harder to stay healthy, and so on). Once we view our fellow Americans as individuals with actual, often difficult lives, not simply as Us and Them, the reasonable response is to help the ones who are struggling, not the ones who are already getting ahead.

(Coming soon, “A Guide to Reality, Part 11”, I hope.)

Us and Them Again

As noted in an update to the post below, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is having their annual convention, which means leading Republican politicians are getting the chance to express their deepest thoughts. So Senator Rubio of Florida got the opportunity to explain why Franklin Roosevelt had it all wrong — we should be very, very afraid.

Also today, Congressman Paul Ryan highlighted the difference between the right and the left by telling the story of a Wisconsin kid who’d prefer bringing his own lunch to school instead of mooching off the rest of us by getting a lunch at taxpayer expense.

Juliet Lapidos of the New York Times points out Congressman Ryan’s underlying, contradictory assumption:

[Ryan] argued that Americans want to work — every bit as much as the Republican Party wants them to work. “People don’t just want a life of comfort,” he said. “They want a life of dignity. They want a life of self-determination”….

In Mr. Ryan’s view, Americans would rather depend on themselves, or their families, than on the government. And yet, in Mr. Ryan’s view, if these same Americans gain access to government programs, they’ll jump at the chance to abandon their responsibilities, effectively exchanging a “life of dignity” for a “life of comfort.”

That doesn’t make sense. If all or most Americans, like the kid in Wisconsin, want their own lunch rather than a government lunch, then the prospect of a government lunch won’t change their behavior.

Ryan doesn’t notice the contradiction, since he thinks of his fellow citizens as Us and Them. On one hand, there are the honorable, hard-working Americans who hate the idea of getting help from the government (you know who they are). On the other hand, there are the dishonorable, lazy Americans who want nothing more than to live off government handouts (you know who they are too).

This is the same point I tried to make recently in a comment on another blog. There is a strange dichotomy between how Republicans expect poor people and rich people to respond to financial incentives:

— People who are struggling should receive as little financial assistance as possible, because helping them will only discourage them from becoming productive members of society. After all, they’re not really motivated to increase their incomes beyond the bare minimum. In their case, therefore, less income will translate into more work, and more income will translate into less work.

— People who aren’t struggling should receive as much financial assistance as possible, especially in the form of lower taxes, because helping them will encourage them to become even more productive members of society. In their case, more income will translate into more work, while less income will translate into less work!

It isn’t fun at all being poor or unemployed, but Republicans believe that making life as difficult as possible for the economy’s losers will convince them to do better. That’s because they’re not like us. They don’t care about improving their situations and they don’t respond to economic incentives the way normal people do.

Less money for the poor, so they will work harder; more money for the rich, so they will work harder. It makes perfect sense!

(Note: I’m going to try to lay off writing about right-wingers for a while. Maybe I’ll try fashion reporting. Or poetry! “There once was a girl from Nantucket, …”)