The Complications of American Poverty


By Tanya Silverman

Image by Franco Folini.

Sasha Abramsky explores an omnipresent phenomenon that 50 million Americans can readily identify with today: poverty. His new book, The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives analyzes the political treatment of poverty, and offers insight into the countless communities where economic times are especially rough. He compares his modern-day account to the past work of Michael Harrington or Jacob Riis.

“I set out traveling around the country, going to as many places as I could, trying to get a sense of a full complexity and a full diversity of modern-day poverty,” Abramsky tells BTR.

During these journeys, Abramsky would land in places widely accepted as poor, which was both fascinating and upsetting, yet usually not surprising. However, he began to branch out into seemingly stable locations, like Central Valley, Calif., and suburban Las Vegas and Phoenix — this experience caused him to realize the ways we tend to oversimplify and underestimate American poverty.

“I’d go to places that looked fairly affluent, but the affluence had been completely hollowed out for people who have lost their jobs: they had lost their savings and were deeply underwater on their mortgages,“ he says. “They were juggling debts, credit card bills, health care bills, and oftentimes, were ending up on food pantry lines on weekends.“

Encounters with these “hollowed-out suburbias,” or even trailer parks in states like Idaho, caused Abramsky to continually comprehend how the scale of American poverty was far more expansive, complicated and diverse than what he had previously thought.

Discussing and writing about these observations, Abramsky hopes that the discourse will help dismantle the traditional stereotype that poor Americans are only African Americans and Latinos who live in the inner city. Today, the causes of poverty and levels of inequality have become so extensive throughout different places and diverse populaces, that they put all sorts of Americans at risk; such a reduced typecast of poverty is too simplistic to begin to address its complexity.

More young people moving home after graduating college is an instance of how the greater complications affect assorted (and often unexpected) demographics. Having been educated and trained for the professional world, the presumably “upwardly mobile projectory” only finds the former student unable to earn enough to live on their own.

“Part of it is to do with the price of housing, part of it has to do with low wages, part of has to do with student debt: but when they all come together, there is this situation where, especially for young people starting up in life, it has become a huge challenge just to start out as living independently,” he says.

He comments that this housing situation is obviously “not cataclysmic,” like his encounters of those who live in their cars or in emergency centers, but it does prove that the levels of opportunity become “truncated for young people.”

Another misunderstood case of poverty in America is the unbalanced, and often discriminatory, measures implemented for obtaining human assistance programs.

“There’s a conservative narrative at the moment that says that anyone on government assistance is a moocher. Mitt Romney talked about this in the last election, that ’47 percent pay no income taxes and are living off the money of the government,’” says Abramsky. “The response to that is an increasing amount of punitive policies which are designed to humiliate, so to speak, like drug tests, finger prints, and criminal background checks.”

Even if poor people who apply for aid are treated almost like criminals who are doing something wrong. The biggest recipients of government assistance, according to Abramsky, are actually members of the middle classes who enroll in programs like mortgage tax relief or social security (if they are elderly).

These programs are incredibly expensive for American taxpayers, however, the processes of obtaining them do not amount to the humiliation or lack of empathy prominent in applying for other entitlements like food stamps: no one fingerprints homeowners filing their taxes, nor mandates that the elderly urinate in drug-test cups to receive aid.

Reading up on history, Abramsky compares such imbalanced societal treatment to that of the “humiliores” who lived during Roman times, an alienated class that was subject to crucifixion and other forms of ridicule.

“In our political culture, we’re doing a fairly good job of treating the poor with such contempt and such disdain that we’ve essentially created a subgroup within our broader community,” he says.

Throughout all of the intricate inequalities and assorted misunderstandings of our era, Ambramsky points out that poor people throughout America, and anywhere, should not be viewed as “helpless, abject and waiting for assistance.”

For example, he traveled to Detroit, already aware of its outstanding poverty and abandoned houses – not to mention its infrastructural tragedies like a bankrupt urban structure and dysfunctional school system. Even in all this inherent mess, he found people setting up urban gardening systems throughout the city, fostering resilient self-sufficiency. In other bankrupt or distraught American places Abramsky has researched, he has observed individuals using barter systems instead of cash, exchanging services for goods.

“People get very creative, and oftentimes, they respond very intelligently to situations of crisis, and I think that’s a part of the story that also needs to be told,” says Abramshy.

For more on Sasha Abramsky and the plight of the American poor, check out today’s episode of Third Eye Weekly featuring interview audio from Tanya’s interview with the author and journalist.