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Fifty years after Michael Harrington published his groundbreaking book The Other America, in which he chronicled the lives of people excluded from the Age of Affluence, poverty in America is back with a vengeance. It is made up of both the long-term chronically poor and new working poor — the tens of millions of victims of a broken economy and an ever more dysfunctional political system. In many ways, for the majority of Americans, financial insecurity has become the new norm.
The American Way of Poverty shines a light on this travesty. Sasha Abramsky brings the effects of economic inequality out of the shadows and, ultimately, suggests ways for moving toward a fairer and more equitable social contract. Exploring everything from housing policy to wage protections and affordable higher education, Abramsky lays out a panoramic blueprint for a reinvigorated political process that, in turn, will pave the way for a renewed War on Poverty.
It is, Harrington believed, a moral outrage that in a country as wealthy as America, so many people could be so poor. Written in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, in an era of grotesque economic extremes, The American Way of Poverty brings that same powerful indignation to the topic.
The American Way of Poverty is a book with many benefactors and champions. I wish I could say that I woke up one morning with the concept fully formed in my mind, but I didn’t. Rather, there were an array of themes that I was exploring in my journalism and a slew of economic and political issues that, in the years surrounding the 2008 economic collapse, I found to be increasingly fascinating. The unifying concept of the book—the notion that there is something quintessentially American in how we, as a country, think about and experience poverty—emerged over time, with the issues crystallizing as I talked them over with editors; fellow writers; policy analysts and activists; and, of course, hundreds of people experiencing increasingly difficult economic conditions around the country.
The conceit is a large one: that a single book can both paint a vivid, reportage-based portrait of life on the margins of the world’s richest nation and, at the same time, develop a blueprint for a set of programmatic and conceptual changes that offer a way to a fairer future. Without a strong network of supporters who believed both that the issue was important and that I had it within me to tell this story, The American Way of Poverty would never have been written.
I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Mimi Corcoran and Elise Dellinger, both of the Open Society Foundation’s Special Fund for Poverty Alleviation. It was they who initially reached out to me to suggest a large-scale, long-term journey through this hidden America. And it was they who came through with a grant to make this project possible. Their colleague Maria Archuleta was also a source of continual encouragement as the project evolved, from the early days when I first began to build the Voices of Poverty oral history website through the frenetic months of writing this book.
From the beginning, my researcher, Caitlin Buckley, provided invaluable help and extraordinarily speedy responses to my requests for information. Her memo-writing and statistics-collecting skills got me over many a roadblock as the project unfolded. Philip Acosta of Frontside Productions went far beyond the call of duty in the time and effort he and his team put into designing and implementing the Voices of Poverty website. We worked hard, and sometimes under extreme deadlines, to get the website up and running. The result was a testament to Philip’s professionalism and dedication to the work at hand. Jessica Bartholow of the Western Center on Law and Poverty ended up serving as an informal member of the team, making herself available for frequent coffees, over which we would discuss complex public policy issues. Her input was crucial for framing the problems at hand. Substitute whiskey for coffee, and Glenn Backes performed a similarly valuable function. From afar, JoAnne Page in New York, Marshall Ganz in Cambridge, Rocky Anderson in Salt Lake City, and Bill Luckett in Mississippi also allowed me to use them as sounding boards.
Once the reporting itself got under way, another circle of colleagues came to play a vital role: the Nation magazine’s Katrina vanden Heuvel, Mark Sorkin, and Roane Carey all encouraged my work on poverty and spent time both brainstorming with me and editing my articles into a shape fit for publication. At the American Prospect, I owe thanks to Kit Rachlis, Harold Meyerson, and Bob Kuttner for their ongoing interest in my reporting on these themes. Other editors who backed this work include Mike Hoyt and Justin Peters at the Columbia Journalism Review and Melinda Welsh at the Sacramento News & Review. And, of course, I perennially owe profound appreciation to my agent, Victoria Skurnick, and to my book editor, Carl Bromley. A million thanks to you both for your determined belief in the vital nature of this project.
I would be remiss if I did not also give my warmest gratitude to Peter Barnes and the staff of the Mesa Refuge writers’ retreat, who provided me the inestimable gift in early fall 2012 of two weeks’ residency in the hills above the Pacific Ocean, just north of San Francisco. It was in those two paradisiacal weeks that the scales were lifted and the rough edges of the manuscript made smooth.
Almost always, any list of acknowledgments is incomplete and somewhat arbitrary. Let me, therefore, apologize in advance if I neglect to include individuals who feel they ought to have been included.
With that caveat, I owe particular thanks to the staff of Demos, a think tank at which I have been a fellow for a number of years and which, during that time, has done an extraordinary job of highlighting economic justice themes. My thanks to my colleagues at the University of California at Davis—to my friends in the University Writing Program, who have given me the great opportunity to teach nonfiction writing to always-fascinating, always-changing groups of young students; to the attorneys at the law school’s immigration law clinic, who have done so much to highlight the myriad challenges immigrants in America face; and to Ann Stevens, Marianne Page, and the other members of the wonderful team at the Center for Poverty Research, who are helping to put America’s poverty crisis center stage. My deepest gratitude, too, to Gary Dymski and A. G. Block, with whom I worked for several years at the University of California Center Sacramento, discussing public policy and economic questions with many of the best and the brightest from within the UC system and the world of California state politics. I owe a debt of gratitude as well to Jacob Hacker, Michael Katz, Katherine Newman, Alice O’Connor, Jim Ziliak, and the many other academics around the country who took the time to explain their ideas to me and to point me in the direction of other people to talk to and additional books to read.
Among my friends, special thanks are due to Eyal Press, Adam Shatz, Theo Emery, Vicki Colliver, Kari Lydersen, Kitty Ussher, Jesse Moss, Danny Postel, John Hill, Steve Magagnini, Ben Ehrenreich, Jessica Garrison, Michael Soller, Rose George, Maura McDermott, Carolyn Juris, Raj Patel, George Lerner, and Jason Ziedenberg. Over the decades, you have acted as an extraordinary politics and journalism brain trust for discussing ideas and methods of telling a story. To my journalism professors and mentors Michael Shapiro and Sam Freedman at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and to Andrew Graham, Adam Swift, and Alan Montefiore, my tutors at Balliol College, Oxford, I remain forever indebted to all of you for your insights and teachings.
It would, of course, have been impossible to research and write this book without the love, the support, and the enthusiasm of my family. To my parents, Lenore and Jack; to my brother, Kolya, and my sister, Tanya; and to my wife, Julie Sze, and my children, Sofia and Leo, I shout out from the rooftops, “Thank you!” You have helped me ask the right questions and seek out the important answers. To Julie, who not only tolerated but also made possible my extended absences on reporting trips and at writing retreats, I owe my deepest gratitude. To Sofia and Leo, I owe my equilibrium: Your joy in life reminds me how important it is not to sweat the small stuff.
Above all, my thanks go to the many hundreds of men, women, and children in states around the country who let me into their lives and trusted me enough to share their most intimate stories. Sometimes you laughed, many times you cried, always you made clear that your experiences meant something—that the pain, the hardship, and the chaos so many have lived through these past several years were stories worth telling and stories worth listening to. Your words too often humbled me; your dignity inspired me.
The Voices of Poverty
POVERTY IN THE LAND OF THE PLUTOCRATS
In the fall of 2011, with hunger rearing up across America, the large freezer bins at the Port Carbon Food Pantry (PCFP), in the small, gritty, Appalachian town of Pottsville, Pennsylvania, were empty. The shelves next to the freezers were also largely barren. A few boxes of egg noodles provided about the only sign that this was a place in the business of giving out food to those who could no longer afford to buy it. An adjacent room was doing slightly better, displaying stacks of canned fruit, canned corn, beans, and bags of pasta. But, taken as a whole, these were slim pickings. Clients who walked or drove up the hill, the remnants of an unseasonably early snow storm still on the ground, from the center of town to the two-story building were eligible for six to ten days of food, but that food was all they’d be able to get from the pantry for the next two months.
Three years earlier, explained PCFP’s coordinator, Ginny Wallace, the rooms were filled to bursting with food. Then the economy tanked; demand for the free food soared; and at the same time, locals’ ability to donate to the pantry crumbled.
Pottsville, and neighboring communities such as Mechanicsville and Schuylkill, made up a bleak region even in the good times. A onetime coal mining hub, it was a center of labor militancy in the early years of the twentieth century. But in recent decades most of the mines had closed down; many of the jobs that replaced the unionized mine work were low-paying, service-sector ones that provided few benefits. Add into the mix rising unemployment and home foreclosures, and an already precarious situation suddenly got a whole lot worse. “The need has increased and the surplus food given has decreased,” Wallace explained, holding open the lids of the large freezers to emphasize their emptiness. “The only thing in here is frost building up. Three years ago, we used to have to turn down deliveries.”
Many of the men and women who were helped by food pantries such as this were elderly people on fixed incomes who increasingly found they couldn’t stretch meager monthly checks to pay all their bills, buy all their medicines, and also feed themselves. People such as 86-year-old widow Mary, a onetime factory worker and bookkeeper of Polish immigrant stock, whose $592 Social Security check didn’t come close to covering all her costs. “I manage,” she said flintily. “You’ve got to know how to manage. And if you’re a boozer and a smoker, then you don’t manage. I live according to my means. That’s what life is all about.” Yet despite her pride, Mary, who picked up some additional money helping to care for a 102-year-old woman nearby, recently had had to turn to the pantry for help. “Every time you go to the store or turn around,” she explained, “the bills are higher.”
Other pantry clients were younger, families whose breadwinners lost their jobs during the recession that followed the financial collapse of 2008. Take 53-year-old Luann Prokop, an accountant who was laid off when the local manufacturing company she worked for could no longer stay afloat as an independent business and was taken over, and restructured, by a multinational corporation. “I had to apply for food stamps. Money was really tight. By the grace of God I was able to hold onto my house, but I did have to apply for two deferments during the two years I was on unemployment. I became more introverted, especially after getting rejected [from jobs she’d applied for] over and over and over again. I had a good, solid background; I have fabulous references. I couldn’t understand why. It was a difficult, dark period.”
Having burned through her savings, her retirement accounts, and her unemployment benefits, and having fallen far behind on her mortgage, Luann realized that unless she started using the food pantry she and her two teenage children would literally go without meals. Then, adjusting her expectations ever downward, she took an accounting job at the center that housed the pantry. She was bringing in about $20,000 per year, whereas a few years earlier she had earned $60,000—not enough to live well, but too much to qualify for many government benefits.
Now, I shop in thrift stores. I live paycheck to paycheck. I make sure my children have necessities before I buy for myself. Fortunately, I don’t have a car payment, but my car is on its last lap. I’m barely holding onto the house. I’m on assistance for electricity—a state program, which allows me to keep my lights on. I don’t know how I’m going to make it through the winter with heating. I saved up money for oil, but it’s a fraction of what I’m going to need to get through the winter. I don’t get food stamps. I’m strictly on my own. Last year it was really, really rough—coming up with the money to heat the house. I had to defer my mortgage for three months; they added the interest I would have paid onto my new payments.
When she ran out of food, Luann improvised. “Chicken bouillon plus rice tastes like chicken rice soup,” she said, and shrugged. “Of course, there’s no chicken in it.”
And then there were the pantry denizens escaping domestic violence who had run up against draconian cuts to the shelter system. One client, Wallace recalled, was a woman in her late forties, about to enter a shelter. “We got a request to provide her food because she has to bring her own food to the shelter. The programs that assist the working poor and the poor are in dire straits.”
Variations on the stories from Appalachian Pennsylvania could be encountered in cities and regions across America. After all, an economic free-fall of the kind that the United States underwent after the housing market collapse and then the broader financial meltdown leaves carnage in its wake. For those born into poverty, the hardship is magnified. For millions of others who thought of themselves as upwardly mobile, with middle-class aspirations and middle-class spending patterns, the crisis flung them down the economic ladder, replacing a precarious fiscal stability with a continuous struggle to survive.
In the working-class, immigrant community of Pomona, a few miles east of downtown Los Angeles, in fall 2008 five eleventh-grade and ten twelfth-grade students in Village Academy teacher Michael Steinman’s English classes began compiling their stories of poverty for a video project. “I was aware of the economy, but I wasn’t personally affected too terribly,” Steinman explained. “But when I asked my students how things were going, in my AP class—we were studying The Great Gatsby at the time—every single student had been affected. I wanted them to give testimony to what they had witnessed and they were going through. The concept of the American Dream has either evaporated or gone away. Daily, I work with kids who are very much stressed. They hide it well; there’s a certain amount of shame that they carry about being poor or struggling. But I do know they’re going through circumstances that definitely impact their studies and their ability to think about the future and be positive.” The video footage that they created and put up on YouTube went viral in January 2009. Barack Obama’s presidential transition team was shown the video. A couple of months later when he visited Southern California, the newly inaugurated president held a rally in a lot adjacent to the buildings that housed the experimental school—whose student body is overwhelmingly made up of young people from ethnic minority backgrounds, and one ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of California’s best educational establishments. Obama also invited Steinman and his students to the White House.
Yet for all the hoopla around their project, nearly a full presidential cycle later, conditions for many of the students at the Village Academy high school remained appalling.1 Large numbers of the kids lived with parents who had lost their jobs during the recession and either failed to find new employment or were working long hours at jobs that paid only minimum wage. Many had lost homes to foreclosure—either because of variable-rate, subprime mortgages or because of unemployment—or, behind on mortgage or rent payments, lived in constant fear of losing their homes to the banks or to landlords. Almost all of Steinman’s students qualified for free school breakfasts and lunches—and, for many of these kids, these were the only hot meals they ate. Evenings and weekends, they either went without or grabbed some dry cereal to stanch their hunger. Several honors students at the high-performing school, who should have been applying to college, were instead thinking of quitting education and getting dead-end work just to help their families pay the bills.
“Sometimes I cry,” Oliver Lopez explained as he described his family’s struggles—his mother out of work, his father working two part-time minimum-wage jobs, he and his three younger brothers living from meal to meal. “I see how hard my father works; and I’m 18 years old and just come to school. I don’t do nothing. Sometimes we don’t even have food to eat.”
One of Oliver’s classmates described how he, his mother, his two sisters, his grandmother, two uncles, an aunt, and her daughter all lived in a one-bedroom apartment, most of them sleeping on the floor, until they fell behind on their rent and were evicted in early 2010. The family had split up, with groups of two or three going off to stay with different relatives. The young man was living with his mother, who in a good week was earning $300 as a housecleaner, and his two younger sisters in a single room in a friend’s house. During mealtimes, the mother would eat leftovers off of his and his sisters’ barely filled plates. “I’m depressed. I spend most of my time crying alone. My mom tells me I should get a job. She gets mad at me. She works from 6 A.M. to 5 P.M. I’m actually out trying to find a job. But there’s nothing.”
In the tiny community of Anthony, just outside of Las Cruces, New Mexico, Lorenza and Jorge Caro lived on a piece of scrubby land in the harsh but beautiful high desert. Their living conditions were, to say the least, extraordinary. At the back end of a sandy, cluttered lot, the pastel blues of the New Mexican sky providing a backdrop, they lived in an uninsulated, windowless, cinder-block storage space with an unfinished concrete floor. One half was crammed floor to ceiling with pickings from street fairs and yard sales—they toured the region, buying goods on the cheap and then reselling them at a fraction above what they paid in the street markets of Las Cruces. The other half of the room, divided from the pile by a hung blue tarpaulin, contained a high bed, a propane-fueled stove, huge piles of clothes and bric-a-brac, and a plastic chair with a circular hole cut in its wicker seat. When in use, a chamber pot would be placed beneath the chair. This, said Lorenza in Spanish, her eyes lowered as she talked, was the device on which they performed their morning ablutions.
It was a strange scene, at once theatrical and also deeply depressing. The storage space was dank and chilly, an incubator of germs. Its occupants, wrapped up in heavy layers against the cold—she in lilac sweatpants and a thick white coat, he in workmen’s boots, jeans, a wool-lined blue jean jacket, and a woolen hat—were edgy, kind yet skittish, nervous that they were being judged for how they lived.
The Caros lost their mobile home in 2010, when they fell behind on their payments after Jorge lost his job. Now, despite the fact that Jorge had managed to get another minimum-wage job as a cleaner at a local company, and that Lorenza brought in a few dollars from her flea market sales, they lived in the storage room on the land that used to host their home. “We meet our necessities, we don’t have beyond our necessities, but we meet our necessities here,” explained Lorenza in a soft voice. “It’s very, very cold when I use the toilet seat. We have electricity, so we have little heaters right now. But when we run out of gas—the stove is propane and helps to keep the heat—it gets colder. Last January it was very bad for us. We had the freezer, didn’t have any water. I had colds. When we need medical care we drink whatever herbs we can, [take] Tylenol.”
During the toughest times, they had gotten food on credit from women at the flea market and made do on one or two meals a day. “In the morning we’d have a cup of coffee and a piece of bread; in the afternoon a burrito or gorditas—Mexican sandwiches. Nothing in the evening. Sometimes we had those little instant soup cups out here.” On the rare instances they had spare money, they bought potatoes and beans in bulk and made them last for weeks.
The dreams the Caros had were impossibly modest. “I expect things to get better,” said Lorenza. “Now that Jorge has a full-time job we hope things will get better. I want to live in a house with an indoor toilet. A nice, big toilet.” She laughed, the nervous laugh of someone on the verge of tears. Jorge fiddled with a kettle of water on the propane stove. The sun was starting to go down, and already the mid-December evening was desperately cold.
Residents of the United States increasingly inhabit two economies. Prokop, the kids in Steinman’s class, the Caros—they are the denizens of the ill-starred half of this reality, of that “economic underworld” conjured up in Harrington’s writing.
Statistics from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations (UN) show that the United States has the lowest average life expectancy and the highest infant mortality rates of any affluent democracy with a population of more than ten million. “Back in 1987 only seven other countries had longer life expectancies,” wrote the UN health economist Howard Friedman in his book The Measure of a Nation. “Today we’re not even in the top twenty.”
Having posted huge increases in life expectancy in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, the United States rested on its laurels. While other countries extended healthcare to all residents and provided decent antenatal care to all women regardless of income, America in the latter years of the twentieth and first years of the twenty-first centuries witnessed an epidemic of uninsurance, with tens of millions of Americans having no access to routine medical care.2 The poor health outcomes, Friedman noted, were concentrated in particular parts of the population. Asian American women, he wrote, had a life expectancy twenty years higher than that of African American men, living to nearly 90 years on average.3 Well-off white women could also expect to live well into their 80s.4 In stark contrast, several news organizations have reported in recent years that the life expectancy for African American men in New York’s Harlem neighborhood is lower than that for residents of Bangladesh.5 And in August 2012, the journal Health Affairs published a paper showing that white women without a high school diploma had seen a catastrophic five-year decline in their average life expectancy since 1990. For white men in the same educational grouping, the decline was slightly smaller, at three years, but still highly disturbing.6
The prevalence of low–birth weight babies and of infant mortality was far higher in the South—where a lower percentage of the population had access to healthcare and where, historically, the safety net was weaker—than in the Northeast, and was far more common among African Americans than among whites. Similarly, according to research carried out by a team funded by the Social Science Research Council, the eleven states in America with the lowest life expectancy were all in the South.7 It wasn’t that American life expectancy was declining, or that infant mortality was going up; rather, it was that because of the huge inequalities in American society and the well of poverty at the bottom, other countries were now improving at a faster rate than was the United States.
In education, the same trends held. The poorer the family one was born into, the higher the likelihood that a child would struggle in school. Even if he or she did well in the classroom, there was a lower likelihood that the child would be able to attend college. Friedman noted that the most successful eighth graders from poor economic backgrounds had only the same chance of attaining a bachelor’s degree as the least successful eighth graders from the wealthiest echelon of society. When the literacy, math, and scientific knowledge of American schoolkids was compared to most other affluent democracies, America performed abysmally. But the numbers weren’t evenly distributed. White and Asian American students, especially those from the middle classes, held their own in these international comparisons and as a result were disproportionately able to access many of the world’s top universities after finishing school. By contrast, African American and Hispanic schoolkids, and those whites far down the economic ladder, scored very poorly. Once again, the scale of inequity in America, as compared to most other first world democracies, was skewing the country’s education numbers downward vis-à-vis other nations.
At the top of the U.S. economy, highly educated, highly skilled professionals are in possession of an ever-greater proportion of the country’s wealth. Five percent of Americans live in families with annual incomes in excess of $180,000.8 That’s enough to be very comfortable but not to buy Picassos, fly in private jets, or give tens of thousands of dollars to a political campaign on behalf of a chosen candidate. To get that level of affluence and influence, one has to go even further up the income chain. In fact, it’s at the very peak of the economy, among the wealthiest 1 percent, that incomes have truly soared in recent decades. Since the late 1970s, the real income of this group of privileged Americans has almost tripled. As of 2011, Forbes magazine found 412 Americans had assets in excess of $1 billion. According to the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook for 2011, of the nearly 85,000 people globally with a net worth of more than $50 million each, upward of 35,000 of them live in the United States.9 Take it down even one more level and the 2011 World Wealth Report estimated that the United States had 3.1 million millionaires.10
[This] portrait of poverty is one of great complexity and diversity, existential loneliness and desperationbut also amazing resilience
Abramsky's well-researched, deeply felt depiction of poverty is eye-opening, and his outrage is palpable. He aims to stimulate discussion, but whether his message provokes action remains to be seen.”
"Abramsky's portraits of the poor illustrate three striking points: the isolation, diversity-people with no jobs and people with multiple jobs-and resilience of the poor. Drawing on ideas from a broad array of equality advocates, Abramsky offers detailed policies to address poverty, including reform in education, immigration, energy, taxation, criminal justice, housing, Social Security, and Medicaid, as well as analysis of tax and spending policies that could reduce inequities."
"Sasha Abramsky takes us deep into the long dark night of poverty in America, and it's a harrowing trip. His research and remarkable insights have resulted in a book that is stunning in its intensity."
Bob Herbert, Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos and former Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times
"Incisive and necessary, The American Way of Poverty is a call to action."
Lynn Nottage, Pulitzer-prize-winning playwright
"Abramsky has written an ambitious book that both describes and prescribes. He reaches across a wised range of issues-including education, housing and criminal justice- in a sweeping panorama of poverty's elements. Assembling them in one volume forces him to be superficial on occasion, but that price is worth paying to get the broad scope... Abramsky has invited serious rethinking and issued a significant call to action."
David Shipler, New York Times Book Review
"[An] extraordinary book... extremely well researched and thorough..."
Los Angeles Review of Books
"Abramsky's approach is both heartbreaking in its look at the humans who are affected and inspiring in his explanations of how poverty can be addressed and improved... The American Way of Poverty is likely to cause fear--almost no one is exempt from unplanned disasters--but it is also likely to motivate: there are answers; this country can and should improve. Well researched and documented, Abramsky's eye-opening book should be required reading for all U.S. citizens."
"[A] searing exposé... Abramsky's is a challenging indictment of an economy in which poverty and inequality at the bottom seem like the foundation for prosperity at the top."
Publishers Weekly, (starred review)
- On Sale
- Sep 10, 2013
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Bold Type Books