If you don’t think you know any poor people, think again.
According to Sacramento journalist and author Sasha Abramsky, we all know someone who is economically insecure. “If you knock on doors in your neighborhood, you’ll find someone who has needed food assistance, someone who is underwater on their mortgage, or someone who lost their job and their savings in the recession,” he said.
Abramsky is a fellow at Demos, a progressive public policy institute. He’s also a research affiliate at the UC Davis Center for Poverty Research and a contributor to The Nation and Salon. In the course of researching his new book, “The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives” (Nation Books, $26.99, 368 pages), he visited roughly two dozen states and interviewed more than a hundred people to report on the financial instability that affects so many in the United States.
“Everyone knows someone who is experiencing poverty,” Abramsky said. “This is the single most common shared experience in modern-day America.”
While Abramsky has the latest statistics and data at his fingertips – at least 50 million Americans living in poverty, one in six Americans on food stamps with even more eligible for food assistance – what makes “The American Way of Poverty” notable is the work he’s done putting faces to those numbers.
Reviewed favorably in The New York Times, Abramsky’s book has been compared with Michael Harrington’s 1963 eye-opening examination of poverty, “The Other America,” which is often credited with laying the documentary groundwork for the War on Poverty programs of the Lyndon B. Johnson administration.
In it, Abramsky introduces readers to Linda, a 58-year-old Michigan woman. When her husband had a stroke, the couple had no insurance through their jobs – both worked as assistants to developmentally disabled people – and were overwhelmed with medical debt. They were denied public assistance because they had too many assets, even though their home is underwater and their van had been repossessed. The two burial plots they owned were enough to make them too well-off for government help.
There’s Matthew, a 50-year-old Stockton sheet metal worker, laid off during the recession and living in what’s ostensibly a suburban neighborhood – except everyone who hasn’t lost a home is underwater, and not everyone has enough to eat.
Abramsky has made these stories, and many others like them, available on the book’s companion website, TheVoicesOfPoverty.org.
Their stories are “the great unreported phenomenon of our time,” said Abramsky.
Ann Huff Stevens, director of the UC Davis Center for Poverty Research, agrees that poverty is more widespread than most Americans realize. The poverty rate by government accounts is “somewhere between 15 and 16 percent,” she said. That number was closer to 12 percent in 2006, according to the Census Bureau.
“But if you look at people over their lifetimes, it’s different people who are in poverty at different times,” she said. “If you look at most of the data, certainly a large fraction of Americans have experienced (poverty) at some point in their lives.”
Abramsky became aware that poverty was more than just a lack of economic means while writing about hunger in the United States. His previous books have addressed issues of social justice, including three on the state of American prisons and the effects of mass incarceration on society. In 2008, he undertook what he calls a “hunger experiment” while writing “Breadline USA: The Hidden Scandal of American Hunger and How to Fix It.”
“I under-ate for eight weeks and put myself in the body of a low-income worker,” he said of the months he limited his grocery expenses to the amount allotted to food-stamp recipients. It no longer mattered that he had a comfortable home in Land Park, he learned. “If you are hungry, you get depressed. You get listless. You have a lack of energy.”
And that hunger made it very hard to accomplish tasks efficiently – or at all. For someone living in poverty, each difficulty increases the likelihood of another one, which is why the stories on the Voices of Poverty site are cross-referenced. Abramsky points out that the slide into poverty might start with a job loss, common enough in recent years.
“But one of the collateral impacts of losing your job is that you lose your health insurance,” he said. “A lot of times, if you lose your job, you find it hard to pay your mortgage.” So, what initially began as a problem with employment quickly may become health and housing problems as well, piling up in such a way that the person – and his or her family – slips even more deeply into poverty.
Abramsky’s main point in “The American Way of Poverty” is that there are structural inequalities that, in good times, make living in poverty incredibly difficult, and in bad times make it almost impossible.
“There are a whole lot of things – not just since the Great Recession started, but going back two or three decades – that have combined together to produce an environment in which tens of millions of Americans just aren’t going to flourish economically,” Abramsky said. He cited a “risk shift” from the wealthiest to the least wealthy, stagnant wages, the rising cost of higher education and student debt, and “a very dysfunctional political process” as factors.
The first part of “The American Way of Poverty” is concerned with describing American poverty, which many of us never see, thanks to the enduring shame and silence that surrounds it. When struggling economically, “people do get very embarrassed and they try to hide it,” he said.
His interviews show the range of people who are impoverished in this country – some dropouts, others with college degrees.
The second part of the book contains Abramsky’s proposals to address poverty, which he hopes will spark public discussion of what can be done to diminish poverty’s grip on so many Americans.
“It’s fairly detailed and designed not to be the last word in the debate,” he said. “Let’s open up a conversation about a host of issues: how we deal with taxation, how we deal with health care, how we feed the hungry, how we educate people. So it is very holistic.”
His suggestions include strengthening the estate tax, adding a financial transaction tax, and introducing an education fund for Americans of limited means. He also suggests “gas stamps,” the fuel equivalent of “food stamps,” to assist the working poor in climbing out of poverty.
Of course, he recognizes that none of these proposals is likely to come about without a change in the current political environment.
“No matter how good the proposals are, if you don’t shift the political debate, those proposals are stillborn,” Abramsky said. “So one part of my solution section is how to shift the political language.”
What he learned, first and foremost, in writing this book is that “poverty has so many different faces,” he said. “All the stereotypes that our culture throws up to deal with poverty are inadequate to describe this story.”
Abramsky noted that poverty in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward – “you see obliteration, absolute poverty” – looked very different from poverty in suburban Sacramento, which he described as “nice homes with empty cupboards.”
“That, to me, is the story of modern-day American poverty,” he said. “It’s many stories.”