Book Review: Sasha Abramsky, The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives. New York: Nation Books, 2013. 327 pages. $26.99

Ryan P. Cumming

 

 

It is difficult to come away from Sasha Abramsky's book without feeling scandalized by his portrait of poverty in a land of plenty.  And that is exactly what Abramsky wants readers to feel.  Yet, despite the bleak picture he paints, his proposals for reducing poverty offer glimpses of hope, even if their apparent simplicity masks the difficulty of accomplishing each one.

american-way-of-poverty-198x300.jpgIn the six chapters of the first part, Abramsky describes the current reality of poverty in America, offers some explanations for how this came about, and corrects numerous misconceptions about the "safety net" the US has in place for the poor.  He draws on interviews he conducted with people across the country to pepper his arguments with personal stories.  (You can find these stories collected on Abramsky's website: TheVoicesofPoverty.org). The book is well-written and timely.  At 327 pages, though, it can get a bit long.  Still, the author invites readers to see for themselves the reality of poverty in America and the deceptively simple ways that poverty can be reduced or eliminated.

The statistics on poverty are alarming: 15.1% of Americans live below the federal poverty line; the US has the second-highest rate of child poverty among developed countries (23%); poverty increased 53% in the first decade of the 21st Century.  What makes these numbers not just tragic but scandalous, according to Abramsky, is that they are the result of decisions our country has made.  Poverty is not "natural" or "inevitable" in the wealthiest nation in the world; it is a symptom, he argues, of the failure of American society to envision itself as a broad, inclusive community that takes care of all its members.

In chapter one, it was striking to read about the "two economies" that currently exist in America – one for the very wealthy, and one for the poor and middle-class.  These economies are increasingly separated, too.  Since the 1970s, the income of the wealthiest 1% of Americans has tripled, while the median wage for all Americans declined by 20%, to $26,364.  As Abramsky points out, this means that nearly half of all Americans earn less than $4,000 a year more than the poverty line for a family of four. 

The presence of the poor complicates our story about a country where those who work hard are rewarded.  To simplify the story, many folks turn to blaming the poor for their plight.  In chapters two, three and four, Abramsky details the history of American responses to poverty to challenge the arguments made by those who view the poor as lazy or who see the American safety net as sufficient.  What was most intriguing here was that the US was on track to reduce poverty across the country by the 1970s.  Programs like food stamps – supported by politicians of both parties – helped to reduce hunger and virtually eliminated deaths from hunger in the US.  Unfortunately, the late 1970s and 1980s saw a backlash against "welfare," spearheaded by white resentment against poor persons of color and an anti-Communist attitude that saw all social safety nets as examples of Socialism.  With this change in perspective, support for these programs quickly waned.

The result today, Abramsky writes, is that the robust "safety net" many of us think exists actually doesn't.  He points to states like Florida, where unemployment increased by 700,000 people, but only 10,000 new people were added to the state's welfare program.  In California, 22% of kids in 2012 were living at or below the poverty line, but only 3% of children received welfare.  The systems that are in place are inadequate and, what is worse, during recessions and downturns when need increases, they are often the first budget items cut by state governments.  While states slashed funding for programs to assist the needy because they were too expensive, we also spent $41 billion on our pets and $40 billion on lawn care.  Abramsky rightly asks what our spending habits reveal about American attitudes toward the poor.

In Part Two of the book, Abramsky offers his solutions to the problem.  First, he argues, we must shore up programs like Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF; sometimes called "welfare") and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; otherwise known as food stamps.)  Strengthening these programs would mean making them more responsive to downturns in the economy.  In addition, Abramsky argues that communities could reduce poverty by reforming the criminal justice system to reduce incarceration, establishing a minimum income for all American citizens, creating a state-backed system to lend money to low-income communities, and investing in an automatic savings account for higher education for every person born in the US.  If these solutions seem far-fetched, Abramsky points out that many counties, cities and states already have similar programs in place, and they have worked well.

Of course, such solutions require funding, and lots of it (though perhaps not as much as we might think.)  The centerpiece of Abramsky's funding plan is the resurrection of a financial transaction tax of 0.04% on all stock trades.  He also proposes increasing the capital gains tax and the estate tax.  This is where he runs into trouble, and Abramsky knows it.  In our current political climate, even thinking about new or increased taxes is like walking blindly into a minefield. 

This is the central problem, according to Abramsky, and it is the most challenging part of his book.  Americans have lost a sense of the common good, "a societal commitment to share the pain during hard times and a willingness to think through the long-term consequences on one's community of not so doing" (pg. 317).  As our culture continues to become more fragmented, I was left wondering what it would take to make such a commitment possible.  Where would this commitment come from?  And, importantly, what role might the church play in lifting it up?