In the 1960’s and 1970’s, important books about poverty and hunger were commonplace and were widely-discussed parts of popular culture. These books even helped change policy. Michael Harrington’s 1962 classic, The Other America: Poverty in the United States, was credited with helping prompt JFK and LBJ to enact their anti-poverty initiatives.
No longer. Even though nearly 50 million Americans now live below the meager federal poverty line – and 49 million live in “food insecure” homes that are unable to afford an adequate supply of food – our culture is so enthralled with wealth that popular and influential books on poverty about as rare today as Republican moderates. But The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives, by Sasha Abramsky, aims to be an exception. Updating Harrington, Abramsky seeks to reignite a national debate over the poverty problem and also offers policy solutions to it. I hope he succeeds.
The book repeatedly uses real-life stories to represent broader narratives about the nation’s soaring inequality, embattled middle class, and skyrocketing poverty. But it doesn’t stop there, it helpfully offers concrete ways that the government can start to redress these problems.
Explaining that the “stories of the long-term poor and the nearly destitute blend together,” Abramsky demolishes the myth that people who became destitute as a result of the economic downturn are somehow the “deserving poor” – as distinct from people in the long-term underclass, who are presumed by many to be at fault for their own poverty and therefore deserving of their own suffering. The book demonstrates time and time again that the main reasons that people fall out of the middle-class into poverty – a scarcity of jobs, low wages, and a lack of affordable health care, housing, food, and fuel – are precisely the same factors that make already-poor families even poorer.
Abramksy offers many policy prescriptions, including four massive public funds:
1. “A public works fund to protect against mass unemployment;”
2. “A new educational fund to dramatically expand access to, and affordability of, higher education;”
3. “A poverty mitigation fund built up from the introduction of a financial transaction tax and energy profit taxes;” and
4. “Money to go to stabilize Social Security and start reducing the national deficit, made available from higher taxes of capital gain, high-end inheritances, and income of the most affluent wage earners.”
Abramsky is not shy about listing the high potential costs of enacting these policies. But he is persuasive that the damage caused by failing to enact serious policies to address this devastating problem is much higher, both morally and economically.
I do think the country needs – and wants – this discussion. The New York Times Book Review just named this book one of the 100 most notable books of the year.
Let the national debate begin!
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev]