The American Way of Poverty by Sasha Abramsky

book jacket text on cardboard photoThe American Way of Poverty: How the other half still lives by Sasha Abramsky (2013)

The book is full of tales of woe, so much so that you would think that politicians could not ignore such a reality. I considered suggesting sending this book to legislators, but their collective entrenched delusions would not comprehend these stories as FACT. Neither would they see this situation as SYSTEMIC. The few unfortunate cited are exceptions, not the standard way of this great America life, contrasted with their own economically secure collective multimillion dollar personal life experience.

The tyranny of the majority now in government at state and federal levels is deliberately eliminating every possible aspect of the common good. Proudly dismantling the safety net. The stupid people that voted for the monsters remain deluded that they will be better off.

The American Way of Poverty is divided into two parts. Broadly speaking, the first part of the book tells the stories of the impoverished people I met around the country, whereas the second part of the book maps out a broad set of policy discussions and connections between issues that any meaningful national level attempt to tackle poverty will have to include. These include tax reform, the welfare system, wages, access to healthcare, changes that could be made in the criminal justice system, changes in how America deals with addiction and mental illness, reforms in the foster care system, and many other area that overlap with poverty. (p. 330)

Note the link in the paragraph above goes to the web site for the book and contains some of the interviews and oral histories.

Our country exhibits an inequality of wealth and no political will exists to change this by any party politicians.

book jacketStatistics 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.” (p. 24)

The zealots force girls and women to give birth, but they do not care if the baby survives. That is what the high rate of infant mortality means. While the above paragraph does not distinguish who has the lowest life expectancy, elsewhere it has been documented to be the poor people, of course. Lack of access to everything especially medical care, or limited access until bankrupted, leads to lowered life expectancies.

While other countries [after WWII] extended healthcare to all residents and provided decent prenatal care to all women regardless of income, America in the latter years of the twentieth and first year of the twenty-first century witness an EPIDEMIC of uninsurable, with tens of millions of Americans having NO ACCESS to routine medical care. (p. 24)

The author details some comparisons with other countries and the racial and gender distinctions of life expectancy. He cites several news organization who reported “in recent years that the life for African American men in New York’s Harlem neighborhood is LOWER than that for residents of BANGLADESH.

The South, no surprise, dominates the geographic distribution of poverty, low-birth weight babies and infant mortality. They are the biggest net takers in the country; California is the biggest net giver. It is too bad the Founding Fathers didn’t think to based representation on state GDP contributions to the whole country’s benefit.

Being born into poverty is the single greatest prediction of poverty. Despite all the (reviled) intellectual documentation of this simple fact, the conservative Republicans and  the right wingers off-the-cliff of rational beliefs still assert that it is possible, given sufficient willpower, to become a billionaire through wage work (though it might take two or three jobs plus a working spouse and, realistically, no kids to achieve). If you do not succeed it can only be your fault: your personal failings, lack of smarts, ambition, and willpower . Being unwilling to work for shit wages at shitty jobs and bear all the costs for transportation, uniforms, special “professional” clothing, and the like just proves YOU ARE TO BLAME for your own poverty.

Wage Work or Die!

You need a cell phone, a computer, and a TV just to be able to get a job, keep a job, and be informed about the world around you. But these are deemed “luxury” items by Congressional members who have massive wealth, full medical care, expense accounts, and the salaries of 5 average people plus full benefits with perks paid for by lobbyists, and PACS.

Because we use such simplistic language to explain poverty, we oftentimes find it easier to pile blame on the poor for their plight rather than to look for ways to tackle poverty. After all, it is easy to castigate someone; it’s much harder to truly understand his or her circumstances. [not that they care] Both major political parties have been guilty of this sleight of hand in recent decades, though the Republicans, and their talk radio allies, have taken it to new levels — turning verbal DENIGRATION of the poor into something of an art form.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan sneeringly referred to “welfare queens,” Cadillac-driving moochers impudently turning up at government offices to claim their checks. The answer was to ratchet up MEANS TESTING, DRUG TESTING, FINGERPRINTING, and other intrusive checks for welfare applicants. In other words, to assume the worst of applicants, to have as a bureaucratic default position the belief that all applicants would cheat the system if they could, rather than that most people were simply people who are mired in hard times and needed assistance to survive from one day or one week to the next.

In the 1990s, Bill Clinton pushed a welfare-to-work model that served largely to remove impoverished women from state welfare rolls without first ensuring that they had decently paying jobs to make up for the lost income, and also without creating fallback systems so that welfare recipients who count find work wouldn’t be kicked off the rolls during economic recessions.  (p. 44)

I have read elsewhere that there is a falsity to the claim that he reduced welfare roles, which, while factually true, did not do it by helping people become better off economically, but rather simply dropped them off the roles to fend for themselves. Not quite as successful sounding when you know the reality.

In the 2000s, George W. Bush talked about “compassionate conservatism” while presiding over a stampede toward income inequality the like of which America hand’t seen in nearly a century. (p. 45)

Yet the denial of systemic problems of discrimination and false alternative-facts drench the narrative preventing corrective action.

More recently, as tens of millions more Americans have come to rely on food stamps to avoid hunger and malnutrition, political figures such as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have accused those on food stamps of no longer possessing the American will to success, of having become PERMANENT CHARITY CASES.

Precisely why so many tens of millions of people were poor enough to qualify for food stamps — to access the program one has to have a GROSS income at or below 134 percent of he federal poverty line in most states, up to 200 percent in other sates, and a net income that doesn’t exceed 100 percent of the poverty line — didn’t concern these presidential hopefuls. What enraged Gingrich, in particular, was THE MERE EXISTENCE OF A SAFETY NET, of programs, however inadequate, to break the fall when people lost jobs and incomes, homes and healthcare. (pp. 45-46)

Much has been said recently about cutting Medicaid. It is hard to figure why they are so obsessed with the least powerful and most needy among us. The capricious and “keep the bastards down” policy implementation rules make NO SENSE AT ALL, and yet remain unquestionable.

What would it mean to restrict access to Medicaid? Listen to Megan Roberts, whose family ceased to qualify for Medicaid after her husband received a $1 an hour pay raise from the truck mechanics’ company that he worked for. The young couple with four children had recently move from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to a small, impoverished community in California’s Central Valley so that her husband could take up a new job with the company. His health benefits were due to begin in January. But, a few weeks beforehand, Megan’s appendix ruptured; lacking medical insurance, the family was bankrupted by close to $100,000 in medical bills. Their credit shattered, they resorted to borrowing from one payday loans company after another. (p. 50)

This is a good description for the net results of these policies: “In reality, however, it has created a public sector defined by SQUALOR and an insecure citizenry unable to define itself by commonly accessed, and accessible institutions.” (p. 51)

The method is simple: defund public services, ensure that the government only delivers second-rate goods, convince the electorate that long-term investments such as Social Security and Medicare are Ponzi schemes unlikely to survive down the generations, and it becomes her easier to convince ordinary people that taxes are a mugging rather than an investment. There is, after all, a reason that Swedes — who receive quality education, healthcare, childcare, vacation times, and pensions courtesy of their government — TOLERATE far HIGHER taxes than do Americans. . . . Rather, it’s because they actually get their MONEY’S WORTH FROM THEIR TAXES. They pay good money and get good quality services. In America by contrast, increasing the public receives duds.

Sell enough lemons, conservatives have realized, and you can trigger demands that the whole enterprise be shut down. It is, quite simple, a classic bait-and-switch maneuver. (pp. 51-52)

Alternatively, many people have asserted that the Republicans deliberately tank the social safety net programs so they can then claim they don’t work, and ipso facto, they should be eliminated entirely.

Able to spend virtually unlimited sums to influence political and judicial races, groups such as the U.S Chamber of Commerce and Crossroads GPS; and individuals such as the Koch brothers; Newt Gingrich’s 2012 primary season backer, Sheldon Adelson; and Rick Santorums’ funder, Foster Friess — have seeded a conservative push  to UNDERMINE what remains of the progressive tax structure and to denude government of its role in providing basic services to the populace. In fact, the push aims to “starve the beast,” as anti-tax guru Grover Norquist has piquantly put it — defunduing environmental and workplace regulations, protections for trade unions, and broad social safety net programs. Theirs is an attack not only on the legacy of the Great Society, but also that of the New Deal and the Progressive Era. They lead this charge in the NAME OF FISCAL PROBITY, but they do so knowing the results will FURTHER EXACERBATE economic divisions within the country. That they didn’t succeed in the 2012 elections is an extraordinarily positive thing, but to think that their agenda has somehow dissipated would be naive in the extreme. (p. 52)

That the unions found it so difficult to fight back at least in part had to do with the past sixty-plus yeas of history. In the late 1940s and 1950s, when Western European nations were distributing a range of social benefits to their populaces, America’s progressives fell victim to a MCCARTHYITE political culture that denounced COMPREHENSIVE FEDERAL SAFETY NET SYSTEMS as being somehow “Communist.” McCarthyism ended in the mid-1950s, but left a toxic rhetoric in its wake, one that was particularly hostile to big-picture safety net reforms. From debate around full employment policies doing the Truman years to debates over universal healthcare in the Obama years, large-scale attempts to smooth out the market’s rough edges have routinely been DENOUNCED as somehow ANTI-AMERICAN. (p. 84)

“How many holes can you poke in a net before it’s just a hole?”

Accessing core benefits such as TANF has been made ever more difficult, in terms of the severity of the means test imposed, the WORK requirements, and the add-on difficulties that some states tack on, such as drug-teeing applicants and charging fees for the application. (p. 105)

Finally, state after state is limiting the services covered by Medicaid, meaning more people still end up paying out of pocket , or doing without, when it comes to such vital services as eye-care, dental work, and mental health clinics.  (p. 226)

Propaganda by conservatives, trotting out the tired old DANGER of “socialism” to the core of American values, is the crucial script that will be used to destroy democracy. What people can earn by wage income measures their worth. You can have all the services you want just by getting the money you need. These policies are costing taxpayers (and I am NOT including the 1%) a lot of money because people end up sick and more costly to help when routine medical care is not available to them.

We need to return to prioritizing the COMMON GOOD over private profit, especially that provided and enhanced by taxpayer funds.

Leave a Reply