How the richest country in the world has allowed its poor to remain poor  

Sociologist Mathew Desmond points out that poverty is deeply linked with racism, mass incarceration, the housing crisis, domestic violence, gun violence in neighbourhoods, the opioid epidemic, welfare cuts and social isolation 

August 17, 2023 08:30 am | Updated 06:03 pm IST

A man sleeps against the wall of a building on August 4 in Denver, U.S.

A man sleeps against the wall of a building on August 4 in Denver, U.S. | Photo Credit: AP

I was in Oxford on a fellowship last year. It was breathtakingly beautiful: centuries-old college buildings, all that pretty punting, leaves turning red and gold in autumn, and so much of history in every bylane. But the most unforgettable sight, just as I was coming out of a Sainsburys, was of a man huddled on a pavement with his sleeping bag and cardboard sheet. Coming from India, I found it mystifying and deeply troubling to see homeless people shivering on the streets in a developed country. It seemed that even the brilliance within those dreaming spires hadn’t found a way to create a more equal society.

In Poverty, By America (2023), Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and sociologist Matthew Desmond explores how a rich society can allow its poor members to remain poor. The United States of America is the richest country in the world. California’s economy is larger than that of Canada; New York’s is larger than South Korea. Yet the U.S. has more poverty than any other developed country. Its poor population is more than the entire population of Australia. U.S. poverty graphs over time, remarks Desmond, look like “gently rolling hills” — amounting to virtually no change over time, or as he puts it, “fifty years of nothing.” How does it happen, asks Desmond, that despite so much progress in every sphere — the eradication of smallpox, the mapping of the genome, the invention of the internet — America still lets one in seven of its people remain poor?

Lives of the poor

Poverty has always been present, not only in the U.K. but even in the world’s richest country, and not just today but even during the Gilded Age. In 1890, Danish-American journalist Jacob Riis stung the conscience of America with his book How the Other Half Lives.

The book contained descriptions and photographs of the difficult living conditions in the slums of New York City. At around the same time, social reformer Jane Addams founded Hull House in Chicago, a progressive social settlement aimed at reducing poverty among immigrants and the working poor by providing social services and education. A feminist, pacifist, and an admirer of Tolstoy, action was at the heart of the Addams’s ethics. She wrote: “We have learned to say that the good must be extended to all of society before it can be held secure by any one person or class; but we have not yet learned to add to that statement, that unless all men and all classes contribute to a good, we cannot even be sure that it is worth living.”

In the late 1930s, the writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans documented the lives of three tenant farming families in Alabama during the Great Depression. This was published in 1941 as a book titled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The Depression-era photography of Dorothea Lange and the writings of John Steinbeck, especially his novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939), also focused attention on the hardships of families during the Dust Bowl.

In 1962, the socialist activist and writer Michael Harrington published The Other America, a study of poverty in the United States. He argued that about 50 million Americans lived in deep poverty; many of them without any support structures of family or community, which meant that a socially conscious state needed to launch a war on poverty to help the poor improve their lives.

Multiple social maladies

The epigraph of Desmond’s book is from Leo Tolstoy: “We imagine that their sufferings are one thing and our lives another.” According to Desmond, the causes and consequences of enduring intractable poverty in America are deep and interlinked. Poverty is intersectional. It is deeply linked with racism; mass incarceration; the housing crisis; domestic violence; gun violence in the neighbourhoods; the opioid epidemic; welfare cuts; social isolation. There are a million homeless children in America’s schools. Poverty means multiple layers of problems, from physically exhausting work which requires painkillers to keep going, to being pushed out of secure employment into gig work and financial insecurity. Poverty is traumatic and humiliating. Desmond refers to the work of political scientist Vesla Weaver who has shown that the criminal justice system “trains people for a distinctive and lesser kind of citizenship.” Problems pile up on the poor, causing them to live with high levels of mental stress, and exacting what researchers Senthil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir have described as a “bandwidth tax”. Each layer of problems drags the affected person deeper into poverty, Desmond notes: “Poverty isn’t a line. It’s a tight knot of social maladies. It is connected to every social problem we care about — crime, health, education, housing — and its persistence in American life means that millions of families are denied safety and security and dignity in one of the richest nations in the history of the world.”

Nevertheless, Desmond points out, America has both the resources and policy options to solve poverty. That it doesn’t do so, he argues, is only because of a lack of caring. Turning his lens on the rich, he contends with data that the rich remain where they are by systematically keeping the poor in their place. In a highly unequal society, it is for state and social policy to take proactive measures. At the same time, greater organisation will empower the poor and help them to demand better working and living conditions.

Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta is in the IAS.

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