A Different Type of Poverty

Journalist Sasha Abramsky looks at what it means to be poor in America.

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Five decades since President Lyndon B. Johnson began his so-called War on Poverty, poor Americans continue to struggle. In "The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives," Sasha Abramsky, a freelance journalist and lecturer in the university writing program at the University of California–Davis, tells the story of America's poor today. Abramsky recently spoke with U.S. News about defining poverty, identifying its causes and addressing the problem. Excerpts:

What does poverty look like in the United States?

That's a really important question. If you travel to India, the poverty is absolute. You see people who literally have not a dime to their name. They literally have no food to eat. It's a little bit more complicated in America because even though the welfare system is not very good, we don't actually have mass starvation. So poverty in America is relative. And it's about a lack of basic necessities and a lack of security, so an uncertainty as to where you're going to get food, an uncertainty as to how you're going to pay your most elementary bills, and it's about a reliance on either very imperfect government institutions or very overwhelmed private charity.

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How does this impact wider American society?

Even though we don't have starvation, we do have an amount of poverty that leads to malnutrition, that leads to a series of diseases that we don't tend to associate with First World countries, that leads to massively truncated life expectancy, and all but guarantees that from one generation to the next, poverty is going to be transmitted. And that sort of flies in the face of the idea of America as a place with endless upward mobility. But if you look at the data, there's a group of Americans that falls outside of that idea of social mobility.

How does today's America differ from the conditions of the 1960s War on Poverty?

Actually, in many ways it doesn't. When [political theorist] Michael Harrington wrote "The Other America," he basically was confronting a political class that didn't recognize that poverty was a major problem. They thought it had been eradicated after the Great Depression had ended. And he went around America and said that even though it's a very affluent country, there are all these cracks where poverty hides in plain view. He described the poverty, he described the slums, he described the lack of indoor plumbing, he described the lack of access to health care. And in many ways, what you see in America today is a very similar situation. There are a lot of people with an awful lot of money, but there are an awful lot of people with absolutely nothing. And then there's a lot of people in the middle who, as the economic recession deepened in 2008-10, experienced downward mobility. Maybe that's one of the differences. In the 1960s, the country was clearly on an upward trajectory.

What is one cause of poverty?

I would say the rampant inequality. The bottom 20 percent of the workforce has seen a real income decline by double-digit amounts since the Nixon years. The 1 percent at the top, or the 0.1 percent – or if you go even higher, the 0.01 percent, the billionaires – have seen their income increase by not just 1, 2 or 3 percent, but by thousands of percent. What it means is political access is concentrated at the top, and as soon as that happens you end up with a political class that doesn't respond to the needs of ordinary people.

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Who of the poor is the most overlooked demographic in the U.S.?

Everybody who is poor is overlooked because everybody who is poor in America is reduced to a set of stereotypes. I went around the country to dozens of states and I interviewed hundreds of people, and one thing I realized very quickly was there just isn't one face of poverty. I'd go into a suburban area and I'd talk to someone in a 3,000-square-foot mansion. On the surface they had everything, except they had nothing. They'd lost their job, their house was underwater, they didn't have health insurance, they were going into bankruptcy. That person is just as much a victim of poverty as someone in north Philadelphia in a food-bank line, or somebody in a self-built shanty in the jungles of the Big Island of Hawaii.