Life at the Bottom

It’s not just the rich who victimize the poor

Matthew Roth (Flickr/matthewalmonroth)
Matthew Roth (Flickr/matthewalmonroth)

Poverty, by America by Matthew Desmond; Crown, 304 pp., $28

Americans have never been particularly good at seeing the poor. Whether your cable news channel is MSNBC or Fox, you will hear very little about poor people. The middle class tends to imagine poverty as a problem of developing nations, its worst forms in the distant past and reminiscent of a Dickens novel. The cultural impulse to make the poor “invisible” is undeniable, but the so-called invisible hand of the market, writes Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond, does more than notice the poor; it preys on them. Despite common assumptions about opportunity, Desmond shows how Americans of means support a government that thwarts real solutions and perpetuates inequality while never really trying to eliminate poverty.

Desmond’s book is a jeremiad, a wake-up call about one sad, simple truth: the rich, and even the middle class, actually benefit by keeping a sizable part of the population (larger than Australia’s total, in fact) below the poverty line. To illustrate, he refers to a poignant scene from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), in which a tractor driver is hired to tear down a tenant farmer’s home. As the farmer threatens to shoot him, the driver protests that he’s not to blame, that someone else would invariably take his place. “[O]ne man’s poverty,” writes Desmond, “was another man’s profit.” In this dog-eat-dog existence, Desmond implies, the poor are pitted against each other.

Desmond’s argument is familiar, that educated elites are out of touch, wallowing in abstractions and making excuses in an effort to avoid accountability. When Americans categorize the poor as charity cases, as the “other,” they miss the crucial fact that poverty is about the unequal distribution of privileges, not simply wealth. In the 19th century, Americans recognized that the enormous fortunes of robber barons rested on the backs of grossly underpaid workers. The gig economy is nothing new. After the Civil War, industrial workers were independent contractors, held liable for their own injuries. The poverty trap that Desmond writes about has a long history that he does not incorporate into his argument as much as he might.

Desmond writes that his father was a minister, suggesting that a jeremiad suits him––even in a book that contains a treasure trove of facts. Many of the points he makes have been made before: poverty is increased by the loss of unions, corporate lobbyists undercut real reform of tax or wage laws, banks exploit the poor with overdraft fees, landlords gouge renters, and predatory companies bilk the poor for profits. Consumers reap advantages from cheap goods and services, too. While the rich get massive tax breaks, the middle class gets government assistance in the form of subsidized health and retirement benefits. Desmond tactfully reminds us that we “are all on the dole.”

Some forms of inequality could be easily fixed. As Desmond notes, in many countries citizens don’t file taxes: the government does it. It’s quick, it’s fair, and high-priced accountants aren’t there looking for loopholes. As we have learned from the release of Donald Trump’s tax returns, lying about one’s taxes is often cost-effective. The IRS, Desmond writes, loses a “trillion a year in unpaid taxes.”

Those who do escape poverty are often less charitable to those stuck in the poverty ditch. Moving up the ladder can mean forgetting where one came from.

Desmond contends that the privatization of wealth explains why U.S. infrastructure is crumbling. Russia isn’t the only nation with oligarchs. As our American oligarchs “accumulate more money, they become less dependent on public goods” and, Desmond says, “less interested in supporting them.” Private schools, private hospitals, private jets, private islands, offshore accounts, and gated communities have created an exclusive parallel society where those with growing personal fortunes have no need for public institutions. The principal goal of oligarchs, we’re told, is to use all of their power to hoard wealth and privileges.

What are Desmond’s solutions? Drawing a comparison between antebellum antislavery agitation and today’s poverty, he calls for every American to become a “poverty abolitionist.” It is not enough to rely on Great Society programs, he maintains; these made poverty “less lethal” but did not make it “disappear.” Class desegregation—integrating affordable housing into every neighborhood—is one of the reforms he advocates.

The larger dilemma Desmond points to is something he calls “scarcity diversion,” by which elites stash away their money and land. By treating the practice as natural, they allot what little is left over to the poor. In the end, Americans on opposite ends of the political spectrum agree that the economy benefits the rich and harms the poor. The new millionaires club in Congress does the bidding of the rich, which means that worthwhile reform is highly unlikely to be realized anytime soon.

Desmond skirts a crucial part of the story: class isn’t merely about wealth and privilege, but class identity is reproduced in families. A most radical proposition for exposing class privilege was put forward by New Deal–era Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace, who contended that if 100,000 children were taken from poor families and another 100,000 from rich families, and they were given the same education, food, and housing, it would be impossible to tell the difference between them when they reached adulthood. His theoretical point was obvious: the family, more than any other institution, reproduces class identity. (The 21st-century equivalent would be a reality TV show in which the incoming class at Princeton finds itself living for four years on a Native American reservation.) Such a redistribution of wealth and privilege is something no American would ever tolerate, of course. And that’s the crux of the problem: privilege and a sense of entitlement begin at birth; parents are deeply invested in protecting their own.

If only laying out the facts as Desmond does would change the average reader’s mind. But it won’t. In the United States, poverty has generally been treated as a taboo, an inherited curse. The duty of caring for the poor is consigned to social workers, police, and religious institutions. Families are expected to help their own. Americans are tribal in more ways than partisan politics exposes: walls of rationalization are erected in our heads. It’s not privatization of wealth alone that is the barrier to reform; it’s a painfully long history in which people of promise, the “worthy,” are cleaved from the unworthy poor. By rhetorical means, the working poor are pitted against the unemployed; it turns out that those who do escape poverty are often less charitable to those stuck in the poverty ditch. Moving up the ladder can mean forgetting where one came from. The social dynamic is not just “bifurcated” into rich and poor but fractured along a series of class lines and often manipulated by pernicious and powerful ideologies.

That complexity is not effectively addressed in Desmond’s book. Rather, he sees “complexity” itself as a ruse used by elites to do nothing. And yes, he is partly correct. But getting at the root of the crisis of poverty means cutting through class fictions that persist at the community level as well as at the national level. Class is a material and a mental condition. For the rich, the educated, the professionals, and the rest of the “winners” in American society, class is so woven into identity that all are loath to part with it.

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Nancy Isenberg is the author of White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of  Class in America, Fallen Founder : The Life of Aaron Burr, and Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America. Her most recent book, written with Andrew Burstein, is The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality. She is the T. Harry Williams Professor of American History at Louisiana State University.


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