Day to Day
I was in Dollar General with my friend. She needed to pick up a few essentials.
As I walked alongside her, I noticed she wasn’t shopping smart. Instead of buying the cheaper twin pack of macaroni and cheese, she was getting the single box, which was more costly per unit. She repeated this error picking up a small pack of toilet paper instead of the larger economy size.
I didn’t understand it at the time.
But now I do. It wasn’t that she was being frivolous with her money; it was that was all she had. She didn’t have enough money to buy things in bulk.
She only had enough money for her urgent needs. She could only afford one thing at a time, even if it wasn’t economically wise.
That’s only one small example of how poor people get entrapped into staying poor.
America Causes Poverty?
For many larger examples of the sources of poverty, read Matthew Desmond’s newest book, Poverty, by America.
Look closer at the title. Is Desmond insinuating that we richer Americans are part of the problem in keeping poorer Americans poor?
And it’s devastating—but enlightening—to read in detail how we’re doing it, often unaware of it.
For instance, Desmond writes,
“By one estimate, simply collecting unpaid federal income taxes from the top 1 percent of households would bring in some $175 billion a year. We could just about fill the entire poverty gap in America if the richest among us simply paid all the taxes they owed.”
I’m far from being in the top 1% of households. I pay my full taxes owed. I’m not on welfare. I don’t collect food stamps. My housing isn’t subsidized by the government.
But does that mean I am not benefiting from government handouts myself?
Desmond says that the average rich and middle-class family draws on the same number of government benefits as the average poor family.
Who’s on the Dole?
How am I benefiting from government aid? Here are a few ways:
- I benefited when my husband got health insurance from his job. Health insurance is one of the single largest tax breaks issued by the federal government.
- I benefited when I could deduct mortgage interest on my income taxes.
- I benefited when I receive free checking accounts at my bank because the accounts are subsidized by billions of dollars in overdraft fees.
I’m not saying those things are wrong to accept. But I am saying (or rather Desmond is saying it), “We’re all on the dole.“
Virtually all Americans, rich or poor, benefit from some form of public aid. “Today, the biggest beneficiaries of federal aid are affluent families.”
And the more the rich receive, the less available there is for the poor.
“Decade after decade, the poverty rate has remained flat even as federal relief has surged. How could this be? — Part of the answer, I learned, lies in the fact that a fair amount of government aid earmarked for the poor never reaches them.”
Be a Poverty Abolitionist
“This is who we are: the richest country on earth, with more poverty than any other advanced democracy.”
So what can we do about it?
Desmond calls on us to become poverty abolitionists.
“We are connected, members of a shared nation and a shared economy, where the advantages of the rich often come at the expense of the poor. But that arrangement is not inevitable or permanent. It was made by human hands and can be unmade by them.
We can fashion a new society, starting with our own lives. Where we decide to work and live, what we buy, how we vote, and where we put our energies as citizens all have consequences for poor families. Becoming a poverty abolitionist, then, entails conducting an audit of our lives, personalizing poverty by examining all the ways we are connected to the problem—and to the solution.“
Specifically, here are just a few suggestions that Desmond gives in Poverty, by America.
- Make friends with those who are poor, not just to help them (although do that too if you’re able), but for genuine connection; you’ll become more familiar with their struggles along the way.
- Allow the IRS to crack down on corporations and individuals who cheat on their taxes. (Desmond says, “Studies have shown that most Americans pay 90 percent of the taxes they owe, but the ultra-rich pay only 75 percent.“)
- Be aware of not only the environmental impact of your purchases, but also the poverty impact.
- Investigate what a fair minimum wage should be and then vote for legislators who are supportive.
- Develop a mindset of alleviating poverty instead of overlooking it.
- Make it less complicated and confusing for those who need aid to receive it.
Desmond concludes his book with this:
“Every person, every company, every institution that has a role in perpetuating poverty also has a role in ameliorating it. The end of poverty is something to stand for, to march for, to sacrifice for. . . .
The citizens of the richest nation in the world can and should finally put an end to it. We don’t need to outsmart this problem. We need to outhate it.”
Poverty, by America isn’t a how-to book on solving poverty, but it is a compelling book on recognizing the problems. And encouraging us to do better.
Thanks to NetGalley + Crown
for the review copy of this book
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