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How the War on Poverty Stalled

The study of poverty has flourished in recent decades. Why haven’t the lives of the poor improved?

In 1962, a 33-year-old freelance writer who had little institutional or academic standing published a book widely credited with helping inspire the creation of Medicaid, Medicare, Head Start, and food stamps—representing the commitment of the federal government to a war on poverty. No one expected The Other America to have such an effect, including its author, Michael Harrington, who insisted he’d be pleased if it managed to sell a couple of thousand copies. Instead, boosted by a glowing review in The New Yorker, it sold 70,000 in its first year.

Harrington came slowly to write about poverty. By the time he did, he was himself on the social margins, albeit by choice. He had grown up the only child of a middle-class family in St. Louis, gone to college, and flitted in and out of law school and a Ph.D. program in English. In the early 1950s, he joined the Catholic Worker movement, the radical lay Roman Catholic organization led by Dorothy Day, which asked believers to take a vow of poverty. He lived in the communal Catholic Worker house on Chrystie Street in New York’s Lower East Side, ministering to the impoverished denizens of the Bowery. As his spiritual faith waned, he left Day’s orbit and joined another band of outsiders: the Young People’s Socialist League, a group of Trotskyists and former Socialist Party members who denounced the Communist Party and capitalism with nearly equal ferocity. That’s where he was when the editor of Commentary asked him to write an article looking into the problem of poverty in the “affluent society” (to quote John Kenneth Galbraith) of 1950s America.

Poverty, by America
Matthew Desmond

The opening pages of The Other America set out the problem: There was a “familiar America” of postwar prosperity, of televisions and radios and automobiles and suburban homes, and then there was a shadowland—“another America”—of between 40 and 50 million people who lived in poverty. The poor might not be literally starving, as they were in other countries, but they were “maimed in body and spirit,” their lives twisted and deformed by material lack, and their existence “invisible” to the broader society.

Matthew Desmond’s latest book, Poverty, by America, sets out from a very different starting point. In the early 1960s, when Harrington published his book, poor people were hardly part of political discourse at all; today, there are few who would be so naïve as to claim to simply not know poverty exists in American society. As a result, Desmond presents his book not as an exposé but as an effort to answer the question: Why? Why is there still so much poverty in the United States? Poverty for Desmond is not the result of invisibility, of being left behind. Rather, the root cause of poverty is exploitation. People are poor because other people benefit from the presence of poverty: “To understand the causes of poverty, we must look beyond the poor. Those of us living lives of privilege and plenty must examine ourselves.”

Desmond is in many ways better placed than Harrington ever was to launch an appeal to the moral conscience of the nation. From precarious, just-about-middle-class origins, Desmond has risen to become the equivalent of academic royalty: He teaches sociology at Princeton University, has won the MacArthur “genius” grant, and received the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his 2016 book, Evicted, which made the striking argument that losing one’s home affected future economic chances and position at least as much as incarceration. Yet The Other America has a moral hopefulness that Poverty, by America cannot quite summon, and today’s political circumstances make it almost unimaginable that Desmond’s book will have a similar effect. The institutionalization of the study of poverty has changed what it means to chronicle it.

The Other America emphasized the tremendous variety of ways to be poor. Harrington wrote that American poverty deserved a novelist to chronicle its textures and sensibilities, and in the spirit of George Orwell going to Wigan Pier, he observed communities of impoverished people: migrant farmworkers; the aged poor; the alcoholic poor; the Black residents of poor, urban neighborhoods; bohemians who were “voluntarily” poor. But in all these cases, his analysis of poverty treated it as a problem, in large part, of exclusion. Poor people were those shut out of middle-class affluence. They lived in geographically remote regions, in segregated inner cities or in rural Appalachia. They lacked the skills and education to participate in the great postwar economic boom. Leaving some people out and including others, technology and progress generated poverty just as they generated wealth.

Perhaps the most famous idea in The Other America is that of a “culture of poverty,” Harrington’s borrowing of a concept developed by anthropologist Oscar Lewis, whose scholarship focused on poverty in Mexico. Being poor in the United States meant more than not having money; it was “a culture, an institution, a way of life.” On one level, Harrington was describing the escalating series of crises that might define life in poverty and prevent an individual from rising out of it. A child might develop asthma, an allergic response to a dusty, run-down building; her mother might have to miss work for a day to take her to the doctor. For a middle-class employee, this would be covered by a sick day; for a poor worker, it could mean getting fired. Lost wages might mean lost rent and then eviction. The older sister of the asthmatic child might then shoplift to get food or medicine or a trinket, leading to a stint in jail—and so forth. The complex web of forces that shaped the life of an impoverished person gave the lie to glib ideas about individualism whereby hard work equals upward mobility.

But Harrington went further still, to argue that poor people lived in a cultural universe apart from the rest of the United States. “There is, in short, a language of the poor, a psychology of the poor, a worldview of the poor,” he wrote. “To be impoverished is to be an internal alien, to grow up in a culture that is radically different from the one that dominates the society.” Because poor people were so radically distant from the larger society, they could not act on their own politically. Any solution to their plight would have to depend on appealing to liberal middle-class people and the labor movement, to create the “vast social movement” that would be needed to end poverty. Harrington believed that middle-class America would rise to the challenge. He ended his book with a call to this constituency. “How long shall we ignore this underdeveloped nation in our midst? How long shall we look the other way while our fellow human beings suffer?”

The war on poverty of the 1960s had many limits and challenges. Its means-tested programs were targeted only at the poorest of the poor, rather than being universal in scope, like Social Security. It was accompanied by funding for local police that helped to swell the carceral state. But at the same time, it did represent the sole expansion of the American welfare state in the twentieth century to follow that of the 1930s and 1940s, which had grown out of the national emergencies of Depression and war. The national health insurance programs that it established remain the major form of public health insurance, an essential bulwark and commitment to human dignity and well-being. The food support it created kept millions from the worst hunger (and still does, though weakened by repeated attacks). The number of people living in extreme poverty fell to 30 million from 39 million between 1959 and 1966, and despite Harrington’s pessimism about poor people’s capacity for political activism, the civil rights movement—with its broad call to recognize the dignity of subaltern Americans—and the power of organized labor created the politics that made this possible.

And yet, over 60 years later, how different are conditions really? Recent decades have seen the social safety net hollowed out in countless ways, with time limits and work requirements imposed on programs that were already means-tested—like food stamps. More than a million American schoolchildren are homeless. Almost two million American households lack running water. And, Desmond writes, “if America’s poor founded a country, that country would have a bigger population than Australia or Venezuela”—37.9 million as of January 2023. Desmond describes poverty as living in a sense of constant emergency. The constant danger and fear that comes with being poor are core to his vision: “Poverty is the colostomy bag and wheelchair, the night terrors and bullets that maimed but didn’t finish their cunning work.” He is also powerful on physical pain: the two amputations a week in the meatpacking industry when an arm or a hand gets caught in a band saw; the “skin rashes and migraines of maids who clean our office buildings, homes, and hotel rooms with products containing ammonia and triclosan.”

Poverty, for Desmond, results from the myriad forms of “predatory inclusion,” to use Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s phrase, rather than exclusion. People are poor because they are underpaid, charged too much in rent, and exploited by financial institutions such as payday lenders. Poor people do not occupy some distant cultural universe; their labor and their needs create opportunities for wealth for others. They are people like Julio Payes, a Guatemalan immigrant (a permanent resident of the United States) who lives in a small city in Northern California and works 80 hours a week at two minimum-wage jobs—an overnight shift at McDonald’s and a day shift at a temp contracting firm that sends people to jobs in construction, maintenance, distribution, and facilities. Or Crystal Mayberry, who survived a violent childhood to find herself paying 73 percent of her income in rent; following eviction, she lost her Supplemental Security Income, and ultimately found herself homeless, engaging in prostitution to survive.

These conditions, Desmond argues, persist because employers, landlords, loan sharks, and—less directly—large swaths of the upper middle class benefit. In this analysis, Desmond is building on his work on evictions, which pins much of the blame for the high eviction rate and consequent disaster on small landlords, whose own economic security rests on the apartments they rent to even poorer people. Many of these landlords are people who have little access to steady or stable jobs, and so turn to property ownership as an alternative. But then they behave with ruthlessness toward tenants like Mayberry. Similarly, in the broader economy, the low wages and precarious conditions of poor workers like Payes underwrite the economic security of well-off professionals. If upper-middle-class people can afford takeout food, household help, childcare, restaurant meals out, new clothing each season, and much else, it’s in large part because the workers in those fields are paid so poorly.

This kind of self-interest, Desmond argues, has also distorted the welfare state, so that poor people have to scramble for scraps of aid while the affluent receive handsome tax breaks. Even though government spending on means-tested programs that are aimed at poor people, such as Medicaid and food stamps, has grown since the early 1980s, from $1,015 per person in 1980 to $3,419 a person early in Donald Trump’s presidency, the programs are more difficult to access than they were in the past. Money that is supposed to go to poor people in fact is devoted to the state apparatus that determines whether they’re poor enough to receive it.

Desmond illustrates this point with the story of his former roommate, Woo. Woo stepped on a rusty nail in his dilapidated apartment; unable to take the time and money to go to the doctor, he developed an infection that spiraled due to his diabetes and ultimately lost his lower leg. Woo’s initial application for Social Security was denied—as are about two-thirds of all first-time applications—although later, with the help of a lawyer, he was able to access the program, which paid him much less than his work as a security guard once had. These pointless legal hassles and barriers to access help to explain why, as Desmond puts it, “a dollar allocated to an antipoverty program does not mean a dollar will ultimately reach a needy family.”

On top of this, states get block grants under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (the revamped Clinton-era welfare program) and can spend money on things like abstinence-only sex education and Christian summer camps that have a dubious relationship to ending poverty. Of the $31.6 billion in federal welfare spending in 2020, only $7.1 billion actually was realized in cash payments to poor people. Compare this system to Aid to Families With Dependent Children, the welfare program in place from the Great Depression until the early 1990s, which Desmond argues managed to deliver “almost all” of its funding into the hands of poor people themselves.

Government assistance has become tilted toward those who have money already. Desmond contrasts the labyrinthine and inefficient programs for the poor with the considerable welfare state for the affluent, comprising a host of tax benefits. Many of these benefits are invisible—tax-advantaged IRAs, for example, or 529 college-savings plans, or mortgage-interest tax deductions. But just imagine what it would look like if people paid the “full” amount of their taxes and then got a check equivalent to the credit. Desmond suggests that the average household in the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution receives about $25,700 a year in government benefit, while the average household in the top 20 percent gets about $35,300. Why is this welfare state politically acceptable, but not one that effectively serves poor people?

The answer may not be that complex or ideological. Starving the public sector allows the affluent to purchase ever-larger cars, houses, and consumer goodies. We have lavish vacations, giant SUVs, and McMansion second homes—but we get to them by driving past homeless encampments, and our public school teachers pay out of pocket for school supplies. This is no accident, but rather marks the complicity of the upper middle class in the sustenance of poverty.

Harrington was a socialist when he wrote The Other America, but he refrained in the book from any direct or explicit criticism of capitalism that might prevent it reaching a wider audience. Desmond makes a similar move, insisting that he is not calling for anything as radical as “redistribution,” but simply for the IRS to start cracking down on tax cheats and for a little rebalancing of the social safety net so that it offers less help to the rich and more to the poor. (He estimates that the government could lift all poor families above the poverty line for about $177 billion—an amount far less than what it loses through tax avoidance each year.) Raising the minimum wage and making it easier for workers to organize unions are, for Desmond, among the most important anti-poverty programs. A higher minimum wage, he writes, would be a “sleep aid” and an “antidepressant.”

Desmond calls attention to the political movements of poor people in a way that Harrington never did. Although Harrington was writing after the Montgomery bus boycott, as the civil rights movement rose in the South, he said relatively little about it—although this was a mobilization in large part of the working poor. Desmond, by contrast, cites tenants’ movements, the Fight for $15, and union campaigns such as those at Amazon and Starbucks. He calls on the middle class to support, participate in, and learn from these movements, rather than engaging with them superficially. “It’s now common for local businesses to hang trans rights flags or BLACK LIVES MATTER signs in their store windows,” he observes, but “how about also posting starting wages?” Right-thinking liberals seek out organic, sustainably produced fruits and vegetables, but rarely ask what the farmworkers are paid; they boycott chains because of their political donations and public stances, not their pay and benefits. Desmond asks that we treat these seemingly economic issues as the moral and political ones they really are. People should become “poverty abolitionists,” invoking a tradition of abolitionism from the abolition of slavery to the campaign to dismantle the carceral state.

Despite Desmond’s exhortations, a note of impatience, frustration, even disillusionment runs through his book. Harrington believed that if only people knew and recognized the extent of poverty in the United States, they would take action against it—how could they not? By contrast, Desmond notes that he feels “rude” when he mentions that “people benefit from poverty in all kinds of ways”—it’s like “a dog urinating on a car.” One imagines academics shuffling their papers and looking down, conference attendees staring into the middle distance. They are happy to produce white papers and journal articles, but not to support union drives or pay their housekeepers more. “Complexity is the refuge of the powerful,” he writes. “Hungry people want bread. The rich convene a panel of experts.”

It’s clear why Desmond is exasperated. After all, the United States has been talking about poverty for six decades, and yet the problem remains. Desmond himself has built an entire academic career out of documenting the causes and extent of poverty, part of a professional subfield that didn’t exist when Harrington wrote The Other America. Then, Harrington positioned himself as an outsider bearing moral witness. The extensive, rich footnotes of Poverty, by America—far more extensive and scholarly than for Harrington’s book—testify that the body of knowledge about poverty has vastly grown. Journal articles, books, conferences, foundations, and pilot programs proliferate, yet the poor remain poor. The contrast between the studied concern of the sociologists and the actual lives of poor people is painful—and enraging. It is as though an entire elaborate intellectual edifice has been built to tell us what we already know: that it is a horror to live in cities where thousands of people sleep outdoors and wander the streets begging for change, where mothers strap their children to their backs and sell candy on the subways, where young men lose their feet because they cannot go to the doctor to treat infected wounds. Desmond’s work is deeply rooted in this academic universe, even as he acknowledges its limits. “We don’t need to outsmart this problem,” Desmond writes. “We need to out-hate it.”

Yet Desmond’s discouragement at the complacency of his class peers does not fully capture the economic dynamics at play. Part of what has happened over the 61 years that separate these two books is the turn from a political economy that managed to distribute wealth more evenly to the current level of extreme inequality and hierarchy. In the early 1960s, Harrington argued that the poor lived lives of insecurity and deprivation that were far from the American norm “because so many are enjoying a decent standard of life, there are indifference and blindness to the plight of the poor.” Today, thanks to capital flight, anti-unionism, deindustrialization, the proliferation of low-wage jobs, and the proletarianization of many professional occupations (such as academia), the insecurity of poverty has spread to many of those who might once have occupied the middle class.

Despite the many differences of status and education, factory workers, retail clerks, professors, and journalists (among other occupations) alike share downward pressure on their wages and increased lack of control over the conditions of their work. Although Desmond is technically correct that the majority of the American population owns some stocks, and thus indirectly benefits from exploitation that might boost share prices, this does not translate into security and privilege—most who do own stock do so as part of a retirement plan, which can easily be wiped out in a downturn, and few outside of the elite derive any significant part of their income from finance. The middle class today in fact shares a great deal with the poor, which means that its guilty self-excoriation can only get so far.

There is some room for hope in this bleak fact. Many of the social and political investments that Desmond suggests to reduce extreme poverty—making it easier to organize unions, expanding investments in affordable housing and tenant protections, raising the minimum wage—hold the potential for broad and commanding appeal. Such policies likely would provide a net material benefit for many beyond the very poor. They could also extend less tangible gains in security and in freedom. Desmond concludes by evoking the weariness that can come from living in a society that tolerates human desperation, as ours does—the tendency to dehumanize those who show that there is no limit to how far one might fall, the dissociation that becomes necessary to walk down the street and remain sane in the presence of frightening misery. He asks that people imagine a different kind of society: one no longer haunted in this way. Seeing the fight against extreme poverty as a building of necessary solidarity might even help to ignite a “new period of political creativity” in the United States—as Harrington called for, more than 60 years ago.