My comments are in two parts. 

  1. A summary that takes a little over two minutes to read; and 
  2. Musings that take longer—about six minutes. 


  • I come at this, informed in part by a forty-seven year career in city in and regional planning,  among other things. I have the scars to prove it. 
  • While I reluctantly accept the label “independent,” it relates solely to political parties and  nothing else. I am an interdependent, and so is everyone else. Everyone. 
  • These comments represent my personal view only and are not to be construed to represent  any other entity. 

Summary Observations 

Mr. Desmond makes a solid case that poverty is systemically built into our economy, our governance, and our society. Within that general framework, many details are worth noting. I found these points to be especially illuminating: 

  • Advantages for the well-off consume far more of our public resources, including governmental  subsidies and additions to our national debt, than for the poor. The advantages are not just historical;  they are baked into the system. 
  • Characterization of the poor as essentially lazy and without motivation is a gross distortion of reality.  Most of the poor want not to be and work hard to achieve that. Their uphill climb is beyond  challenging and, in many cases, futile, owing to insurmountable obstacles and contrary power  structures in America. 
  • The United States lags well behind almost all industrialized nations in dealing with poverty. The  elephant in the room is a belief that the poor deserve to be poor, else they would be like the rest of us. 
  • Those of us who are reasonably well-off—not only the wealthy and corporations—benefit from  exploitation of those who are not. The poor make life easier for most of us who are not. 
  • Solutions are available, but the primary idea of upending land use patterns to accommodate truly  affordable housing in more affluent neighborhoods is one of the most challenging. My summary  addresses that dimension of the issue. 

Affordable housing is pivotal simply because of primacy of shelter. Our approach to housing is self defeating, partly because of our confusion about houses and homes. Developers and builders,  understandably, market homes. In reality, they offer houses, or more generically, dwelling units. Only the occupants can create a home, and most do. Still, many do not, irrespective of income. It’s just a lot  harder if you are poor. 

Dwelling units, in our system, are part of the commodity market, similar to pork belly futures or crude  oil. The market gyrates wildly, according to a variety of factors that complicate any relevance of housing  costs to actual need. While the price trend is generally up over time, inflation and occasional busts (as  with the recent “great recession,”) take the wind out of our sails. Reality is more devastating and  unrelated to need than we like to believe. Timing is everything, and the poor have no agility whatsoever  in leveraging the advantages market movements offer. 

This is why wealth accumulation in America for most of us is so tied to generational patterns of real estate  ownership. Property is a heat sink for wealth, held long enough to ride out the value undulations—or,  more commonly these days, strategically traded “up” to capture value increases. Owners accumulate  wealth this way over time; renters do not. We will never build our way out of the dearth of affordable  dwelling units as long as investors distort the market and renters remain unable to build equity in property. 

These are “systemic” factors built into the fabric of how our economy and public policy framework are  designed to operate. Mr. Desmond talks about the challenges of penetrating the self-segregating pattern  of land use to gain leverage for the poor. That’s a formidable challenge, indeed. Mr. Desmond provides a  thoughtful introduction to the topic that challenges those who really care to rethink how we think about  the subject—and then act accordingly. 

It is no mystery why the median net worth of homeowners in America is currently $255,000, compared  to $6,300 for renters. 

My two minutes are up. 

Musings On a Theme of Housing For the Poor 


  • Just as with homelessness, the poor encompass a wide range of characteristics, so no “one  size fits all” applies. Moreover, regional differences are enormous, so context matters greatly.
  • As with most societal issues, apathy is the enemy, even though most of the headlines refer to  something else. 
  • If for no other reason, because of climate change and our national deficit (federal plus other  governmental plus private debt), any future endeavors to expand shelter options for the poor will  be even more difficult—and more essential—than they already are. Given lag times in this arena,  we are way behind the curve. 

Reading about poverty is one thing; living it, quite another. The best way to understand poverty is to be  poor. It’s not just lack of money.  

The welfare people used to drive over the dirt ruts in our trailer camp, clipboards in hand to  record conditions—an outlier in one of California’s premier suburban communities, renowned for its excellent education institutions and large number of churches. My bedroom was a wood platform next to the trailer with isinglass screens for walls and a folding Army cot for a bed. I came home rom school one day as firemen carried the little girl next door out of her trailer. She had tipped a can of kerosene on the hot plate her family cooked with. She died later that day. I can still see the skin falling from her body. I was in seventh grade.

I am not rich, but I’m no longer poor. Why? The answer lies, in part, in another brilliant book, Malcolm  Gladwell’s Outliers. Yes, I worked hard and often: sold Burpee garden seeds door-to-door when I was eight years old, and had fourteen different jobs (often, two at a time) every year for the next fourteen  years until I graduated from college to become a Navy pilot. Read Outliers for the rest of the story. 

Our Great American Experiment is in trouble in many ways and Matthew Desmond is unexcelled in telling us about one critical dimension of that reality: gross exploitation of some of us by most of us. It’s  more complicated than that, though. 

For example, “welfare queens,” as they are labeled, do exist. They are found throughout the entire  economic spectrum, not just the bottom. Lots of “kings,” too. 

Many people are poor because the obstacles they came with or encountered are simply overpowering.  Still others because they landed in a really mean place. Some people are poor because they are flat-out  lazy (that’s not exclusive to the poor). A huge proportion experience poverty because they are routinely  exploited and can’t disentangle themselves. Matthew says this is the largest group.  

The most informative and persuasive parts of this book are those offering real statistics that paint a  different picture than the messages we get from media, political parties, partisan think tanks, pundits of  all hues, and that most pervasive of all rumor mills, social media. If his figures are accurate—there’s no  reason to doubt them, though many will—we can make some substantial poverty reduction moves  without rocking the boat so far that we swamp it. Adjustments in how we manage the money that does get  invested in anti-poverty initiatives could help greatly, though this would not erase the condition. 

Nothing would erase it, in fact. Even eliminating the rampant exploitation of have-nots by haves would  not erase it. It might, however, eventually become a mere shadow of its current magnitude. Exploitation,  irresponsibility, prejudice, fear of change, and ignorance will not disappear until people do. But that is  no excuse for declining to seek better. Much better.  

One of our dilemmas in dealing with this pervasive condition is the simple, yet elusive, acceptance that  we are interdependent in myriad ways. That reality needs to be reflected in the systems we put in place to  reconcile the inevitable distortions characterizing a complex, highly diverse society. The myth of the self sufficient individualist may be true in a handful of cases; it’s just overwhelmingly inaccurate—even in  those cases. 

This mentality of individualism drove the massive shift of development patterns toward suburbia after  World War II. It was already underway, but the movement went into high gear then. California—the  southern part, especially—became a poster child for the movement.

Mary and I bought a house in Huntington Beach, CA, in 1968 for $31,000. We sold it 39 years  later in 2007 for $883,000. We were not real estate investors, though we benefitted from the  system. Our actual profit, of course, was diminished considerably by 1) inflation, which made  that gap significantly smaller in real dollars; 2) the substantial money spent during almost four  decades on maintenance, improvements, and repairs; 3) the payment of property taxes during  that period; and 4) the interest on the mortgage loan for 30 years. Not even considered is the  immense cost of getting around imposed by the nature of suburban sprawl.  

Still, we had already spent those dollars by 2007 anyway, so the sale enabled us to buy a new  home in Arizona for cash. Had we been renters all that time, we would now be living in a small  apartment or rented condominium instead of a three-bedroom house, free and clear. Our  contribution to the rising housing market was infinitesimal; absent that economic engine, we  would have lost money on the sale. But we would still have had a nice home in a dwelling that  permitted it for 39 years. As I recall, that was the point.  

Which leads me to this observation. 

Mr. Desmond appeals to our collective will to attack poverty in a comprehensive way that we have  rejected so far. It seems that such motivation would arise from two factors: 1) actual concern for the  people we have trapped in poverty, including those who have trapped themselves; and 2) finally suffering  from the consequences of a distorted system on a broad enough scale that those who are not poor are  paying too high a price for the consequences of the same system that traps the poor. 

That appears to be happening aggressively in California. That Nation/State (the fifth largest economy on  the planet if it were a nation, just behind Germany and India) has taken a radical step toward  overpowering (not eliminating) residential nimbyism. At the same time, recent surveys suggest up to  forty percent of the population would like to leave because of high costs of living. The state is losing  population, but not at that rate. The costs of outrageous costs are now hurting a lot broader segment of  the population than those we categorize as poor. 

California law has long required housing elements in local general plans. Orange County, on the tail end of its tenure during the 1950s and 60s as the most rapidly growing county in the Nation, had a housing element that, like most, was all smoke and no fire. That was intentional. The State finally insisted that the County get serious, or it’s ability to issue building permits would be  foreclosed. That got serious attention by our Board of Supervisors. 

As manager of advance planning for the County, I was designated to negotiate with the State’s  Department of Housing and Community Development regarding a mutually acceptable  resolution. I was directed not to accept a commitment to inclusionary requirements for affordable  housing. It became clear that it was either that, or building permits would stop. So I agreed, and  prepared to accept the certainty of being “invited to abandon my current state of employment.” I  lasted another twelve years, as it turned out. 

The new housing element was serious, and was promptly adopted.

California is currently clamping down on residential exclusivity by municipalities It remains to be seen  how that unprecedented invasion of revered local control will play out. This still does not address the  reality that dwellings are commodities and behave accordingly, but it does open up heretofore  unassailable barriers to residential development. What living in those areas will be like for the families  involved remains to be seen. It could be brutal, but certainly superior to the choices they historically  faced. 

Will this bring down the astronomical cost profile now abhorrent to more and more Californians? Not  any time soon, I suspect. Will it open up housing availability for the very poor? No. That will require a  whole different strategy that even California has yet to embrace with sufficient urgency. 

I would love to be wrong about this.  

We have a long way to go before we are willing to accept that the definition of adequate shelter to meet  our actual needs must be far more varied than what exists. But there are glimmers of hope here and there  as conditions, desperation, and innovation meet. 

Our hope, I believe, lies in aggressively tracking the creative ways this nut is being cracked and parlaying  those examples across more reluctant communities where fear and resistance dominate housing policy.  One problem, of course, is that these breakthroughs are glacial in their rate of acceptance. Meanwhile,  lives of the poor and, especially, the ultra-poor, go on in a desperate race for survival. 

As long as our public arena is dominated by the volatile and toxic warfare between political parties and  the dysfunction that imposes on our governance, we will be constrained in focusing the necessary  resources on real breakthroughs. In the meanwhile, solutions emerge locally and in some states. They  provide our classrooms, and learning is actually taking place. We need to leverage those examples. 

This pattern is not unusual. We have a distinct tendency to kick important things down the road until the  pain becomes too severe to ignore. Immigration, environment, and abortion come to mind. We may be at  that point regarding shelter in the United States. 

Mr. Desmond has our attention. Now, enough of us have to take that to the next level to make a  difference. The consequences of default are already extending up the economic ladder; that may be our  saving grace in the long run.  

In the meanwhile, a lot of suffering continues. Especially, by children. 

We have a lot of work to do.

Al Bell lives in Peoria, AZ and is a co-founder, with Richard Sinclair, of the recently initiated Arizona Independent Voter’s Network, designed to link the Independent Voting community for greater effectiveness. Al served on Independent Voting’s Eyes on 2020 National Cabinet, working to get the 2020 presidential primaries open to independents across the country.

July 25th at 3pm ET

Join our host, Cathy Stewart, for a Virtual Discussion with author Matthew Desmond


Arizona Poverty Fact Sheet

In conjunction with the release of Poverty, By America, Matthew Desmond also developed a fact sheet with information on poverty indicators for each of the 50 states.

We will be sharing the fact sheet for the state of each Reader’s Forum author. Below is the fact sheet for Arizona.

Founder of the Politics for the People free educational series and book club for independent voters. Chair of the New York County Independence Party.

3 thoughts on “Al Bell on POVERTY, BY AMERICA

  1. As always, Al’s comments are thought provoking and informative, and here they pack a punch.

  2. I reflect
    Rereading Plutarch’s lives and essays he discusses a sociaty (Sparta ?) in which a ruler divided EVERYTHING evenly
    As long as.he.lived all stayed equal. Once he died the enevatable redistribution started?

    He also point to multiple successful societies destroyed before??
    By demigods who divided along lines of Envy.

    Peace and prosperity Through personal Responsibility

  3. Unable to edit my previous comment?

    Anytime we deny another person (life form ?) Full and equal opportunity we are damaging or destroying our own.

    Equal Opportunities not equal right to that which others have earned by a CONTRIBUTION to society as a whole.

    Peace and prosperity Through personal Responsibility

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