In reading Poverty, By America, I was once again reminded of how much I admire Matthew Desmond. I love the accessibility and honesty of his writing and the humanity of his scholarship. Unlike many authors and academics, Matthew recognizes with life-affirming clarity that America’s poorest citizens are his collaborators; at no time does he relate to them as research subjects and/or objects of pity (or scorn). I am inspired by the unwavering dedication with which he continues to focus a heart-shaped spotlight on poverty and the devastating impact it has on our ability as a country to move forward.

What I didn’t expect is that Poverty, By America would help deepen my appreciation of what it means to be a political independent in the bi-partisan swamp that is the United States. In the book Matthew writes, “The French sociologist Eugène Buret once remarked, ‘Misery is poverty felt morally.’ You feel it in the degradation rituals of the welfare office; you feel it when you go home to an apartment with cracked windows and cockroaches, an infestation the landlord blames on you. You may begin to believe, in the quieter moments, the lies told about you. You avoid public places knowing they weren’t built for you…It’s more socially acceptable today to disclose a mental illness than to tell someone you’re broke.”

Though painful to read, this paragraph too accurately captures why I believe there is no group more shamed and degraded than the poor, even in a culture in which shaming has become almost as common as breathing. You name it, we can find a way to shame it, something political independents know a little bit about. Anyone who dares challenge the two party stranglehold on American politics is shamed, degraded and attacked with fierce regularity and even after 45 years, I can find myself sometimes believing the lies told about us — that we’re “swing voters” or “spoilers” or just dummies who can’t commit to one party.  Like those living in poverty, we remain largely invisible despite the fact that close to half the country self-identifies as independent.

In writing this, I am aware of how much has changed since I first started working in poor communities — and proudly came out as an independent — some five decades ago — and I have no interest in creating a false equivalency between the two. However, for the sake of our humanity and our future — I am urging that we take every opportunity to come together around those shared experience in ways that make it possible for Americans to“see the unseeable” and to build a world that really does belong to ALL of us.

Mary Fridley, a longtime independent activist, is on the faculty at the East Side Institute in NYC, co-creator and leader of The Joy of Dementia (You Gotta Be Kidding!), and coordinator of Reimagining Dementia: A Creative Coalition for Justice.

July 25th at 3pm ET

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


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

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