Readers Forum – Frank Fear on POVERTY, BY AMERICA

The American Dream and Nightmare, Living Side by Side 

Even in the darkest moments, we should allow ourselves to imagine, to marvel over, a new social contract because doing so expresses both discontent with and the impermanence of the current one.

From Poverty, By America, p. 134

Matthew Desmond’s Poverty, By America, is a wake-up and clarion call. While there is no defensible reason poverty should exist in this country, there is the stark reality that we enable its persistence. By “we,” I mean you and me, all of us. We tolerate it because poverty has been normalized—the way it is. Changing that mindset (it’s not how it needs to be) and situation (eradicating poverty) is a tall order. But as Desmond lays out in his documented account, it can be done. Will it?

For that to happen, people like you and me must look hard at our circumstances and admit to an uncomfortable truth. By that, I mean where we live, who constitutes our social networks, what we do for a living, what we own, the items on which we spend discretionary dollars, where we went to college (if we did), the organizations we affiliate with, and more. A good number of those attributes aren’t behind-the-scenes matters. Many are in view and revealing, to be seen and observed, with affluence (us) and poverty (them) standing in proximity, often only a few neighborhoods or miles apart.

That social circumstance (note the transition from personal to social) is embedded in our social fabric. It is why poverty has existed, continues to exist today, and is likely to be with us in the future. Two reasons stand out. Poverty is neither an existential crisis, as is global climate change, nor is it unique to America’s national circumstance. But as deplorable as poverty is, it’s also fixable … if we choose to make it so. 

So, why have we yet to do so? We talk a lot these days about the need for political will (e.g., the passage of gun control legislation), but when it comes to poverty, I believe it’s essential to write and talk about public will … and the lack thereof. Whether we care to admit it (and we don’t), poverty serves a social purpose. It always has. It’s the end-state of “making it,” specifically about those who did and didn’t. 

That dynamic generates a social bifurcation—those who experience the American Dream and others who live a nightmare. That coexistence is the outcome of a firmly embedded sociocultural dilemma. How many people can there be in the “I made it” category before there are too many people, and when social caste reference points, such as privilege and elite, get diminished? Being “more than” others, different “from them,” living elsewhere, and displaying differences publicly are embedded in our psyche and stratified sociocultural structure.

It’s easy to blame those on the political Right, namely committed Conservatives who aren’t shy about speaking out about why the current system should remain intact. Theirs is a well-known routine of what, how, and why: What they did to achieve success, how others need to follow that same path, and why people deserve to suffer the consequences if they don’t. 

But there’s more to the picture. Progressives and Liberals (like you and me) are in the mix, too—caring people committed to improving the world and engaged in community/political affairs. Here’s the thing, though. Many of us have our feet planted in two worlds, committed to social change while benefitting from the trappings that say, “We have made it!” 

Outcome? Many of us share the same mindset embraced by outspoken Conservatives, a neoliberal view emphasizing personal responsibility as the pathway to success. That way of thinking, and its corresponding practice routines, overwhelm the broad-based effort to eliminate poverty. 

How so? Consider this. How many people do you know who openly challenge the neoliberal narrative of success? A few, possibly, but whatever the number, I’ll bet it pales compared to those who buy into the neoliberal narrative, follow it, and preach it to their children. Let’s face it. Personal identity and social standing are based on occupational success and personal wealth, not commonwealth values. When you benefit significantly from the system, why question it?

And there’s more to the critique. Social transformation, the consequence of poverty eradication, requires exchanging business as usual with a new way of doing things. Social transformation always does. For example, The Electric Vehicle (EV) Revolution transformed automobile production, sales, and service, including who and how many people are employed to do what task. Concerning poverty, the preferred approach—and I would go as far as to label it “The Classic American Approach”—is to “give back to those in need,” a charity motif. But charity doesn’t restructure society into a world with more have’s; it offers relief to those living in less than satisfactory circumstances. Surgery is bypassed for a band-aid.

So, the primary public response involves donating money and volunteering. Laudable efforts, indeed, until you think about the current system more carefully. This country’s Poverty-Serving Industry includes 1.3 million nonprofit organizations and constitutes a $1 trillion annual enterprise. The industry has grown exponentially over the last forty-plus years since the Reagan Revolution, which launched tax cuts, and The Thousand Points of Light, which shifted a good share of social support responsibilities from the public sector to the nonprofit sector. 

Consider what would happen if poverty abolitionists were successful in eradicating poverty. Like the auto industry, the Poverty-Serving Industry would be disrupted because we would take major public responsibility for ending poverty. That’s not happening today even as poverty continues and worsens—caseloads increase, and more resources and staff are required to meet needs. It’s a never-ending quest to keep up with the demand, which describes my experience as a metropolitan food bank president. 

Matthew Desmond sees a different possibility; a fundamental shakeup is needed. I agree. It’s time in this country to express wide scale public outrage about poverty—call it moral panic, if you will—that translates into a grassroots movement with meaningful political reach. 

It’s time for that, and it begins with you and me. 

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.

From Poverty, By America, p. 156

Frank A. Fear is professor emeritus, Michigan State University, where he served as a faculty member for thirty years and worked in various administrative positions for nearly twenty years. Frank also writes about issues that intersect sport and society

July 25th at 3pm ET

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


Michigan 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 Michigan.

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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