Reader’s Forum – Tiani Coleman on POVERTY, BY AMERICA

A Call to Repentance

Guilty as charged.  This book convicts me – and most of us.

When I started the book Poverty, By America, written by Matthew Desmond, I dreaded the impending call for all of us to throw more money at the problem of poverty, a problem which he demonstrates is serious. He compares poverty to sitting in a hospital emergency room, where “all other concerns and responsibilities feel (and are) trivial,” saying, “when we are preoccupied by poverty, we have less mind to give to the rest of our life.” 

Despite knowing that that’s painfully true for those trapped in poverty, as they’re constantly overwhelmed with the fear of how they’re going to pay for the next gas fill-up, the next bit of food for the table, the next rent payment, or other basic survival needs, I somehow still felt the “scarcity” and “zero-sumness” of it all.  

Why? Perhaps because my family is classified as wealthy, yet we can’t send our kids to college, unless they get a generous merit scholarship. We’ve never been on a luxurious vacation and scrimp big time on the few trips we do take; we can’t afford to fix or replace things around our home that are falling apart; we drive our cars for 15 to 20 years; I don’t wear expensive clothes or get my hair done at nice salons; we turn down myriads of things and opportunities because they simply “cost too much.”  So where is the money to help the poor going to come from?  

Refreshingly, Desmond takes an innovative approach and breaks down many of the typical stereotypes about poverty and the resulting propagandized narrative. Still, the book is a national and personal call to repentance – we can’t claim to care about the problem if we’re not willing to make some crucial changes.  

Desmond brings to the reader’s attention that: “[d]ecade after decade, the poverty rate has remained flat even as federal relief has surged,” meaning that, “a fair amount of government aid earmarked for the poor never reaches them.”  Of every dollar budgeted for TANF, for example, only 22 cents goes directly to the poor. Desmond calls the American welfare state “a leaky bucket,” with funds diverted in many ways. “It’s not about spending; we’ve doubled anti-poverty aid per capita, but the poverty line hasn’t meaningfully budged.” The real problem, he says, is that “we insist on supporting policies that accommodate poverty instead of ones that disrupt it.”  

“Poverty persists,” he declares, “because some wish and will it to.” “One man’s poverty is another man’s profit.”  

Desmond makes three primary points in this regard: (1) we make the poor in America poor by exploiting them; (2) we prioritize the subsidization of affluence over the alleviation of poverty; and (3) we create prosperous and exclusive communities.  

He provides countless examples of how blaming the poor for bringing poverty upon themselves, or blaming other things for poverty, such as immigrants, is misplaced. For example, the poor are continually exploited by banks, by payday lenders, by landlords (who extract more in poor neighborhoods than in affluent ones – rent prices have exceeded income gains by 325%), etc. Statistics show that immigrants give more to the government in taxes than they receive in welfare benefits, and increasing the minimum wage has little effect on unemployment rates.  We’ve adopted mass incarceration and other anti-family policies that trap and exploit.  We engage in tactics to restrict competition because “competition breeds choice and choice makes exploitation difficult.” The median annual compensation in 2018 was $30,500, for example, but if the market were perfectly competitive, it would be closer to $41K or even as high as $92K. That’s a big rise in income just by making markets fair.   

“Poverty isn’t simply the condition of not having enough money; it’s the condition of not having enough choice and being taken advantage of because of that.”  Many believe the poor should change their behavior to escape poverty, but Desmond claims it’s the other way around: “Economic security leads to [people making] better choices.” 

Desmond attacks the age-old belief that aid to the poor is a poison of government dependency. He makes a strong case for how the American upper class puts way more stress on the welfare state. “Big money is what led to big government,” he claims. Once we have money, we work to keep it – the biggest subsidies go to ensure that well-off families stay well off. “It is we, the members of the protected classes who have grown increasingly dependent on our welfare programs.” Desmond asserts, “We’re all on the dole.” The mortgage interest deductions we get are government subsidies we can claim for a longer time period than the poor can claim cash welfare benefits.  Although student loans look private, the federal government pays half the interest and guarantees the loans.  We also get government subsidized health benefits (through employers), and government subsidized retirement benefits. And wealth (in the form of capital gains) is taxed at a lower rate than wages. The EITC enjoys bipartisan support because it’s a generous handout to corporations whose low wages are subsidized through the program. So the biggest beneficiaries of federal aid are the affluent. 

Finally, Desmond describes how the wealthy are engaging in what he terms “private opulence and public squalor.”  We aren’t putting resources and attention into renewing and maintaining public schools, public parks, public housing, public transportation, and safety net programs. As private fortunes outpace investments in public services, affluent people become less dependent on and less interested in supporting the public sector. We see a dilapidated “public world increasingly abandoned to Blacks [and other poor minorities], and a new private one created for whites.” This plays out in exclusionary zoning laws on the local level, as well.  We’ve been building a new kind of segregation that promotes more unequal opportunity and more poverty. George Romney called for the government to stop subsidizing segregation more than 50 years ago!   

We could afford to actually tackle poverty, says Desmond, “if we designed our welfare state to expand opportunity and not guard fortunes.” He says we can start with the cheaters, the multinational corporations and wealthy families who avoid taxes.  Desmond talks about  countless ways to deepen our investments in economic opportunity and security without increasing the deficit. “We just have to stop spending so much on the rich.”  And each of us needs to make a commitment to tackling the problem by making better, small decisions each day. 

Desmond recognizes that most of us want less poverty and less inequality, but we lack the will to do something if we feel those policies could cost our families.  We don’t recognize the massive tax benefits we already enjoy, which spreads resentment towards a government perceived to be giving handouts to poor families. So we stand against government spending on the poor while also protecting our own perks.  We need to develop policies that foster goodwill, not those that kindle resentment. Desmond asks, “Will the policy unite people struggling with economic security, those below the poverty line and those above it?  Will it drive down poverty and promote economic opportunity?” Desmond believes we can rebalance the safety net and insist on tax fairness in order to make significant investments in eliminating poverty through policies supported by broad coalitions.  

Can we?  This is where our work as independent voters comes in. It may sound doable, but I know it will only take one TV talking head to label Desmond a socialist or a communist for many people to immediately discard anything he’s said and start demonizing.  Desmond says, “I’m not calling for redistribution. I’m calling for the rich to pay their taxes; more poor aid and less rich aid.”  He also says, “I’m not anti-capitalist; I’m anti-exploitation.” Can we talk about this rationally and collaboratively?  We need not agree with everything Desmond says, but I think he successfully challenges misplaced assumptions and offers new approaches. 

On a personal level, I relate to where he talks about how “so many people have so much yet feel so deprived and anxious.” Like Desmond says, those feelings “have proven incredibly effective at preventing us from seeing ourselves as authors of inequality.” Our desires to consume fast and cheap – our appetites and amusements – lay many costs on the poor. “Winners have cultivated rationalizations that allow us to avoid a more painful truth: our lives are interlaced with the lives of the poor.”  We need to get out of the scarcity mindset and stop allowing our gains to come at another group’s expense.  We can take the higher road, the moral road. I feel motivated to start with at least one thing to change that will bring about less exploitation, true integration, and more equality – leading to a better life for all of us.

Desmond calls for us to be poverty abolitionists.  I loved his allusion to the idea that in “defying economic injustice and unfair taxes, [we can be] the true heirs of 1776.”

Tiani Xochitl Coleman is a mother of five, a graduate of Cornell Law School, and President of New Hampshire Independent Voters and New Hampshire Ranked Choice Voting.

July 25th at 3pm ET

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


New Hampshire 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 New Hampshire.

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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