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.

Reader’s Forum – Evelyn Dougherty on POVERTY, BY AMERICA

I loved this book by Matthew Desmond — although painful, relevant as hell! Thank you for your honesty and decency in Poverty by America. I like the call to all Americans to take up this mantel as we clearly can’t depend (nor should we)on the politicians or government who have been failing at it for years. Also what Matt Desmond says about all of us benefiting by poverty, is critical for us to see. The detail about how neighborhoods are zoned to segregate was eye opening! What he says about our needed participation to change it, imperative. I also appreciated the examples of places things are changing like New Jersey, Ireland and Spain.

My favorite chapter is Empower The Poor, and it starts with this paragraph: “We all deserve a fair deal, but the poor are too often denied one. CHOICE is the antidote for exploitation. So a crucial step toward ending poverty is giving more Americans the power to decide where to work, live, and bank, and when to start a family.”    

I’m a social worker and have both benefited from the system – invisible welfare and been very close to those who are very poor who receive visible welfare.

I grew up in a small town in DE, one of 5 kids in the 60’s & 70’s. My dad was a car salesman and never made more than $25,000 a year and my mom did work raising 5 children. He put 4 of our college tuitions on credit cards. I graduated in 1979 with a BA in Sociology from the University of Delaware.  

One of the things that spurred me to go back to school in 1982 was I needed to make more $. I was waitressing for the prior 6 years and working for minimum wage at a psych hospital doing recreation aide work. (I took the clients outside and played sports and games with them) I was making about $14,000 a year working 50 hours a week and I was 25 years old. A friend I met in college worked as a hostess in the restaurant where I was waitressing and she had gone on for her Masters and persuaded me to apply to Social Work School. One night she put an application in my knapsack as I kept telling her I didn’t have the brains or the $ to go to school again. I sent off the application and got an interview and off I went from Claymont, DE to the big city of Philadelphia and the expensive Ivy league University of Pennsylvania. I was sitting in the lobby and picked up the first brochure I had seen on the program and it said the cost was $1,000 a credit, (University of DE had been $480. a semester and my dad had let me know, he was done paying for school for us kids). I started gathering my things to leave when the interviewer appeared to take me upstairs. We sat down and he said, “we loved your application and want you to come to our school”.  I thought to myself -well the gig is up – and I started laughing.  He said what’s so funny and I said with all the seriousness in the world, “I can’t come to your school, I don’t have any $.”

His response surprised me and he said, “we’ll give you half and teach you how to get loans for the other ½ and you can get a job in our library if you want.”  I graduated in 1984 with a Masters in Social Work and the way I looked at it then was – “Oh this is how the rich do it”. Thanks for giving me a greater understanding of my invisible welfare, Matthew Desmond.

I went on to do social work in many settings but the one that stands out regarding this discussion about poverty is when I was hired at the largest human service agency in the African American community in Boston to lead a team of counselors (which I did for 8 years) to work with the clients of the Dept. of Mental Health who wouldn’t come to their offices. So we went out to find them – under bridges, in jail, in psych units, nursing homes and rarely family. We worked to build a relationship with them to see if we could get them signed up for financial benefits, help them get housed and receive counseling. We spent more time in housing court trying to fight evictions, trying to outsmart burnt out lawyers who were representing them as public defenders, begging probation officers to believe in client’s capacity to change and give them one more chance when they couldn’t pay their monthly fees before sending them back to prison.    

Thank goodness I went on to become an independent voting activist in the late 80’s and work with (but that’s another story). The Ruling Class has the lobbyists do their bidding, let’s join Matt Desmond and organize Poverty Abolitionists!


Evelyn Dougherty 

Evelyn Dougherty is the Chair of the Massachusetts Coalition of Independent Voters.

July 25th at 3pm ET

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


Massachusetts 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 Massachusetts.

Reader’s Forum – Doug Balder on POVERTY, BY AMERICA

Painting By Doug Balder

Painting helps me see in new ways. There is beauty in public housing– the people who live there, the families, homes, and communities they are building. 

This large building which houses hundreds of public housing residents is one of a thousand similar buildings in New York City. The scale of public housing is immense. The number of its residents exceeds the population of Boston or Atlanta. 

Today, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) is privatizing public housing. What will the impact be on these families and all they have created?   

Medium: Oil paint on canvas. Size: 42” vertical x 72” wide.

In Poverty, By America, Matthew Desmond raises many challenging questions about the paradox we call  America. Desmond examines the relationship of the integration of our diverse country and the  institutional and public resistance to that integration. We have laws in place for integration while their  enforcement is often absent and there is cultural resistance. In addition to supporting the small and not  so small gestures, actions, and activities we ordinary people can take, do the tools exist that we can  employ and new ones that we can forge that will close this paradox? Desmond shows us the details  behind this presenting problem. 

To me, this is fundamental to the economic system we have created – capitalism or at least United States capitalism – different from European capitalism – that has its own history. And we must change everything.  

Desmond has studied housing as one of the most important institutions that keeps the poor, poor. As  an architect, I have worked with developers, and municipal codes that at times require them to build  affordable housing as a concession for greater height or density for luxury housing in competitive urban  markets. The number of affordable units are minimal and the developers’ agents who curate the renters  for those subsidized units seek the most upwardly mobile people. Developers will often appeal to cities’  urban planning departments to reduce the number of required affordable units during construction  claiming financial hardship. The lobbyists for the developer community often assist in writing those  favorable housing and zoning codes with elected officials. Desmond covers this sham thoroughly here  and in previous writings. 

Switch gears a bit and look at public housing. In New York City, possibly as many as 750,000 people live  in public housing. The NYC Housing Authority (NYCHA) is seeking to privatize its portfolio of 173,000  apartments. Where this has been done – Chicago, St. Louis, and Los Angeles – has left residents out of  the conversion plans, forcing them out of their housing community through eviction, being priced out, or abandoned when their homes were demolished. NYCHA residents are opposed to privatization. NYC  elected officials have been supportive of privatization or silent. Desmond points to these residents being the expendable collateral in the relationship between the affluent/middle class and the poor. 

All to say the existing institutional rules and regulations favor those who wrote them. Desmond, to his  credit, does not propose grandiose solutions or top-down approaches. He does suggest that we  become poverty abolitionists and that the integration of our country’s diverse people would go a long  way to changing the conversation, culture, and wealth in our country. 

A question I pondered while reading Desmond’s excellent book is how do we re-design and build  integrated political, cultural, educational, and social institutions when the existing ones maintain the  status-quo? Poverty, By America shows that wealth requires scarcity/poverty to exist. It is a perceptive  observation and critique of the economic reality. He describes the ever growing cannibalizing of our  population to achieve greater wealth for fewer and fewer people.  

He raises the democracy question, that the picture he paints is “not what a democracy looks like”. Desmond challenges the popular conception of polarization – the red and blue America – and redefines  the meaning of polarization: we the people are polarized from our elected officials. 

What are we to do? What are the tools we need to change this? Many in the P4P book club have worked  on this for decades and have created and built some tools: human development and democracy tools.  Both seek to integrate poor and affluent and change the culture of politics. They are non-partisan and  build intimacy between affluent and poor by creating conversation that enriches all. 

Desmond adds a rich understanding of what poverty is and how it is produced, and his voice points us  towards building community in as many ways as we can imagine and, indeed, change everything. That’s  what Desmond feels is needed from us all.

Douglas Balder is an architect, a national organizer with Open Primaries, and board member of the All Stars Project.

July 25th at 3pm ET

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


Reader’s Forum – A poem by Caroline Donnola, inspired by POVERTY, BY AMERICA

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Poverty*

By Caroline Donnola

Did you ever notice
that if you switch the “t” and the “r”
and remove the “v”
poverty spells poetry?

They say that we’re looking into
this very important issue
but we must study it further.

After my father left,
my mother insisted
we were not poor,
we just didn’t have
any money.

I once had a student
who told me she would
have to miss my class
because she didn’t have
50 cents for her carfare.

I gave her two quarters.
The next day she came to class 
and, on her way out,
she slipped the coins
under my roll book,
hoping her humiliation
might go unseen.

Can you imagine
there is such a thing
as a world poverty clock?
Not surprisingly
we’re running out of time.

There once was
a war on poverty.
It didn’t go well.

An 80-year-old man
was observed washing windows
at McDonalds.
I guess he didn’t have
a 401K.

Have you ever noticed
how politicians 
don’t use the word “poor”?
According to them,
the real victims
are the middle class.

Poverty is like 
a speck of pollen
being dragged around the globe
from bee to bee.

Some religious types
take a vow of poverty.
Couldn’t they take a vow
to wipe it out instead?

She lived in a van
with five siblings
and insisted 
that they were not poor.
I know people
who are worse off, she exclaimed.

Give me your tired
your poor
your huddled masses
then douse them with fire
to see if they live.
Or is that what you do
to witches?

*Inspired by “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens

Caroline Donnola has been writing poetry since childhood. In 2021, she published The Year That Was: Poems for Troubled Times and is currently working on a new poetry collection. She recently edited A Poet’s Journey: Life, Love, and the River by Harry Kresky. Caroline has been an independent political activist for four decades. After retiring from her position at Independent Voting in 2022, she launched a freelance writing and editing business. This month she is teaching a weekly virtual poetry writing class. She can be contacted via LinkedIn or by email at

July 25th at 3pm ET

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


Readers Forum – Steve Hough on POVERTY, BY AMERICA

Reading Poverty, by America by Matthew Desmond was reminiscent of our Fall 2017 selection “$2:00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America” by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Schaefer. Six years later, the problem remains the same and a solution still eludes us.

In my 2017 blog piece I stated that …greed will always rear its ugly head on every level, ignoring the struggles and suffering of others. Matthew Desmond appears to agree that the wealthiest Americans buy political influence to secure favorable tax treatment while simultaneously funding propaganda platforms that promote cutting spending on safety net programs. As do I, he proposes revamping the tax code to raise additional revenue that could be directed to anti-poverty programs, but he also acknowledges that we cannot simply spend our way out of the problem. 

We can’t just spend our way out of this. Over the past fifty years, we’ve tried that—doubling antipoverty aid per capita—and the poverty line hasn’t meaningfully budged. A big reason why is that we insist on supporting policies that accommodate poverty, not ones that disrupt it. Our largest cash assistance program is the Earned Income Tax Credit, which props up corporate profits and depresses wages. Our biggest affordable housing initiative is the Housing Choice Voucher Program, which, by paying a portion of a family’s rent, subsidizes private landlords and pushes up costs.[37]

Desmond, Matthew. Poverty, by America (pp. 137-138). Crown. Kindle Edition. 

That being the case, ending poverty will require not only revamping the tax code but also reimaging and restructuring existing programs. As I said in my earlier piece, Obviously, such changes would involve complex coordination of input and effort between multiple agencies and both political parties. Discovering that there may actually be solutions to some of the collective problems we face as a country will require thinking outside existing partisan boxes

As with any problem of national interest, abolishing poverty will require changes to governmental administration via direct action by Congress. Unfortunately, our election system does not provide incentives for legislators to solve problems, let alone thinking outside the box if/when attempting to do so. Quite the opposite. 

Sadly, our current political system operates exactly as it has been designed to over time. A multi-faceted network of gain-seeking entities have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. The situation didn’t evolve overnight, and while reforming the system seems to move at a snail’s pace, progress is being made. Currently, there are active electoral reform campaigns in Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Nevada (Phase II), New Mexico, New York City, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Washington D.C., and Wisconsin. 

Across the political spectrum, polling continually confirms Americans’ dissatisfaction with Congress’ performance. Polls also confirm majority support on many individual issues, yet Congress is unable to act. As a result, more and more voters are recognizing the harm caused by our divisive, dysfunctional government and they are distancing themselves from the political duopoly. 

The conversation is, ‘Oh, this issue is so polarizing. We’re so polarized. We think so differently,’ ” Saru told me. “And it’s just such bullshit. We are not polarized from each other. We are polarized from our electeds.

Desmond, Matthew. Poverty, by America (p. 188). Crown. Kindle Edition. 

The above quote encapsulates the essence of our broken electoral system. Desmond is right when he says a mass movement is needed, but I believe we shouldn’t limit ourselves to the poverty issue alone. 

As Katherine Gehl has said,

You have a choice to make. You can continue applying your agency elsewhere, indirectly perpetuating the political-industrial complex that undermines the very causes you are prioritizing separately (and nobly, to be sure). Or you can redirect your agency to further catalyze a twenty-first-century wave of political innovation to break partisan gridlock and save our democracy; in which case you’re advancing every cause. Without a sea change, our political system will continue to do more harm to education, the environment, the economy—you name it. A transformation of the politics industry can do more than we can do on our own to help those sacred corners of America.

Gehl, Katherine M.. The Politics Industry (p. 172). Harvard Business Review Press. Kindle Edition. 

I agree.

Steve Hough is a lifelong independent and became an activist for political reform after retiring as an accountant. He is the director of Florida Fair and Open Primaries.

July 25th at 3pm ET

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


Florida 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 Florida.

Reader’s Forum – Jenn Bullock on POVERTY, BY AMERICA

Wow what an enraging and important read! Thank you for pointing to – with unapologetic honesty – poverty as an unnecessary cancer that inflicts all of us. You give us hope by inviting all of us to become poverty abolitionists. As I walked through the streets of center city Philadelphia listening to Poverty, by America, I look at the dying opioid addicts, scores of people experiencing homelessness and a family asking for donations to pay for the funeral of an 18 year old family member killed by gun violence.

I think of the ways I contribute to this horrifying scene with my retirement investments that support big banks and when I drive my car versus supporting public transportation. None of us are exempt from contributing to and benefiting from severe poverty in our so called richest county in the world. As a relationship and psychotherapist focused on helping people live more relationally, I very much appreciated your calls to build connected community. And as the coordinator of Independent Pennsylvanians, a grass roots activist group fighting for full voting rights of non affiliated voters, I thank you for calling out the complicity of the two parties in perpetuating the state we are in.

As a fellow poverty abolitionist, I vow to divest my money from big corporations, take the subway, and support local food banks with my excess garden harvest. These steps are not sufficient of course until we ban together. It’s a start? For my mother’s ancestors who worked the coal mines of Pennsylvania to support the industrial devolution while dying of poverty illnesses and not having enough money for shoes or food while helping to make extreme riches of the gilded age Barons.

Jennifer Bullock is the Director of Independent Pennsylvanians, which is a proud coalition partner with Ballot PA, working to repeal Pennsylvania’s closed primaries. She is a social therapist practicing in Philadelphia.

July 25th at 3pm ET

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


Pennsylvania 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 Pennsylvania.

Reader’s Forum – George Linzer on POVERTY, BY AMERICA

In his book, Poverty, by America, Matthew Desmond focuses on the other half of the wealth inequality equation that has for too long gone unaddressed. After noting in his prologue more than 100 years of efforts to bear witness to the nation’s poverty, he turns his attention to exploring the “why” of the problem, and zeroes in on the intentional policies and practices that have led to the extreme economic disparity that we have today. In some respect, it is fair to say that all that attention paid to making Americans aware of the poverty in our midst has shielded those responsible – and their theories of libertarian, laissez faire capitalism – from accountability for the inequities.

We are seeing today the beginnings of a movement to address the systemic roots of the problem. One such effort is The Great Economy Project (read below), which aims to build grassroots demand for a more equitable tax code in which the wealthy are taxed more and the poor taxed less. Desmond’s book is recommended reading for anyone who wonders what all the fuss is about.

George Linzer is founder and editor of The American Leader, a news and reference resource focused on the growing movement to solve the nation’s systemic problems and the historical storylines that define them.

July 25th at 3pm ET

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


The Great Economy Project Finds Common Ground

By: George Linzer, The American Leader, published May 16, 2023

iStock photo by Smederevac

In launching the Great Economy Project, a group of American millionaires have deepened their resolve to ensure that they and their fellow wealthy Americans pay their fair share in support of the country that enriched them. The project’s goal is to start a grassroots movement that will focus voters on electing politicians committed to reducing extreme wealth inequality by raising taxes on the rich and increasing the minimum wage.

“Raise your hand if you think the economy is rigged in favor of the rich.”

That’s how Erica Payne, president of Patriotic Millionaires, energized the conversation at a $50-a-plate dinner in Whiteville, North Carolina – that is, $50 paid by the Millionaires to each resident of Whiteville who agreed to take their money and come for the free meal in exchange for talking about the economy.

After a roomful of hands stuck in the air, Payne asked, “If you want to raise taxes on billionaires, raise your hand.” Again, a roomful of hands shot up.

In those moments, the people of Whiteville who had gathered that night – about 75% Republican, 20% Democrats, and 5% Independent – had found common ground. By the time the Millionaires had finished introducing themselves and the Great Economy Project to Whiteville, 90% of the 60 attendees were prepared to spread the word to their fellow community members in an effort to recruit more voters who were ready to unrig the economy.

The Great Economy Project, launched in Whiteville in 2022, had notched its first important achievement in a long-term strategy to change the nation’s tax code – and along with it, the culture of the country.

About Whiteville, NC
  • As of 2020, the total population was 5,348.
  • The median individual income was $20,722.
  • Almost 1 of every 4 residents fell below the federal poverty level.
  • More than 15% of households had income under $10,000.
  • Whiteville is located in Columbus County. In 2020, the party affiliation of registered voters in the county broke down as follows: Democrat – 16,737; Republican – 7,744; Other party – 111; Unaffiliated – 10,112.

After a decade of PR victories that produced little change, the Patriotic Millionaires have recognized the need to approach their goals from the bottom up as well as the top down. According to the organization’s board chairman, Morris Pearl, the group was not winning by working the media and lobbying Congress. It simply was not enough to showcase the passion of a nonpartisan group of high net worth Americans who believe that a strong America depends on a fair economy that neutralizes built-in economic disparities. With Payne leading the charge, the millionaires recruited to the cause have now rolled up their sleeves for the hard work of engaging despairing and disillusioned voters across the country.

The organization’s members all have an annual income of at least $1 million or assets over $5 million, and they all share the belief that an economy where money flows disproportionately to the top is not only unfair, it is destined to collapse. On Tax Day, they released Crack the Code: The Internal Revenue Code of 2025, a proposal for revamping the tax code that serves as a potential starting point in the expected debates over the 2025 expiration of the Trump tax cuts of 2017. The Millionaires’ proposal includes three fundamental objectives:

  1. Tax all income over $1 million equally. That means that whether the income is earned on the job, passed down through inheritance, or the result of good long-term investments, it is taxed the same. Currently, for individuals, any amount of earned income greater than $578,125 would be taxed at 37%, and any amount of investment income would typically be taxed at 15%. Under the Millionaires’ proposal, all income over $1 million would be taxed at a minimum rate of 39.6%.
  2. Implement a new progressive tax that would start at 39.6% for income between $1 million and $5 million and peak at 90% for anyone with income over $100 million.Anyone earning less than a living wage would pay no income tax. The living wage, which would be based on something akin to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, can be double or more than triple the federal minimum wage of $7.25, depending on geographic location.
  3. Implement a small but progressive wealth tax on what the organization calls “runaway wealth” in which the normal costs of everyday living (e.g. rent/mortgage, groceries, healthcare, saving for retirement) do not constrain wealth accumulation. The tax would affect those whose wealth was 1,000 times greater than the median household wealth. In 2020, the median household wealth was $140,800, meaning the wealth tax would kick in on those with more than $140.8 million.

The proposal includes a variety of other recommendations that would relieve the tax burden of those at the lower end of the economic ladder and limit deductions and loopholes that benefit the rich.

Every member of the Patriotic Millionaires would be affected by their proposal. The “poorest” members of the group – those with total income between $1 million and $5 million – would see their tax rate increase by 2.6%, to 39.6%. At the other end of the scale, we’ll take a look at Abigail Disney, one of the group’s most outspoken members whose net worth in 2019 was reported by Forbes to be $500 million. We have been unable to confirm this figure (and have seen a much lower estimate reported since then), and use it here only to help illustrate the impact that the Millionaires’ tax proposals will have on themselves.

In lieu of actual documentation, we are assuming that Disney’s wealth is fully invested and generating an 8% return, all as realized gains. If we further assume that this is her only source of income, her earnings for the year would be $40 million, putting her in the Millionaires’ 70% tax bracket. Taxed at this rate, she would pay $23.98 million in income tax. (Of course, in this oversimplified example, we did not consider possible investment losses, deductions, and other circumstances that might change her tax liability.)

Because Disney is rich enough to qualify for the bottom bracket of the Millionaires’ proposed progressive wealth tax, she would also pay a 2% wealth tax. Based on her reported net worth, this means she would pay slightly less than $10 million in additional tax. Nevertheless, despite her tax burden in this example, Disney would still be $6 million wealthier.

The 250 members of this millionaires club believe it is a patriotic duty to pay their fair share of taxes, and they think that the current tax code fails to demand it of them. While they could voluntarily give away the additional money, as some critics have suggested, the Millionaires make the point that without the other high net worth and ultra-wealthy Americans doing the same, the problems of extreme wealth concentration – including the dominance of money in politics – will persist. With the Trump tax cuts due to expire in 2025, the Patriotic Millionaires see an opening to begin the process of rewriting the tax code to create a more fair, just, and stable America.

The Great Economy Project aims to build a movement from the ground up to achieve that goal so that the tax code better reflects American values of fair treatment of labor, equal opportunity to accumulate wealth, and an equal voice for all citizens in our democracy. The Patriotic Millionaires recognize that Republicans have long refused to accept any discussion of raising taxes, and they’ve similarly noted that Democrats, when they’ve had the opportunity to act, have failed to do so. The group understands it cannot achieve its goals alone. It needs the American people to cast their votes for the candidates who support their cause.

The Millionaires also understand the close relationship between the press and politicians. They like to remind their supporters that politicians, like magicians, are masters of distraction and misdirection, leading Payne to implore the residents of Whiteville to be single minded about focusing on “money money money money money money”. For the Millionaires, the top priority for the nation’s democracy is fixing the problem of extreme wealth inequality.

Consequently, Payne urged her audience not to get distracted by talk of defunding the police, abortion, guns, climate change, race, or other topics promoted by politicians and interest groups and then echoed in the media. She wants participants in the Great Economy Project to understand that their votes need to go to candidates who support taxing the rich.

Her message to the people in Whiteville who were gathered for that free dinner was simple and direct: “You have more power than the billionaires do – if you use it.”


Patriotic Millionaires Spring Meeting, “American Agenda – The Money Part”, attended Apr 17, 2023. A video of the event and list of speakers is available at

Patriotic Millionaires press event with multiple speakers and interview with Morris Pearl, US Capitol, Apr 18, 2023

US Census, “Whiteville, NC”, Data Commons, 2020,,Years15Onwards&hl=en, accessed May 15, 2023

US Census, “Whiteville Economics”, Data Commons, 2020,, accessed May 15, 2023

Ivey Schofield, “Voters leaving the Democratic Party in Columbus County”, The News Reporter, Sep 15, 2020,, accessed May 15, 2023

Patriotic Millionaires, “Crack the Code: The Internal Revenue Code of 2025”, Apr 18, 2023,, accessed May 9, 2023

Patriotic Millionaires, “The Great Economy Project”,, accessed Apr 19, 2023

Patriotic Millionaires, “The Great Economy Project (Trailer) – Money”,, accessed Apr 20, 2023

Patriotic Millionaires, “The Patriotic Millionaires Go to Whiteville”,, viewed on Apr 17, 2023

Internal Revenue Service, “IRS provides tax inflation adjustments for tax year 2023”, Oct 18, 2022,, accessed Apr 21, 2023

Internal Revenue Service, “Topic No. 409, Capital Gains and Losses”, Apr 4, 2023,, accessed Apr 21, 2023

Donald Hayes, Briana Sullivan, “The Wealth of Households: 2020”, US Census Bureau, Aug 2022, pg. 2,, accessed May 9, 2023

Internal Revenue Service, “IRS provides tax inflation adjustments for tax year 2023”, Oct 18, 2022,, accessed Apr 24, 2023

Jack Kelly, “Abigail Disney’s Criticism of CEO Bob Iger’s Pay Raises Difficult Questions”, Forbes, Apr 24, 2019,, accessed May 8, 2023


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



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.

Reader’s Forum – Leah Clifford on POVERTY, BY AMERICA

By Leah M. Clifford

The poverty that plagues us in America is not a natural phenomenon, and it is not a consequence of laziness or personal failure. It is the direct result of deliberate political and economic systems that prioritize their own interests while “reducing the lives of others,” and more importantly, the average American wholly ignores their own complacency in perpetuating this cycle. In Matthew Desmond’s novel, he takes you directly into the gaping maw of poverty, and shows you a new kind of America no one wants to see.

When you take a moment to reflect on the insane amount of research Demond put into the statistics compiled in this book, you come to an even more terrifying reality. These statistics are not just numbers; they are people. The more you read this book, the more overwhelmed you feel at the realization of how deeply cemented these issues are in our country and in our own lives.

“According to the latest national data, one in eighteen people in the United States lives in “deep poverty”, a subterranean level of scarcity. Take the poverty line and cut it in half: Anything below that is considered deep poverty.”

The American dream has become a cruel joke for those trapped in poverty. The promise of upward mobility and economic security has been replaced with a reality of stagnant wages, rising costs of living, and a great decrease in access to government assistance despite the increase in spending for those in need, according to Desmond. To quote Dolly Parton’s iconic song, “9 to 5”,

Yeah, they got you where they want you

There’s a better life

And you dream about it, don’t you?

Everyone, especially young adults like myself, dream because we see the “dream” everywhere we look. We live in a consumer culture that makes it easier than ever to compare our own failures to those who’ve “made it”. Our consumer-driven culture makes it simpler than ever to contrast our own shortcomings with those of others who have “made it”. Influencers who support the “hustle” lifestyle and are financially successful are regularly popularized and promoted on social media. These celebrities promote their fantastic lives while residing in stunning homes, dressing in the newest fashions.Desmond, in more eloquent terms, takes this hoax of financial literacy and drops it into the trash. This mentality, which is ceaselessly pushed into our feeds and dominates social chatter, shifts the blame onto the individual rather than the systematic issues that are at the root of the issue.

Even the news, which is supposed to be the watchdog of democracy, is constantly inundating us with sensationalist political conflicts and political rhetoric that either divert our attention from the genuine problems or feed prejudices and stigmas about underprivileged individuals and communities. The political polarization the media thrusts upon us is, according to Desmond, is “…just another kind of scarcity diversion, just another way to narrow our visions so that an emancipated future remains outside of our field of view” (pg. 188) 

Our politically fragmented country is traumatized by poverty. “Poverty is the dream killer, the capability destroyer, the great waster of human potential. It is a misery and a national disgrace, one that belies any claim to our greatness.” Desmond can’t tell us “why” America has such a severe poverty problem since there is no single explanation. Desmond argues that poverty “is connected to every social problem we care about – crime, health, education, housing – and it’s persistence in American life means that millions of families are denied safety and security and dignity” (pg.23). 

The reader’s perception of their own complacency in contributing to the cycle of poverty is changed by this book. I hope that more people finish this book feeling as uncomfortable as I do and prepared to discuss the topic rather than avoiding it. I am looking forward to hearing Desmond speak about his book and the new discussions we will be having on July 25th.

Check out the new state poverty FAQ sheet included below, which describes how poverty is affecting New York state. I learned that New York state has the 2nd highest rate of student homelessness in the nation.

Stay Tuned: With each Reader’s Forum post, we will be attaching the poverty statistics for the state of the post author.

Leah Clifford lives in Saratoga Springs, NY and is an Administrative Assistant at Independent Voting.

July 25th at 3pm ET

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


New York Poverty Fact Sheet

%d bloggers like this: