Ill Fares the Invisible Hand

By Zach DorfmanDecember 9, 2013

The American Way of Poverty by Sasha Abramsky
The Unwinding by George Packer

The ability to try to understand existence, the ability to try to recognize the wonder and responsibility of one’s own existence, the ability to know even fractionally the almost annihilating beauty, ambiguity, darkness, and horror which swarm every instant of every consciousness, the ability to try to accept, or the ability to try to defend one’s self, or the ability to dare to try to assist others; all such as these, of which most human beings are cheated of their potentials, are, in most of those who even begin to discern or wish for them, the gifts or thefts of economic privilege, and are available to member of these leanest classes only by the rare and irrelevant miracle of born and surviving “talent.”

— James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men


I WANT TO TELL two stories here, two stories that are really one story, told through two extraordinary books, which are extraordinary for very different reasons.

The first, Sasha Abramsky’s The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives, lays bare the continuing plight of the poor in the United States, detailing the myriad ways in which our spiteful political culture and the vicissitudes of a globalized economy have intersected to deepen and extend poverty in the United States — in effect punishing the poor for their own immiseration. Abramsky makes three key observations gleaned from his travels around the country. The first is the “sheer loneliness” of poverty, that it cuts one off from one’s community, one’s peers, and, in a very immediate way, oneself; second, that its causes and legacy are complex, subtle, and insidious; and third, that even in the face of persistent disparagement and perpetual disappointment, poor Americans generally permit themselves optimism about their future and in particular their children’s future. The double tragedy is that, as far as I see it, this optimism is unwarranted, but that to do without it would be spiritually ruinous for those who need it most.

This extremely well researched and thorough book is divided into two parts. The first half, which I will focus on, details the many different faces of poverty in America today and the utterly inadequate nature of the safety net. The second half advances some bold proposals for poverty alleviation, including a massive unemployment-reducing public works fund, an educational opportunity fund, and a general poverty mitigation fund. These new initiatives would be paid for by a financial transactions tax, an energy profit tax, and higher taxes on capital gains, among other essentially sensible measures sure to be anathema to a majority of politicians in Washington, DC. Abramsky understands that his proposals are out of step with the current political climate, which is singularly focused on deficit reduction — a foolish obsession during a recession. Admirably, however, this does not cow Abramsky into limiting his policy program to tinkering around the margins, as so much liberal policy-making has become.

The American Way of Poverty self-consciously follows in the tradition of Michael Harrington, whose monumental 1962 book The Other America pounded the reader, in clear and plaintive language, with the brute facticity of mass poverty. Alas, that Abramsky felt compelled (with good reason) to write this book in 2013 is testament to the failure of Harrington’s campaign: to make prosperous America aware of the “invisible poor” who are in fact ubiquitous (and are not limited to so-called “pockets of poverty” in Appalachia, the South, and urban areas), and to have us solve, or at least resolve to solve, the suffering and degradation of mass poverty once and for all. For the United States is a rich country, and possesses incomparable material resources. Poverty here is essentially a political problem. It is a choice, not a fate.

Every decade or two we — and by “we” I mean in particular the chattering classes on both coasts — seem to rediscover that, yes, there actually are tens of millions of poor people in America, and, no, we aren’t doing close to enough to really materially improve their conditions. The most famous of these moments was of course during the War on Poverty, first conceived of in the Kennedy administration and largely carried out during President Johnson’s tragic tenure. During this short period, poverty in the United States was not seen as interwoven into the cosmic structure of society. It was interpreted, properly, as a curable social disease. It was also not a coincidence that this period of social generosity was also one of sustained, broad-based economic growth. Nor was it a coincidence that a bloody war of choice, far, far away, helped bring the bloodless War on Poverty at home to its premature end. Both of these lessons are useful for us today.

Books can produce revolutions in thinking, as well as bring people to the streets. Without The Other America it isn’t clear there would have been a War on Poverty at all, but, even then, it took a fortuitous series of events to bring the work to prominence. When the book was first published in March 1962 it sold poorly, eclipsed by the gleaming, amnesiac prosperity (and nuclear terror) of the postwar era. But in January 1963, a 13,000-word(!) review by Dwight Macdonald in The New Yorker brought the work to the attention of Kennedy advisor Ted Sorenson, who then circulated the review, and the book, to top figures in the administration. (It is not clear if Kennedy himself ever actually read either.) Kennedy was so shocked by what he learned that he decided to launch his nonviolent war, which, with major social initiatives such as Head Start (1965) and Medicare (1966), helped bring poverty rates down from 22.4 percent in 1960 to 12.1 percent in 1969.

One can see the outline of a clear pattern here. A powerful moral argument persuaded key political actors, which led to an informed policy choice, with even more important political actors endorsing a pragmatic, if radical-sounding, objective. Now think about the state of political discourse today. I dare you to imagine President Obama, let alone any American president, allowing a comparable book such moral weight in policy-making. I further dare you to imagine a president even allowing himself to be seen with a book like The American Way of Poverty, such as Obama was with Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World. It would be a radical statement in itself.

Strangely, it seems, we have come to believe that gross inequality is a natural feature of America, and to consider social decay as inevitable. Income inequality in the United States has been increasing from the late 1970s onward; since that time, the wealthiest one percent of Americans has had its share of the national income almost triple, while the median annual wage in the country has fallen around 20 percent from 1973 levels. Decades-long macroeconomic trends — led by the inexorable global march of capital — have quickened this process. The percentage of Americans now living in poverty is at its highest level since 1993, roughly equaling the highest numbers since the mid-1960s. Perhaps some of this suffering was inevitable, the necessary byproduct of a hypercompetitive world economy, the birth pangs of the postindustrial American future. But it is hard not to shake the feeling that this process was prematurely induced by those who stood to benefit from it. A decades-long shift in elite political culture away from any sense of noblesse oblige has frayed the bonds of social affiliation, bonds that are crucial in the functioning of a representative democracy. This shift is apparent not just in attitudes toward the poor, but also in the wider social and political dislocations of our era. Our politics — and the intellectual landscape — has entered a new, vertiginous phase that simply does not permit the moral sureties of the postwar world, or even of the post-Watergate world.

This is the other story, one that is complementary to Abramsky’s. And it is the one told, with lucidity and narrative acumen, by George Packer in The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. If Abramsky’s book is in the tradition of Michael Harrington and Jacob Riis, Packer’s is self-consciously indebted to that of John Dos Passos, and to a lesser extent, James Agee. Indeed, The Unwinding is a kind of nonfiction homage to Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy: voluminous, generous, messy with life. For Packer, “the unwinding” describes the marked deterioration of the social, political, and economic structures that provided stability in American life for half a century. Thematically, Packer’s book also complements the work of the intellectual historian Daniel Rodgers, whose brilliant Age of Fracture shows how the fraying of postwar intellectual certainties — such as the relationship between the rate of inflation and unemployment — shook loose the elite consensus that dominated, and made relatively harmonious, much of mid-20th century American life.

The heart of The Unwinding is its account of diverse groups of Americans — some poorer, some richer — who are struggling to make sense of a country very different than the one they grew up in. A factory worker from decaying postindustrial Ohio, a Jeffersonian biodiesel advocate from tobacco country in North Carolina, and a disillusioned public servant all try to find their own North Star in this strange terra incognita. Some succeed, and others fail. None of Packer’s protagonists are perfect, or even exemplary: all are raggedly human, imbued with a spirit that is as much a conscious rejection of our time as a product of it. In this sense, in the unwinding, differences in ethnicity, age, class, and geography are all immaterial, for all of their lives — and ours — are being lived in the shadow of social entropy. This seems to be a paramount lesson of the last quarter century in America. And the stakes are high, says Packer, for “in the unwinding winners win bigger than ever, floating away like bloated dirigibles, and losers have a long way to fall before they hit bottom, and sometimes they never do.” What that fall entails, and how we’ve come to view those tumbling ever-downward, is what I’ll try to describe here.


Before I go any further, a preface and a warning. When one writes about poverty, as Macdonald observed in The New Yorker, one must necessarily delve into a great deal of statistics, which have a tendency to shock the reader, then exhaust him, then barely register in his mind. It does us little good to remind ourselves that these are people’s lives we’re talking about, not mere numbers, because this sentiment is itself clichéd, and so has little effect. It seems like discussions about poverty often fall prey to a perverse process where, just when our empathy needs to be at its most expansive, we lose our moral imagination and turn inward. Tonally, poverty is a steady dirge. It just does. not. stop. hammering you. This relentlessness, as Macdonald noted, leads to “a monotony about the injustices suffered by the poor that perhaps accounts for the lack of interest the rest of society shows in them. Everything seems to go wrong with them. They never win. It’s just boring.” We need to be on guard against our own worst habits.

According to census data from 2012, there are 46.5 million Americans currently living in poverty. That is more than one in seven Americans, or roughly 15 percent of the population. There are 15 million more Americans in 2012 living in poverty than there were in 2000 — a massive step backward for the American people, and a symbol of the precariousness of life for those in the middle class. (Some historical context: poverty rates declined during the Clinton administration from 15 percent in 1993 to 11 percent in 2000, then started rising again almost immediately under George W. Bush.) Moreover, extreme poverty is much more common in the United States than in other rich countries. According to the OECD, 11 percent of Americans have income 40 percent or less than the median. Median household income in the United States in 2013 was roughly $51,000, which means that 11 percent of households are subsisting on less than $20,400 a year. In the United Kingdom, six percent of households live on less than 40 percent of the median income; in Germany the figure is four percent; in Sweden, 3.8 percent; and in the Netherlands, only 2.7 percent.

Of the 46.5 million poor Americans, 6 million are excluded from the cash economy entirely, subsisting on SNAP benefits (commonly known as food stamps), food pantries, and assistance from friends and family. Think about it: if you’re not eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, commonly known as “disability,” and you’re not old enough to receive Social Security, and you’ve been unemployed for so long that your Unemployment Insurance has run out, and you are no longer eligible for cash assistance through welfare (formally, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or TANF) — which now has a strict maximum lifetime limit of 60 months, with many states choosing to restrict that limit even further — you have absolutely no recourse. Food stamps are all you’ve got. What a terror.

A word about TANF in particular, since so much of the hand-wringing about the “social pathologies” of poverty and its “culture of dependency” focuses on the purportedly negative effects that programs like TANF have. Because poor people are looked at with suspicion, there has been a trend — especially since 1996, when Bill Clinton (in an act of betrayal) helped “end welfare as we know it” with the signing of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act — toward making access to benefits as difficult as possible. It’s as if we really don’t want poor people to have what they’re legally entitled to, never mind what morality requires. There are a lot of ways that states disincentivize enrollment. Some have instituted drug tests and created unnecessary and onerous fees for reapplying for benefits.

The most harmful hurdles, however, are the asset tests. In most states, one must possess almost nothing of value — have total assets of less than $2,000 — to be able to access benefits. As Abramsky argues, this makes it nearly impossible for people to get back on their feet. For how can you look for work if you had to sell your car in order to qualify for welfare? In fact, if the goal since 1996 has been to prevent the needy from receiving aid, it has been an unqualified success. In 1996, during a period of unprecedented growth, there were 4.43 million Americans on welfare. In 2010, during the worst economic climate since the Great Depression, there were only 1.86 million on it. And not only have the number of enrollees dropped, the benefits have become more miserly: they are uniformly lower in 2012 than they were in 1996. Not one state in the country gives TANF benefits that would bring a family’s income to half of the poverty line; the least generous states (most of which are in the South) provide benefits that bring families to 1/5, and in some cases only to 1/10, of the poverty line.

The federal government calculates that the poverty line for a family of four is $22,314. For many of us — indeed, I suspect that for you, dear reader — this would (at least psychologically) induce near-poverty conditions for a family of one. For many city-dwellers, where the cost of housing and food is exorbitant (the average monthly rent for an apartment in New York City, excluding Staten Island, is now $3,017, or $36,204 a year), the poverty-line figure understates the depth of privation. (One advantage for urbanites, it should be said, is in transportation costs: for the rural and suburban poor, high gasoline prices, combined with the need to commute ever further for employment, leads to the phenomenon of people working in order to be able to drive themselves to work.) Let’s break this number down further. $22,314 a year for four people: that means roughly $1,859 a month in cash income; divided evenly, that’s $464 dollars per person each month. On a weekly basis, that’s a paltry $116 dollars a person — for food, shelter, clothing, and transportation — not to mention entertainment or anything beyond bare subsistence living, that is, those things that make life enjoyable, and not merely bearable.

Poverty is also highly differentiated by ethnicity and region. African Americans and Hispanics are generally poorer than whites, with 27.2 percent of African Americans, and 25.6 percent of Hispanics, living at or below the poverty line. Only 9.7 percent of non-Hispanic whites qualified as poor. The South is significantly poorer than the rest of the country — in fact, over 40 percent of the poor in America live in that region, including five million poor children. In 2009, fully 17 percent of Southerners lived at or below the poverty line. The 11 states with the lowest life expectancy in the United States are all in the South. The fact that Southern states also happen to be the stingiest when it comes to welfare and healthcare benefits, and the most regressive when it comes to taxation, is not coincidental. Some states, mostly in the South, will still not allow many adults on Medicaid — even those with children. The Affordable Care Act was supposed to make anyone living in a household earning less than 133 percent of the poverty line eligible for Medicaid, but the Supreme Court ruled that the Medicaid expansion had to be optional — and most conservative states have rejected the offer to give its poor adults healthcare. (Even so, since the Medicaid expansion took effect in October 2013, 444,000 Americans enrolled in the program in its first six weeks — a major victory for advocates of universal health coverage. Still, the United States lags in many key health indicators, possessing the lowest average life expectancy in the developed world, as well as the highest infant mortality rate of any large developed country.)

Age is also a major factor in whether one is poor in America. In 2012, the poverty rate for children under age 18 was 21.8 percent. For people aged 18 to 64, it was 13.7 percent, while the rate for people 65 and older was significantly lower, at 9.1 percent. We can make some important inferences from these variations. First, the very high number of poor children — over one in five minors — tells us that the situation for many American families is dire, since children by definition are dependent on the care of adults. It also tells us that whatever assistance families are receiving for their children through Medicaid, Head Start, and various subsidized school breakfast and lunch programs, is still woefully insufficient. And the figures do not do justice to how desperate the situation is in some places — in Detroit, for instance, roughly two-thirds of all children live in poverty. The United States has the second highest rate of child poverty in the developed world. (Romania, still emerging from its long nightmare during the 20th century, holds the number one spot.) Second, the fact that poverty rates are lower for seniors, many of whom are no longer working, than for 18 to 64 year olds, who are society’s prime wage-earners, should raise some eyebrows. One would expect the opposite to be the case, and indeed, poverty rates for the elderly used to be extremely high — roughly 35 percent of seniors in 1959 were poor — but a government-run intergenerational savings account (commonly known as Social Security) and a federalized single-payer healthcare system (commonly known as Medicare) led to immense improvements in life for millions of seniors.

That this was achieved through major government intervention in two sectors often seen as sacrosanct in American life (banking and healthcare, respectively), gives us a sense about what good public policy in these areas might look like for the non-elderly — that is, the rest of us Americans. It took politics, not the automatic workings of tidy economic laws, to improve the lives of the elderly in America. It will require the same kind of attitude — a sense of the responsibility of the body politic toward its most vulnerable members — to make a more humane politics of poverty possible for the needy, most of whom are being discriminated against merely because of their age, and their misfortune of having been born in the wrong place at the wrong time. I can’t think of anything more un-American than that.


Poverty in the United States today has many complex, and even contradictory, aesthetic, political, and cultural dimensions to it. One of these dimensions, as Harrington was able to observe even in 1962, is that “we have the “best-dressed poverty the world has ever known.” That is, mass production of textiles has brought down the cost of clothing enormously, increasing the purchasing power of poorer Americans in this area. This is truly a modern phenomenon: James Agee, writing about the dress of tenant farmers in Alabama in 1936, was able to dwell at length on the clothing worn by the families he lived among, and how their sartorial choices immediately singled them out as poor. Now, however, the differences are not so immediately discernable. There is no doubt that this is a positive development, inasmuch as it reduces ostracism of the poor based on their dress, but it also glosses over just how desperate poverty here still can be, because the cost of other important goods, such as housing and medical care, have not fallen proportionally. So one can be relatively well dressed and still extraordinarily hard up. Alas, the aesthetics of extreme poverty, such as those exhibited by the long-term homeless, do not lend themselves to empathy, either. While such a condition may elicit abstract feelings of charity, we often find the sights and smells of extreme poverty to be disgusting: it alienates most of us on a subconscious level, and indeed, often on a conscious one. We are repulsed by it. One only needs to watch the twitchy body language of subway or bus riders as a homeless person passes through to grasp what I’m talking about here.

Look too rich? We won’t help you. Look too poor? We won’t look at you. The defeatist view about poverty, like the triumphalist view about wealth, is a form of social murder. Both are vampire-like: they can resurrect themselves after what appears to be their final demise, and they also seem to be able to assume different, and often equally pernicious, identities. In the United States, harsh religious ideas about predestination and chosenness have comingled with Social Darwinist ideas, which have themselves been further abetted by widespread myths about self-reliance, and outright lies about Americans’ unique “rugged individualism.” To be fair, some of these ideas have popular provenance, while others — I would say most — have filtered down from the elite, in a bald effort to provide philosophical justification for the status quo.

In the end, though, all these different roads lead to the same debauched Rome: a feeling toward the poor that George Orwell identified in the The Road to Wigan Pier as “an attitude of sniggering superiority punctuated by bursts of vicious hatred.” How often the latter attitude rears up corresponds directly to how well the non-poor are doing; ironically — or tragically — the worse the general macroeconomic situation, the more venom reserved for those among us who have the least. For instance, as of November 1, 2013, the budget for food stamps was cut by eight billion dollars, immediately reducing assistance by $36 dollars a month for a family of four from $275.13 per month; House Republicans also passed a bill in September 2013 cutting $40 billion dollars from the program over the next 10 years. During a deep recession, this is not only an act of cruelty, it’s bad economic policy: SNAP increases consumer spending, especially in depressed areas. To see an increase in the number of Americans on food stamps as evidence of a social disease is to mistake the direction of the causal arrow, as well as the disease’s causes.

Time and again, it seems, our devotion to the lie of meritocracy, that “you get what you deserve,” betrays us. Economic failure — and the people who bear the marks of this failure — makes many intellectually distant, or even outright hostile. And it is this fact that many find disquieting about what is implicit in discussions about poverty, because it requires us to call into question the soundness of some fundamental features of our political and economic life. Maybe it should. Squint and you can see it: as Abramsky and Packer have shown, for millions of us, for decades, it’s been mourning in America.


Zach Dorfman is a frequent contributor to LARB.

LARB Contributor

Zach Dorfman is senior editor of Ethics & International Affairs, the journal of Carnegie Council. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The National Interest, The Awl, Dissent, The American Interest, and elsewhere.


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