Thursday, March 30, 2023

#89 / Abolish The Poor


Margaret Talbot, presumably, wrote that title - "Abolish The Poor" - which appeared as the headline of Talbot's New Yorker review of a book authored by Matthew Desmond. Desmond is a professor of sociology at Princeton University, and is the author of four books, including Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Evicted won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Carnegie Medal, and the PEN / John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction. 
The book that Talbot reviewed for The New Yorker, Poverty, By America, is identified in Talbot's review as a "morally charged manifesto." I am pretty sure that Talbot is on the same side as Desmond, but the title of her review does partake of a kind of ambiguity. Abolishing "The Poor," as opposed to abolishing "poverty," can be read in more ways than one. Let's give Talbot the benefit of the doubt. In the online edition, "Abolish The Poor" has been transmuted into "How America Manufactures Poverty."

In The New Yorker, Desmond is quoted as saying, "we typically don't talk about poverty as a condition that benefits some of us." That really seems to be Desmond's main point:
Poverty, by America, he explains, is a book about how and why the rest of us abide poverty and are complicit in it. Why do many of us seem to accept that the problem is one of scarcity—that there is simply not enough to go around in our very rich country? Where there is exploitation, there are exploiters, and this time Desmond sees many more of them, including most of his prospective readers. Corporations batten on low-wage labor, but so do consumers, who have come to expect the cheap goods and services—the illusorily frictionless food deliveries, the Amazon orders that arrive like conjuring tricks the afternoon you place them—that poorly paid, nonunionized, often temporary workers provide.
"Landlords are not the only ones who benefit from housing exploitation; many homeowners do, too, their property values propped up by the collective effort to make housing scarce and expensive,” Desmond writes, noting that most homeowners receive federal aid in the form of mortgage-interest deductions and other subsidies. (The payout to homeowners in 2020—a hundred and ninety-three billion dollars—far exceeded the fifty-three billion dollars in direct housing assistance that the government gave to low-income families.) "We need not be debt collectors or private prison wardens to play a role in producing poverty in America,” Desmond goes on. “We need only to vote yes on policies that lead to private opulence and public squalor and, with that opulence, build a life behind a wall that we tend and maintain.”

The short answer, Desmond argues, is that as a society we have made a priority of other things: maximal wealth accumulation for the few and cheap stuff for the many. At the same time, we’ve either ignored or enabled the gouging of the poor—by big banks that charge them stiff overdraft fees, by predatory payday lenders and check-cashing outlets of what Desmond calls the “fringe banking industry,” by landlords who squeeze their tenants because the side hustle of rent collecting has turned into their main hustle, by companies that underpay their workers or deny them benefits by confining them to gig status or that keep them perpetually off balance with “just-in-time scheduling” of shifts. To the extent that middle- and upper-class people unthinkingly buy products from such companies and invest in their stock, or park their money in those banks, or oppose public housing in their neighborhoods despite a professed commitment to it, or bid up the prices of fixer-uppers in Austin or San Francisco or Washington, D.C., they, too, are helping to buttress the system. 

If Talbot's review can be considered to voice any criticism of Desmond's book, it might be this:

In part because this book is aimed at the hearts and minds of the widest possible swath of readers, it doesn’t have much to say about politics.... Activists and elected officials who want to take up his proposals will have to devise their own strategy.

"Politics," in fact, is always "where it's at," when we talk about transforming the social and economic realities that define our existence. We "Live In A Political World," and that means that political action is required if we want to change it.
As I read Talbot's review, Desmond's book does make this clear. The book is not just an "observer's report." It is a call to action - it's a "manifesto" - and just judging by Talbot's New Yorker review, Desmond's book, as a "manifesto," is most definitely "morally charged!"
So, here's the question that this book has posed. It's that old question from the song written in 1931, to support the miners in a strike in Harlan County, Kentucky: "Which Side Are You On?

Will we rise to accept the political challenge that Poverty, by America has placed before us? 

If we don't, isn't it true that this failure indicates that we actually are willing to accept the idea that we can, collectively (literally or otherwise) "Abolish The Poor," and simply delete "the poor" from our story, as though they didn't exist? 

As though the poor were not - as they really are - our own creation - "manufactured in America!"
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