The Hidden Face of American Poverty

More than 2 million Americans don’t have running water or a flushing toilet at home.

6 mins read
A homeless man sleeps under an American Flag blanket on a park bench on September 10, 2013 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Following excerpts adapted from the author’s most recent book, Poverty, by America, published by Crown

We imagine that their sufferings are one thing and our life another.—Leo Tolstoy

Why is there so much poverty in America? I wrote this book because I needed an answer to that question. For most of my adult life, I have researched and reported on poverty. I have lived in very poor neighborhoods, spent time with people living in poverty around the country, pored over statistical studies and government reports, listened to and learned from community organizers and union reps, drafted public policy, read up on the history of the welfare state and city planning and American racism, and taught courses on inequality at two universities. But even after all that, I still felt that I lacked a fundamental theory of the problem, a clear and convincing case as to why there is so much hardship in this land of abundance.

I began paying attention to poverty when I was a child. The home in which I grew up cost $60,000. It sat a couple of miles outside Winslow, Arizona, a small Route 66 town east of Flagstaff. It was small and wood paneled, surrounded by hard-packed dirt sprouting with thorny weeds. I loved it: the woodburning stove, the Russian olive trees. We had moved in after my father accepted a position as pastor of the First Christian Church. Scraping a salary from the offering plate never amounted to much, and Dad always griped that the railroad men in town got paid more than he did. He could read ancient Greek, but they had a union.

We learned to fix things ourselves or do without. When I put a hole through a window with my Red Ryder BB gun, it stayed broken. But a family friend and I once replaced the engine in my first truck, having found the right parts at a junkyard. After my father lost his job, the bank took our home, before it was all the rage, and we learned to do without that, too. Mostly I blamed Dad. But a part of me also wondered why this was our country’s answer when a family fell on hard times.

I went to college, enrolling at Arizona State University (ASU) by applying for every scholarship and loan I could. And I worked: as a morning-shift barista at Starbucks, a telemarketer, you name it. In the summers, I decamped to a forest near my hometown and served as a wildland firefighter. When classes were in session, I began hanging out with homeless people around my campus—not serving them at soup kitchens or delivering socks, but just sitting with them, talking. I think it helped me process, in my own adolescent way, what I was seeing all around me, which was money. So much money. Back in Winslow, some families were better off than others, but not like this. My classmates were driving BMWs and convertible Mustangs. For most of college, I didn’t have a car, and when I did, it was a 1978 Ford F-150 with that junkyard engine and decent-sized holes in the floorboard, allowing me to see the road rip past as I drove. My classmates were going out for sushi. I stocked canned sardines and saltine crackers in my dorm room. The town of Tempe, the Phoenix suburb where ASU’s main campus sits, had spent hundreds of millions of dollars to construct a two-mile-long artificial lake in the middle of the desert, a giant puddle that loses two-thirds of its water to evaporation each year. A few blocks away, people were begging on the street. How could there be, I wondered, such bald scarcity amid such waste and opulence?

I began stalking this question in the classroom, enrolling in courses that I hoped would help me make sense of my country and its confounding, unblushing inequality. I kept it up in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin—the only program that accepted my application—where I focused on the housing crisis. To get as close as I could to that problem, I moved to Milwaukee, living in a mobile home park and then a rooming house. I befriended families who had been evicted, and I followed them for months and then years, sleeping on their floors, watching their children grow up, laughing and arguing with them, and, later, attending some of their funerals.

In Milwaukee, I met grandmothers living in trailers without heat. They spent the winter under blankets, praying that the space heaters didn’t give out. I once saw an apartment full of kids, just kids, evicted on a rainy spring day. Their mother had died, and the children had chosen to go on living in the house until the sheriff came. In the years since, I have met poor Americans around the country striving for dignity and justice—or just plain survival, which can be hard enough: home health aides in New Jersey who belonged to the full-time working homeless, fast food workers in California fighting for a living wage, and undocumented immigrants in Minneapolis organizing for affordable housing, communicating with their neighbors through the Google Translate app.

This is who we are: the richest country on earth, with more poverty than any other advanced democracy. If America’s poor founded a country, that country would have a bigger population than Australia or Venezuela. Almost one in nine Americans—including one in eight children—live in poverty. There are more than 38 million people living in the United States who cannot afford basic necessities, and more than 108 million getting by on $55,000 a year or less, many stuck in that space between poverty and security.

More than a million of our public schoolchildren are homeless, living in motels, cars, shelters, and abandoned buildings. After arriving in prison, many incarcerated Americans suddenly find that their health improves because the conditions they faced as free (but impoverished) citizens were worse. More than 2 million Americans don’t have running water or a flushing toilet at home. West Virginians drink from polluted streams, while families on the Navajo Nation drive hours to fill water barrels. Tropical diseases long considered eradicated, like hookworm, have reemerged in rural America’s poorest communities, often the result of broken sanitation systems that expose children to raw sewage.

The United States annually produces $5.3 trillion more in goods and services than China. Our gross domestic product is larger than the combined economies of Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, India, France, and Italy, which are the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth richest countries in the world. California alone has a bigger economy than Canada does; New York State’s economy surpasses South Korea’s. America’s poverty is not for lack of resources. We lack something else.

Books about poverty tend to be books about the poor. It’s been this way for more than a hundred years. In 1890, Jacob Riis wrote about “how the other half lives,” documenting the horrid conditions of New York tenements and photographing filthy children asleep in alleyways. A decade later, Jane Addams wrote about the sorry state of Chicago’s immigrant workforce: a thirteen-year-old girl from Russia who committed suicide because she couldn’t repay a $3 loan; a new mother forced to work so many hours that her breast milk soaked through her shirt. The Depression-era reportage of James Agee and Walker Evans, and the photojournalism of Dorothea Lange, seared images of dusty, kicked-down sharecroppers into our collective memory. In 1962, Michael Harrington published The Other America, a book intended to make visible “tens of millions of human beings” who had “dropped out of sight and out of mind.” Two years later, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson paid a visit to Appalachia and sat on the rough-hewn porch of a jobless sawmill worker surrounded by children with small clothes and big teeth.

Bearing witness, these kinds of books help us understand the nature of poverty. They are vital. But they do not—and in fact cannot—answer the most fundamental question, which is: Why? Why all this American poverty? I’ve learned that this question requires a different approach. To understand the causes of poverty, we must look beyond the poor. Those of us living lives of privilege and plenty must examine ourselves. Are we—we the secure, the insured, the housed, the college educated, the protected, the lucky—connected to all this needless suffering? This book is my attempt to answer that question, addressed to that “we.” Which makes this a book about poverty that is not just about the poor. Instead, it’s a book about how the other other half lives, about how some lives are made small so that others may grow.

Drawing on years of my own research and reporting, as well as studies from across the social sciences, I lay out why there is so much poverty in America and make a case for how to eliminate it. Ending poverty will require new policies and renewed political movements, to be sure. But it will also require that each of us, in our own way, become poverty abolitionists, unwinding ourselves from our neighbors’ deprivation and refusing to live as unwitting enemies of the poor.

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Matthew Desmond

Matthew Desmond is a professor of sociology at Princeton University. After receiving his Ph.D. in 2010 from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he joined the Harvard Society of Fellows as a Junior Fellow. A contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, Desmond was listed in 2016 among the Politico 50, as one of “fifty people across the country who are most influencing the national political debate.”

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