The Other Americans: Poverty in the United States

Instead of pitying the poor, we should feel a sense of kinship that leads to empathy.

A mother with her children

Even Americans who don’t identify themselves as poor know how it feels to be broke, to need or want something they can’t afford, or to be underpaid or lose a job. If not, they can imagine these feelings without too much of a stretch.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Dorothea Lange

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I first started to write about poverty in 2012 for The American Prospect, but I actually don’t describe my beat as “poverty,” though that’s how other people classify it, including my editors at the magazine. I say I cover “opportunity.” America is a country that still believes it’s full of opportunity, and my project is to assess that belief. We know now, of course, that upward mobility has stalled, and that the middle class has been leaking from the bottom like a sieve, so it’s a rich topic, and an increasing but still small number of writers is drawn to it.

Since I began, I’ve published three big stories: on one of the poorest rural counties in Kentucky; on a hotel housing homeless families in suburban Denver (Foreclosed and Financially Stranded at the Ramada Inn); and on a five-year drop in the life expectancy of white women who do not graduate from high school, which I investigated by going to my home state of Arkansas. My goal was to spend enough time in each of those communities that I could first find the right questions to ask. I wanted to discover stories that would illustrate how each place was unique, and the various challenges those who lived there had to overcome. So, in Owsley County, Kentucky, a place where poverty seemed written into the landscape, I asked, “How do you create opportunity here?” In Denver, I thought, “How do people who were once middle class come to terms with the fact that they may never be again?” For the article about poorly educated white women dying young, I wondered, “Why would hardship fall so heavily on these women, and where can I go to explain what their lives are like?” It takes weeks just to come up with the question, which is more time than most journalists are afforded to report and write an entire story.

It’s important to me to avoid a trap I think many writers fall into, one that I’m never entirely sure I succeed in avoiding, in which the subjects of articles aren’t presented as real people but rather are offered up as illustrations of suffering. While the contours of life for low-income Americans are shaped by want and need, and it’s important to show what it means to go without in a country so full of plenty, the big problem is that I’m not sure what it accomplishes to write about their plight without also exploring the other parts of their lives. The most it can do is elicit pity from people already inclined to care—at worst, it draws only ridicule. Pity has its uses, but it also has its limits, especially in writing about a population already so misrepresented, ignored, and disempowered.

 

Articles about poverty that are just a catalog of hard times are so prevalent that Dwight Macdonald, writing in The New Yorker in 1963, thought it was inherent to the exercise: “There is 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.” But it doesn’t need to be so. Instead of a litany of miseries, reporting on the poor could offer deeply textured portraits that instead reveal them to be humans just like the rest of us—an approach that should build a sense of commonality and make readers question their own assumptions about the country they live in. We shouldn’t feel pity but a sense of citizenship, of kinship, that leads to empathy. Even Americans who don’t identify themselves as poor know how it feels to be broke, to need or want something they can’t afford, or to be underpaid or lose a job. If not, they can imagine these feelings without too much of a stretch. The grind of facing such disappointments day after day is what needs to be communicated through writing, and readers should begin to recognize the people they’re meeting on the page, even if they don’t necessarily like them.

Modern writing about poverty began with Michael Harrington, a Catholic-turned-socialist affiliated with Dissent who wrote The Other America: Poverty in the United States, published in 1962. Writing soon after John Kenneth Galbraith had dubbed us “The Affluent Society,” he argued that as much as a quarter of the country still lived not just in poverty but in unthinkable destitution. It was many more people than academics or other writers thought, and the situation of the very poor was getting worse, even as the rest of the country got richer. In a tract of fewer than 200 pages, he visited employment offices in deindustrializing cities, homeless men in New York’s Bowery, “Negro ghettos,” rural Appalachia, relief offices in states across the country, and the elderly who struggled to pay their medical bills. He chronicled their living conditions, their efforts to find work, and the quiet desperation that seemed anachronistic to everyone else in glistening, postwar America.

Harrington’s book was little noticed until Macdonald reviewed it for The New Yorker almost a year later. Most credit the book and review with helping to inspire both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson’s anti-poverty efforts. Harrington wasn’t the first writer whose work launched reforms that helped low-income families get better housing, education, and workers’ rights—the Progressive muckrakers at the turn of the last century also aimed to solve the problems of their subjects. What was new was the fact that Harrington was among the only writers to see the persistence of poverty despite the country’s historically large middle class. The Other America proved groundbreaking, spawning a new generation and style of writing about America’s poor.

There had always been academic and policy-oriented pieces on all aspects of poverty, but Harrington inspired more nonfiction writers to present an up-close portrait of America’s poor, one that employed data sparingly and aimed for intimacy. Many of them have had a harder time pulling it off. The major narrative articles written between 1965 and 1980 about the lives of the poor feel much more like anthropological texts than profiles, examining the behavior of their subjects as if relating a case study. A typical article is “A Welfare Mother,” from The New Yorker in 1975. The writer, Susan Sheehan, follows the pseudonymous Carmen Santana, indexing her expenses and chronicling her behavior as if she were being observed under a microscope: “She sits even while she is cooking, and she would rather leave the TV on when she isn’t watching it than bother to get up and turn it off. Her obesity appears to cause her no distress—she likes the way she looks and so does [her husband] Mr. Delgado.”

Sheehan maintains that subtly judgmental tone throughout, and we never get to see much of Santana’s personality. She’s treated as a type, an artifact. Describing the way Santana looks is necessary, but mixed within descriptions of her life, home, and relationships is an often unstated but sometimes explicit assumption that everything is the opposite of what it should be. There’s also no verve, no bright parts of her life, to balance out the woe. She’s not someone Sheehan’s readers would feel any sense of kinship with: It’s as if Santana lives on a different planet.

 

The best reporting on poverty emerged when the tools from the New Journalism revolution became more commonplace, and poverty writers started using them. One of the most important methods was saturation reporting, in which writers immerse themselves in communities. Alex Kotlowitz’s deeply empathic There Are No Children Here (1991) followed two boys in a Chicago project for a year. Katherine Boo did this in The New Yorker, and won a National Magazine award in 2004 for her portrait of two women in an Oklahoma City project attending a George W. Bush-era marriage-promotion course. Adrian Nicole LeBlanc spent a decade writing Random Family, a book about a group of people she first met when working on a story about a drug dealer sentenced under the harsh Rockefeller drug laws. What saturation reporting does is make the subjects seem less foreign to the writers and, by extension, the readers, and more like people who might be friends or colleagues—humans, from warts to glory, with blood that pumps onto the page.

These writers all had the blessed luxury of time and resources, which few writers have. There’s still a fundamental problem when writing about poverty, though, which makes it different from other subjects. The political and policy discourse about the poor in the United States has centered, to a considerable extent, on whether and how the people who can’t make it into the middle class are to blame for their own plight. Even well-meaning journalists absorb the conversations about “culture of poverty,” or “culture of dependency,” and, in an effort to be “objective,” often investigate or analyze their subjects within that framework. It’s something Andrea Elliott, a New York Times reporter who wrote a five-part series in December 2013 about a 12-year-old homeless girl in Brooklyn, brought up in her conversation about the project with the paper’s public editor:

"The focus on a child, she said, came because 'with poverty stories, it’s easy to go into the politics of blame, and there are important questions about responsibility.' But those questions fade into the background when children are the focus. 'Children are unwitting passengers in a voyage they didn’t choose,' Ms. Elliott said. 'They have little clout and are voiceless.'"

So she chose the girl, Dasani, to avoid those questions. I rarely hear judgment and responsibility come up when reporters speak about covering, say, Wall Street, or politics, unless there’s a specific incident of wrongdoing being investigated. It’s as if the political debate Harrington helped ignite has calcified, and we have only two choices: “You should feel sorry for the poor” or “You shouldn’t.”

This sense of implicit judgment, either from journalists or from readers, treats all the people who live in poverty—and that encompasses Americans of different races, backgrounds, and political perspectives—as if they’re a special breed of human more prone to making bad choices or doing the wrong thing. It alienates the reader even though most Americans actually have more in common with families in the bottom 20 percent, the poor and near poor, than they do with the top. So the question becomes, how do writers who care about poverty show that?

 

In The American Way of Poverty, Sasha Abramsky, a journalist who has covered mass incarceration since the 1990s and more recently moved to covering low-income communities, aims to show that poverty in this country isn’t an accident, but a natural product of our political and economic systems. His book is divided into two parts. In the first, he documents the desperate state of affairs, and in the second, he puts forward new policy ideas to ameliorate the problem.

It’s an ambitious project: Abramsky wants, as Harrington did, to write about all of poverty in America. He introduces us to those displaced by Hurricane Katrina, the hungry standing in lines at food banks, undocumented immigrants building border shantytowns, farm workers, working-class families laid low by onerous health-care costs, college graduates buried under hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, foster children, and the long-term unemployed. In some ways, they are the same people Harrington found. Abramsky hopscotches across the map: New Orleans, Detroit, Flint, Michigan, California, Oklahoma, Tennessee, New York, back to California—sometimes in the same chapter. He runs through the history of philosophy on poverty, our Puritan roots, the latest theories on how best to help, the history of New Deal and Johnson-era programs, the outdated formula used to determine poverty, and the dismantling of welfare after the 1996 reform law signed by President Bill Clinton.

As that jumble of topics suggests, it’s a disorganized book. There’s no narrative to focus the reader’s attention, and the places and people Abramsky visit bleed into one another and are hard to remember.

The bigger problem is that he doesn’t devote enough space to the people with whom he speaks. Rather, they are briefly brought forward to testify to their misery and quickly led offstage to make way for the next testimonial. There is a new person in almost every chapter, and their stories rarely stretch to two pages. Many of them are culled from a website he started called “The Voices of Poverty,” a worthy project to which people submit their own stories, but not really material enough for a book. Here we have no choice but to decide whether we pity them: We don’t know very much about their lives, and most of what they speak about is how hard things have gotten. It has the odd effect of narrowing the scope of the problem rather than making it seem vast, which is Abramsky’s objective. All the poor do, it would seem from this book, is list the things they can’t afford.

One example is a brief visit with a woman named Maria, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She tells Abramsky she came to the United States because her daughter was killed and she and another daughter were threatened (we are never even told by whom). Maria now cares for elderly people for low wages, and wants to go to school to be a nurse, but doesn’t have the means. “My life scares me,” she tells him—and then we move on. She’s referenced again about 100 pages later—she is the rare character mentioned twice—but we barely remember her.

At another point, Abramsky speaks to a Mexican-American in Texas named Laurentino Loera who works sporadically picking chili peppers. Loera sleeps in a center set up for poor farm laborers. He lists how few possessions he has, how little money, how difficult it is to look for work, and how he tries to make do. Abramsky inserts himself into the narrative to show their interaction—a technique that can create a sense of intimacy, but that doesn’t have that effect here. Instead, it imparts the opposite:

How will you live if you survive long enough to reach retirement age? I asked him tentatively. He laughed, a deep, full-throated laugh. “Like a king,” Laurentino answered, and chuckled again at the naïveté of my question.

In that passage, it almost seems as if the author and the subject don’t belong in the same room, let alone the same country: Abramsky is shocked and a little terrified about Laurentino’s life, and Laurentino comes off as jaded. This type of writing isn’t going to allow readers, who likely believe they are middle class (whether they really are or not), to identify with Abramsky’s subjects.

Telling stories of the poor in this way falls into the same old trap: It allows them to be objectified and judged, even though that’s not Abramsky’s intent. There are so many questions left unanswered: How does it feel to wake up every morning scared of your own life, as Maria is? Or to stretch the last $5.23 in food stamps the final week before your Electronic Benefit Transfer card is refilled? Or to be haunted by a job you’ll never have again? Without these details, it’s hard to make the plight of the poor register on a visceral level. And there are larger questions that emerge from such details: How are their lives typically American? How do they work their way up the ladder? And what binds all of these people that we call poor, if anything?

It’s certainly time, more than 50 years after Harrington put poverty on the policy radar, to bridge the gap between the two countries he presented. But instead of seeing the poor as residents of that other America, people to be gazed at and pitied from a safe distance, we need to realize that they are in fact citizens of our America. What better way to counter the stories told so skillfully by the poor’s foes—of welfare queens and food-stamp cheats—than with better stories, ones that have the added bonus of being true?


Monica Potts is a writer based in Washington, D.C., and a fellow with the New America Foundation Asset Building Program. Reprinted from Democracy (Spring 2014), a quarterly journal of political ideas.