Ending Poverty in the United States Would Actually Be Pretty Easy
In the wealthiest country in the world, there’s no reason anyone should be poor. Period.
- Interview by
- Fran Quigley
When we speak to our sisters and brothers living in poverty in the United States, the confessional trope that describes so many dysfunctional relationships should be our opening line. “Poverty is a choice that the fortunate collectively make,” social worker Joanne Goldblum and journalist Colleen Shaddox write in Broke in America: Seeing, Understanding, and Ending U.S. Poverty. “No American should ever be poor.”
Of course, we fall far short of that mark. By Goldblum’s and Shaddox’s measure, over 120 million people living in the United States struggle to meet their most basic needs. The pandemic has caused another eight million to fall into poverty this past year. Worse yet, the poor in our nation are often blamed for their own crises, with lawmakers and even service providers citing bad behavior or ignorance as the cause of individual poverty.
In Broke in America, Goldblum and Shaddox reject that narrative. US policies that benefit the wealthy cause poverty, they insist — and changes to those policies can end it.
Fran Quigley interviewed Goldblum and Shaddox for Jacobin.
That saying summarizes everything that’s wrong with how the United States addresses poverty: we say the problem is the person, so we need to fix the person and what that person lacks in skills. But does he even have a fishing pole? Is he too weak with hunger to go fish? Is the “he” in question actually a woman, and women aren’t allowed to fish there?
It’s so paternalistic and so horrible. Yet people say it all the time, like they’ve said something wise and caring.
At the policy level, we create systems that actually make it harder for people to be self-sufficient.
For example, many people who are part of the TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) or workforce development programs are trained to become certified nursing assistants, CNAs. That’s a very important job that we need to do. But it is a poverty-wage job. By and large, people who work in those positions don’t have workplace benefits and are not paid a living wage. But the government trains someone to be a CNA and then it can feel like it’s done something because it’s gotten that person off of the rolls.
You devote a good deal of the book to reviewing the data and the stories that describe US poverty, but you always circle back to solutions, refuting the idea we often hear that “the poor will always be with us.” Why do you think we can, as your subtitle promises, end poverty in the United States?
Because poverty is simply not having enough money to meet your needs. There is nothing more complicated about it than that. And we live in the richest nation in the world, where there is plenty of money. So if we have the political will, we could end poverty.
There are lots of different ways to do it. A living wage is necessary, and a universal basic income can help. We talk in the book about universal health care, housing supports, about making water and electricity and heat a public good. Other countries do all this, and there is no reason we could not do so as well. If we just tax people appropriately, we can have the money to do all this.
We write about challenges in affording car insurance in places where you need a car to get to work, the difficulty in keeping the lights on, not being able to afford medicines. Being in poverty is like walking across a rotted floor — there are so many ways you can fall through. And it all comes down to money.
The income gap between the lowest-paid worker and CEOs has increased exponentially in the past few decades. So that is a lot of money that’s churning around in our economy, but it’s not being shared appropriately. And by “shared,” I don’t mean some generous act. I mean that the worker in the warehouse who is making everything run deserves a fair share of the revenue he is generating. We don’t have that now.
You both have worked with poor people in the United States for a long time. But you write that it took a while for you to come to your own realizations that our approach to confronting poverty is fundamentally flawed.
I was a social worker doing direct service with chronically homeless families. When they did have homes, they often did not have heat and hot water. One mom who I worked with never had toilet paper and often did not have clean diapers. My colleagues and I discussed this and went over various clinical reasons why she was choosing not to have toilet paper in her home.
Yet one day I was in her home and saw her take her child’s diaper off, empty the solids out, and put it back on. It was a watershed moment for me. It turned out there was no choice involved: there was nothing more than the fact that she couldn’t afford these basic necessities. I became obsessed with thinking about diapers and other hygiene products. [Goldblum went on to found the National Diaper Bank Network, whose affiliates have distributed over thirty million diapers.]
At the soup kitchen where I worked, you would always have people after the meal asking, “Do you have 75 cents for the bus?” I used to think, gosh, we should teach them planning skills, how to think more long-term. Because they knew when they came to the soup kitchen, they had to get back home. Later on, I realized: they were hungry, and they got 75 cents somehow to come to the soup kitchen to eat in the first place. That was the wise survival strategy.
So often we make judgments about poor people’s motivation and cognition that are really a reflection of not having resources. I do a lot of work in the criminal legal system, and motivation is a big deal. Do they show up for their appointments? Do they return phone calls?
Well, to show up for an appointment, you need transportation and childcare. To return phone calls, you need a working phone. The written notices may be written in a language they don’t speak. And on and on. It’s very much like that woman who didn’t have toilet paper: she didn’t need a lecture on being a better parent; she needed toilet paper. And the guys at the soup kitchen that I was making judgments about — they needed 75 cents for the bus.
You have your own experiences addressing poverty, you spoke with experts, and you did your own policy research. Why did you consider it important to include in the book the stories of people living in poverty?
When I first met Joanne, I was writing a profile of her. As part of my research, I talked with a woman who was receiving diapers from the diaper bank. She was fabulous, raising some kids from her extended family to keep them out of the foster system, working very hard and just scraping by.
I sat in her living room for an hour, and she told me all the stuff she was dealing with. At the end, I said, “you’ve shared some really painful things with me, and I’m very grateful to you that you would trust me like that.” And she said, “No, no, thank you: I didn’t think anybody would ever want to hear my story.”
These stories matter. There is a certain symbolic annihilation of people in poverty in this country. You watch a situation comedy, and everybody lives in a house with a glittering kitchen with granite countertops. We don’t represent poor people in the world in either nonfiction or fiction terribly much. And when we do, we often reduce them to stereotypes. Colleen really insisted that we interview people from all over the country, to make it clear that poverty exists everywhere in the United States, and that it is not one community, one group, one area, one city. You can go anywhere and find people who are experiencing these issues.
As frontline service providers who have dealt with these practical problems of poverty, why did you include chapters on racism, sexism, and denial of political power?
When you look at any indicator of poverty — who doesn’t have water in their house, who has food insecurity, who dies sooner — you see that race matters. And you can say the same for gender. Women are more likely to be in poverty, more likely to be in extreme poverty. It’s not just that the world is unfair to poor people. It’s doubly unfair when you belong to another oppressed group. There were some communities that are not just left behind, but consciously excluded from prosperity.
That means that part of ending poverty is taking down structures that block access to the political process, educational opportunities, and on and on. For example, we write in the book about redlining and racism in housing policy at all levels. Colleen and I were very intentional about saying these things out loud and clearly, so people cannot pretend that racism and other structural inequalities don’t impact the struggles we are talking about.
You mention other nations’ approaches to basic needs. The United States has a dramatically higher poverty rate than other wealthy nations and dramatically greater levels of income and wealth inequality. What are other countries doing right that we don’t do here?
They establish some sort of floor. There is no floor in the United States — there is no depth of poverty that you can’t fall to. We have made TANF time-limited, we have enacted policies to make SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly Food Stamps] time-limited. You can be literally left out in the cold here.
One of the biggest things that’s different about the United States than most other countries is that you can become bankrupt due to medical debt. Not having guaranteed health care and the likelihood of accumulating debt related to health care is uniquely American and incredibly dangerous. Many of the other issues poor people struggle with are smaller dollar numbers, but you can go into hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt for medical issues. You talk to people around the world, and they just are gobsmacked that we allow this.
For our country, the most impractical thing you could possibly propose is the status quo. Personally, I pay as much for healthcare as I pay for housing. [Shaddox wrote in the American Prospect about her own recent experiences being uninsured and a cancer patient.]
What led you down the path of devoting your professional careers to anti-poverty work?
From the time that I can remember, the work that I felt called to do was being a social worker. My mother was a social worker who focused on reproductive rights, and my father was an attorney who did a lot of pro bono work with the ACLU and other causes. I was also drawn into working on poverty by my Jewish heritage. Growing up as an American Jew in the post-war era meant very much understanding that your life is full of unexpected challenges. And sometimes the only way to get through is with the support of your neighbors, so it is our duty to provide that.
I grew up in New Jersey and was very lucky to go to Hunter College School of Social Work, which teaches what they refer to as Jane Addams social work: not therapy in an office, but changing systems and working to support people.
Probably the defining moment of my life was when I was a very young child, about five or six. My mom was a waitress who worked incredibly hard to support us all. At night, when her feet were just aching, she would put her feet in a tub of Epsom salts. One night I was sitting on the floor playing next to her and I saw the basin fill up with blood because her calluses and blisters had cracked. And I remember thinking: People don’t know how hard her life is, because if they knew they would help. When I grow up, I’m going to write stories about people like my mom.
So I did that. I became a journalist at a daily newspaper in Connecticut, and I concentrated on social justice stories. Then one day my boss took me into his office and said, “you write too many stories about poor people. That’s killing us in the suburbs.” So I quit and went to work in a soup kitchen, which was a wonderful experience. I’ve been sort of half non-profit, half journalism ever since, freelancing and writing about the things I care about and also working on the causes that I care about.
I know Colleen is an active Democratic Socialists of America member, and Joanne describes herself as “a little left of liberal.” How far removed from our current U.S. political reality are your prescriptions for ending poverty?
I am a socialist. But you can have onions in a soup without it being onion soup, right? Many of the policies we’re calling for are things that could be labeled socialist, but they’re going on in other capitalist countries. For example, Japan is a very capitalist country where childcare is free. We have just taken capitalism to a really toxic extreme in the United States.
There have been a lot of books written on poverty, and certainly a lot of media coverage. Who were you aiming to reach with this book?
We wrote this for people who consider themselves to be progressive and may be sympathetic to the poor. But they also have heard the line that poverty is an individual failing or think that it is unsolvable. It’s not.
Almost immediately in this book, you confront the maxim, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime”: “Antipoverty efforts should stop making assumptions about people’s fishing abilities,” you write. “It’s past time to stop judging and give that hungry person a fish.” Why did you take that on?