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How Millions in America Get Entrenched in Poverty

An inside look at the system that's producing America's growing underclass.

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Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, began organizing low-paid, often undocumented domestic workers in the late 1990s, shortly after graduating from Columbia University. For years, she said, they were considered “shadows,” an out-of-sight, out-of-mind pool of caregivers who cleaned up other people’s messes, changed other people’s soiled bedclothes, and administered other people’s medications. In recent years, however, more and more of the people she encountered were finding that their working conditions resembled those of the domestic workers. “Increasingly, the conditions that define the lives of domestic workers—like instability, low wages, low benefits—these are conditions increasingly defining the reality for most American workers. We’re in the same boat more than ever.”

Yet, while more people were making these connections, this hadn’t yet translated into mass political movements. Occupy Wall Street garnered much public sympathy, but most people sympathized from the sidelines. They didn’t have the time and energy to engage in the sort of all-in protests that came to define the Occupy movement—at least in part because so many people were working such long hours just to keep their families afloat—they didn’t like the confrontational tactics and scruffy style of the Occupiers, or they didn’t feel that camping out in parks and outside of city halls would actually change a whole lot in their lives. And despite the opinion poll data showing that Americans were becoming increasingly uneasy about the degree of inequality seen in the country, on the whole that unease was more about the shrinking middle class than it was about the conditions of those at the very bottom of the economy. In fact, politically the country as a whole remained remarkably tolerant of the continued existence of mass poverty and, at the same time, remarkably reluctant to embrace policies that might change this dynamic significantly.

“There are essentially two stories over the last forty years,” Georgetown Law School’s Peter Edelman explained. “The positive story is there would be forty million more people who are poor if we didn’t have the public policies we have—including Social Security, the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, and Medicare and Medicaid. They have helped quite measurably in keeping poverty from being even higher than it is. So it isn’t that we’ve been unwilling as a country to take steps to alleviate poverty.” But, Edelman continued, there’s a second, less savory story that runs parallel to the first. “Over the last forty years, we’ve increasingly become a low-wage economy. People in the bottom 20 percent are worse off than they were forty years ago. Income distribution has deteriorated. The gaps between the rich and poor have widened spectacularly.”

Another way to look at this is to consider that, to a point, America has worked out how to ameliorate some of the consequences of profound economic hardship—albeit reluctantly and with an increasing number of gaps. Yet it is failing, in ever greater degrees, to prevent that hardship from arising in the first place—in changing power relationships in the workplace, the broader economy, and the political process, so as to stop tens of millions of Americans from experiencing desperate insecurity on a daily basis.

From THE AMERICAN WAY OF POVERTY: How the Other Half Still Lives, by Sasha Abramsky.  Reprinted with permission from Nation Books.

Sasha Abramsky, who writes regularly for The Nation, is the author of several books, including Inside "Obama’s Brain," "Breadline USA" and "American Furies." His latest book, "The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives," was published by Nation Books in September.

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