I’ve seldom seen a new book of nonfiction spawn so much lengthy and serious coverage as Matthew Desmond’s Poverty, by America. Every periodical that I read regularly seemed to come out with long reviews or excerpts from the book.  Right off the bat, though, I confess that this probably says a lot about my choice of reading material. The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and The New York Review of Books gave it copious coverage. And it doesn’t hurt that the author is both a renowned sociologist and Pulitzer Prize winner. Still, after reading three long articles and several lengthy excerpts, I decided not to order the book because I felt like I’d already read it. This is unusual for me since I am a serial book orderer. If I never buy another book, I doubt I’ll finish the ones I have already bought before meeting my Maker. 


What made Poverty, By America so compelling and newsworthy? I think it was how clearly Desmond explains how the overwhelming majority of government aid goes to the wealthy, not the poor. Some examples:


  • According to recent data compiling spending on social insurance, means-tested programs, tax benefits, and financial aid for higher education, the average household in the bottom 20 percent of income distribution receives roughly $25,733 in government benefits per year, while the average household in the top 20 percent receives about $35,363. Every year the richest American families receive almost 40 percent more in government subsidies than the poorest American families.
  • In 2020 the mortgage interest deduction allowed more than 13 million Americans to keep $24.7 billion. Homeowners with annual family incomes below $20,000 got $4 million of those savings. Homeowners with incomes above $200,000 got $15.5 billion. Please pay attention to the bolded words.

         Source: The High Cost of Being Poor, Matthew Desmond in The New York Review of Books, April 2023


At the end of the article Desmond concludes: 


We have chosen to prioritize the subsidization of affluence over the alleviation of poverty. And then we have the gall — the shamelessness, really — to fabricate stories about poor people’s dependence on government aid and shoot down proposals to reduce poverty because they would cost too much. Glancing at the price tag of some program that would cut child poverty in half or give all Americans access to a doctor, we ask,“But how can we afford it?” What a sinful question. What a selfish, dishonest question, one asked as if the answer weren’t staring us straight in the face. We could afford it if the well-off among us took less from the government. We could afford it if we designed our welfare state to expand opportunity and not guard fortunes. 


I wholeheartedly endorse Desmond’s smackdown of the how can we afford it? question as sinful, selfish and dishonest. It’s part and parcel of our American tradition of labeling the poor as lazy and unwilling to work, an aspersion as old as capitalism itself. It’s in the interest of capitalists to get people to work for the lowest wage that the market and the government will allow. When poor people choose not to work in a slaughterhouse for $8 an hour, they are called lazy. 


During and after Covid, employers who relied on minimum wage labor (fast food chains, hotels and restaurants, meat-packers, etc.) faced a shortage of workers. From the right  a chorus of voices blamed the labor shortage on the stimulus payments made during the pandemic. The logic went like this: When poor unemployed people receive $600 a week for doing nothing, they won’t work for a minimum wage. Did the skeptics on the right ever consider that, with Covid rampant, it was an easy choice for the poor: Report to work, perhaps in a crowded place like a McDonald’s kitchen, and risk contracting a debilitating — or worse, fatal — illness, to say nothing of piling up crushing medical bills. And what if they had children who couldn’t be left at home unattended when schools closed? All for what? To keep jobs that paid less than the unemployment benefits plus stimulus payments they could get? Who wouldn’t have stayed home?


Yet in many places people who stayed home were regarded as loafers who should get back to work because they were hurting the economy. Twenty-five states cut some or all of the emergency benefits begun during the pandemic — an ill-advised choice, it turned out, because post-pandemic job growth in those states lagged behind growth in the five states that rebounded fastest, all of which had retained some or all of the pandemic benefits.  


And now we’re in the midst of another debate on raising the debt-ceiling, this one seeming more intractable than previous ones. Republicans insist on cutting spending and not raising taxes. Because they are joined at the hip with the military-industrial complex and its lobbyists, the cuts will not come from the obscenely bloated military budget. That leaves the GOP with their favorite target for cuts: The so-called social safety net. Since it would be political suicide to even suggest cutting Medicaid, Medicare or Social Security benefits, Republicans have put a host of social service programs — including food stamps, and housing assistance — in the bulls-eye for cuts. Republicans surely know that such  programs disproportionately benefit the poor and working poor, yet they insist on “putting our fiscal house in order.”


Their mantra is as sinful, selfish, and dishonest as their “but how can we pay for it?” chant. They balk at doing just a few things that would dramatically improve our fiscal health and harm no one. Here are some of my (unoriginal) ideas:


  • Eliminate the cap on payments into Social Security. Today employee payments into Social Security via payroll taxes are capped at $9,932 (6.2 percent of a salary of $160,200). But people making way more than $160,200 don’t pay a penny more than $9,932.  A CEO earning $3 million a year will also pay $9,932. Instead of the regressive payroll tax we have now, how about making it progressive, just like the income tax.
  • Implement means testing for Medicare benefits. Many of you reading this are on Medicare. I am. And the program is fantastic. My medical bills virtually disappeared a few years ago when I enrolled. That’s great for me, but the government could save tons of money if it didn’t pay medical bills for all the people who could afford to pay on their  own. There should be an income threshold above which this generous benefit is reduced or eliminated. 
  • Reduce or eliminate subsidies for oil and gas exploration. They’ve been a boon to oil and gas companies for many decades and it’s no longer justifiable.
  • Eliminate the Trump tax cuts for the wealthy and large corporations. 


Doing one or two or three of the above ideas would put both our fiscal house in order and enable us to repair our threadbare social safety net and no one would feel real pain. 


It’s profoundly depressing to realize such steps will never be taken because the well-off can block them by their support of the Rich People’s Party, a.k.a. the G.O.P.  Buoyed by our country’s lift-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mythology, along with a caste system that permeates our society, millions of Americans will rally around Republican politicians who delude them into voting against their economic interests.


It seems clear these days that a vocal minority of Republicans controls the fate of the nation, thanks mostly to gerrymandering and an obsolete electoral college system. Both knock the legs out from under the most fundamental principle of American governance — that the majority rules, a now-quaint notion that doesn’t happen much anymore. When you think about it, this is the gaping fallacy of our so-called democracy, which we hold up to the world as the paradigm of good government. The truth is, we may be the best example of some other form of government. Oligarchy and plutocracy come to mind. 


We are, to say the obvious, a great place to be rich.

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About Buck Close

Deacon Buck Close serves on the staff of the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Newport, RI. He was born in South Carolina, graduated from Tulane University in 1972 with a BA in Economics and Latin American Studies.

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