Permanent Poverty

We need to build a new economy

A little over a year ago, my book The American Way of Poverty came out. In it, I explored both America’s stunningly high levels of inequality and also the life stories of those mired in modern-day poverty. I also suggested a number of economic and policy changes that would have a large impact on poverty.

Since then, some things have changed significantly: America’s unemployment rate has fallen back down to levels not seen since before the financial collapse of 2008; housing markets in states such as California have largely bounced back; the construction industry is alive and kicking again; and state and federal budget deficits continue to shrink.

Yet scratch below the surface and much of the good news evaporates. Yes, unemployment is down, and that is partly because jobs are finally being created, but it’s also because so many people have gotten so discouraged that they have dropped out of the labor force. A far smaller percentage of working age adults are employed, or looking for work, today than seven years ago.

And, related to this, poverty rates remain stubbornly high; roughly 14.5 percent of Americans live in poverty, as do upwards of one in four children in the country. Approximately one out of every six Americans is what the government terms “food insecure”—they’re anxious about how they will feed themselves and their families, they rely on food stamps, food pantries and other charities.

This poverty is engrained in 2014 America. It is not an incidental part of how the economy functions, but rather a central part. It has to do with the prevalence of low wages and non-benefited work at the bottom of the economy, and also with the growing concentration of wealth and influence at the top of the economy. And until we put serious efforts into laying the foundations of a new economy, it will continue to fester.

Sasha Abramsky is a widely published freelance. He is a senior fellow at the Demos think tank, and teaches writing part-time at UC Davis. He is speaking on his book ‘The American Way of Poverty’ on Oct. 2 at the Food Pantry Dinner held at the Dance Palace in Point Reyes.

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