In 1958, John Kenneth Galbraith detailed income inequality and an imbalanced economic system in his book, The Affluent Society. People who did not actually read the text considered it a homage to what makes America great. Contrariwise, Galbraith demonstrates that there is a remarkable disinterest among the well off about the plight of the indigent. They will go to their leisure second homes in their fancy convertibles while potholes abound, access to health care is blocked, restrictive covenants reinforce racial segregation, and public schools make a mockery of education in rundown urban areas. Galbraith sought to lay bare the plethora of disparities plaguing our economy, albeit he did not do a good job of elucidating resolutions to these problems.
Michael Harrington attempted in The Other America to Improve upon Galbraith’s depiction of our bifurcated economic results by opening the door to the lives of the poor. After reading Harrington’s book, it is nearly impossible to misconstrue the two nations that comprise our democratic republic. Some criticized Harrington for implying the inevitable development of a culture of poverty among the poor—which at the time had a white face in our media outlets. The salient thing growing out of his book is the initiation of a “war on poverty,” which became a hallmark of the Johnson Administration, in retrospect, despite Pres. Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War.
Because of the economic recession and the development of the so-called new poor, there has been a barrage of articles and books about the weakened economy and the widening and enormous gap between the rich and the poor. It is overwhelming to keep up with them all! What follows is a sampling of four books whose authors approach poverty in interestingly multifarious ways.
The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives, by Sasha Abramsky, takes a passionate look at the poor today that is reminiscent of Harrington’s work five decades earlier. The book, out in September, seeks to capture not only the sociological elements of scarce resources, but also the psychological dimensions comprising the experiences of the poor: their emotional and decision-making processes. He does a valiant job in portraying their hardships and elucidating the choices they make that, from the outside, may appear irrational, ill advised, and/or fatalistic. It would be difficult for folks to come away from these descriptions based on firsthand interviews with a disinterest that does not impel them to seek to mollify their circumstances and to identify ways to change the system that would eliminate structures, processes, and policies disadvantaging millions. They will be chagrined, however, to discover that Abramsky himself is short on bona fide solutions to the intricate complexities of poverty and the impoverished. That is to say, Abramsky shows how the political system is in disrepair and ineffectual in redressing either the causes or the multiple and cumulative effects of poverty. Clearly, he sees the need for the resurgence of War on Poverty programs to make available and more easily accessible emergency funds and services for the poor. What is not so lucid is pinpointing effective reforms that transcend these necessary entitlements in order to alter business as usual and make radical, regulatory changes in the economic system that disables the licentiousness of the capitalist market from widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots. His attempts at resolution are from within the current system and not as a gadfly promulgating a fundamental reordering of our nation’s priorities. Nevertheless, though short on revolutionizing our political economy, The American Way of Poverty has the potential of fostering a fervent solidarity with and compassion for the poor that parallel the prescriptive programmatic skirmish against poverty found in his Harrington’s seminal work of 1962.
Another book on the horizon that may add to Abramsky’s intriguing panorama is the work of Rutgers law professor, David Dante Troutt, The Price of Paradise: The Costs of Inequality and a Vision for a More Equitable America. This text, out in January of next year, interweaves constitutional, societal, and multicultural influences that adversely affect the middle class. Woe is me! Although there are hints of a Kingian revolution of values and restructuring that redistributes the nation’s wealth, it, too, does not suggest an essential remaking of the social, political, and economic milieu that is sorely needed for the poor find the catapults of justice, equilibrium, and fair and equitable participation in the body politic. Perhaps, I digress.
The three remaining works that address the issue of poverty are quite different from one another. Jerry Z. Muller’s The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought speaks to the structuralist in me that welcomes the chance for a new economic system to find roots here. Muller surveys the historical landscape that homes in on the ethics of the capitalist system according to major recent figures in Western civilization: the likes of Hegel and Marx as well as their antecedents such as Hobbes and Voltaire. As Muller exposes the perspectives of these men, he divulges a dyspepsia towards the marauding juggernaut of capitalism that is admittedly refreshing. Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, winners of the Action Against Hunger Humanitarian Award, penned the groundbreaking Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty. Interestingly, for those of us in Iowa, the authors lift up the “Father of the Green Revolution” and the 1970 Nobel Peace Prizewinner, Norman Borlaug. This book focuses on the policies that have stripped the poor’s ability to procure food for themselves and their families. The moral vitality of this work is reminiscent of Ronald Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. The authors cannot condone any given reasons for hunger as legitimate: they are mere excuses that confuse the role countries should play in empowering, undergirding, and helping to resource those who are poor. We are able, in their investigative research, to eliminate starvation inasmuch as we dwell amidst a surfeit of nutritional food. In a sense, in the final book, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo, we come full circle. The authors are able to explain the effects of poverty on people’s psyches as well as to point to places where programs have improved the level of indigence across the world. Their approach is rather deliberative; they believe there is sufficient evidence to think carefully about the characteristics of those in poverty and to respond to their researched needs to develop policies and programs that are relevant, specific, and consequential. There is no doubt in their minds, after fifteen years of intense research, that bringing together policymakers, researchers, advocates, activists, philanthropists, and the poor themselves can wipe this unnecessary scourge from the face of the earth!
I concur. Reading these texts and engaging in public discourse should help us in our efforts to effectuate the best possible society.