Sasha Abramsky: Still fighting the war on poverty

In his new book, “The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives” (Nation Books, $26.99), journalist Sasha Abramsky interviews a couple unable to qualify for Medicaid because of the monetary value of the burial plots they bought to avoid being buried in a pauper’s cemetery one day. Stories like this one, collected during road trips across the United States, highlight the deep economic inequality that still pervades the country 50 years after President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. In his book, released in September, Abramsky, who grew up in London and now lives in Sacramento, introduces readers to the people he calls the “invisible” poor and offers solutions for a second, modern-day War on Poverty.


Jewish Journal: Could you summarize the thesis of your book?

Sasha Abramsky: The idea of the book is that there is a huge number of Americans — tens of millions of Americans — who are living in fairly profound poverty, and that poverty is largely invisible to the broader community. It’s a poverty that is caused not by a lack of resources but by a lack of political will to tackle the crisis. It’s a poverty related to the rise of a peculiarly unequal society in the last 30 years. The poorer you are in that society, the less visible you are, the less political voice you have, the less economic security you have, the more vulnerable you are to any shift … in the labor market, in the housing market, in how health care is delivered. The underlying idea is that these lives, these stories, are worth telling, and that we weaken ourselves as a society if we ignore tens of millions of people just because they’re poor.


JJ: Has your Jewish background inspired the moral message in your book?

SA: I’m not religious. I come from a secular family. … But I think if you look at Jewish ethics over the centuries, you see a tremendous emphasis on poverty. You see a tremendous emphasis not just on charity, which is a starting point, but on social justice and on exploring some of the consequences of unfair systems. 


JJ: Did the interviews you conducted change your thinking about poverty and solutions to the issue?

SA: Yes … what struck me was really the complexity of the story. There are 50 million people, by government measure, who are in poverty in this country. You neither can nor should reduce them to a set of stereotypes. You can’t say this group of people is important for this particular reason and they did this and therefore they’re poor.


JJ: How did you decide whom to interview or which interviews to include in the book?

SA: I wanted people who reflected all these broad entry points into poverty. There are tremendous numbers of working poor who either have been bankrupted or their lives have been made incredibly precarious by medical bills. I wanted to talk to people in food-bank lines. I wanted to talk to elderly Americans who’d lost their retirement savings. … I wanted to go all over the country, or as much of the country as I could, given the time limit of the project.


JJ: Why is it that we have such a serious issue of poverty 50 years after President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty?

SA: Because, I think, for most of the last 40 years it hasn’t been a priority. It became a priority in the early ’60s and remained something of a national priority until the mid-’70s. The language that emerged in the Victorian period re-emerged in the 1980s — this very, very harsh language that blamed poor people for their own poverty. And when you individualize it like that, you lose the momentum acquired for a national strategy. And I think that’s the way that, for a generation now, we’ve been taught to understand poverty.


JJ: Of the solutions you’ve proposed, which ones would you prioritize if you were a political activist?

SA: I propose two things. … One of them is a public works fund that would be very specifically designed to protect employment during economic downturns. … The second thing is a social insurance system for higher education, and it would involve a very small line-item income tax paid by employees and employers, but it would render higher education massively more affordable for most Americans. … Then you can sort of go back in, and there are a whole bunch of smaller things we could do. … We could tax stock trades and bond trades and all the other financial trades that occur. You could use that for financial programs, for job-training programs. You could use it for gas stamp subsidies so rural Americans don’t get into fiscal trouble when gas goes up a dollar a gallon.


JJ: If you were a community activist in a poor community, what would you be doing right now?

SA: There are many things. If I were in a community where there were numerous fast-food restaurants, I’d probably be supporting the fast-food strikers who have been going out on strike in recent weeks campaigning for a living wage. If I were in an area of urban blight, I’d probably be pushing for affordable housing. I’d be campaigning against payday lenders, which have some of the most extraordinary interest rates that they charge to poor people because those poor people don’t have access to credit. I’d be working with community credit unions to try to keep foreclosed people in their homes —  and that’s been done in places like Boston and several other cities. As a consumer, I’d be thinking carefully about where I park my dollars.


JJ: In your book, you talk about the failure of poverty today in terms of the “weakening of collective institutions” and say that this has to do with democracy. What do you mean by that?

SA: If you completely corrode the notion of shared experience, then you corrode the notions of shared economic obligations. You no longer have an understanding that we pay into a tax base in order to get things like quality education or quality transport or quality housing. And if that happens, it becomes easier to delegitimize any defense in the government. Then you say … taxes are just robbery, public services are unnecessary, the social safety net is dysfunctional. You essentially skew more political access to the top, and a democracy involves everyone having political access.


JJ: How do you try to foster a moral response to poverty among the middle class, the upper class and the poor if each group has its own priorities?

SA: I think a lot of it is linguistic. In the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson reached into this history of using empathic language, which in some ways is an ethical religious language that had been marshaled in earlier years against slavery, against women’s suffrage, against child labor. If you can work out ways to create overlap in the experience between wealthy and poor Americans, and if you can work out ways to share common stories and aspirations, you open up a lot of doors.