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    A homeless encampment in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

    Poverty Isn’t a Line

    The poor have names and stories.

    By Matthew Desmond

    July 8, 2024
    2 Comments
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    • Edward

      America - land of the free, land of promise??? Billions spent on armaments, space exploration, etc. yet her own citizens what about them? So called "Great" Britain is the same in some respects. But, God Bless the poor more than the (materially) rich.

    • Steven R Garrett

      It's further a cruel - heartless game, a rigged one wherein only the (wealthy & middle) elites reap the benefits. Consider your credit score, and a parallel line tracing the availability of said credit(s).

    Technically, a person is considered “poor” when they can’t afford life’s necessities, like food and housing. The architect of the Official Poverty Measure – the poverty line – was a bu­reaucrat working at the Social Security Administration named Mollie Orshansky. Orshansky figured that if poverty was fun­damentally about a lack of income that could cover the basics, and if nothing was more basic than food, then you could cal­culate poverty with two pieces of information: the cost of food in a given year and the share of a family’s budget dedi­cated to it. Orshansky determined that bare-bones food ex­penditures accounted for roughly a third of an American family’s budget. If a family of four needed, say, $1,000 a year in 1965 to feed themselves, then any family making less than $3,000 a year (or around $27,000 at the beginning of 2022) would be considered poor because they would be devoting more than a third of their income to food, forgoing other ne­cessities. Orshansky published her findings in January of that year, writing, “There is thus a total of 50 million persons – of whom 22 million are young children – who live within the bleak circle of poverty or at least hover around its edge.” It was a number that shocked affluent Americans.

    Today’s Official Poverty Measure is still based on Orshan­sky’s calculation, annually updated for inflation. In 2022, the poverty line was drawn at $13,590 a year for a single person and $27,750 a year for a family of four.

    As I’ve said, we can’t hope to understand why there is so much poverty in America solely by considering the lives of the poor. But we need to start there, to better understand the kind of problem poverty is – and grasp the stakes – because pov­erty is not simply a matter of small incomes. In the words of the poet Layli Long Soldier, that’s just “the oil at the surface.”

    I met Crystal Mayberry when I was living in Milwaukee and researching my last book, on eviction and the American hous­ing crisis. Crystal was born prematurely on a spring day in 1990, shortly after her pregnant mother was stabbed eleven times in the back while being robbed. The attack induced labor. Both mother and daughter survived. It was not the first time Crystal’s mother had been stabbed. For as far back as Crystal can remember, her father beat her mother. He smoked crack cocaine, and so did her mother; so did her mother’s mother.

    Crystal’s mother found a way to leave her father, and soon after, he began a lengthy prison stint. Crystal and her mother moved in with another man and his parents. That man’s father began molesting Crystal. She told her mother, and her mother called her a liar. Not long after Crystal began kindergarten, Child Protective Services, the branch of government tasked with safeguarding children from maltreatment, stepped in. At five, Crystal was placed in foster care. Crystal bounced around between dozens of group homes and sets of foster parents. She lived with her aunt for five years. Then her aunt returned her. After that, the longest Crystal lived anywhere was eight months. When she reached adoles­cence, Crystal fought with the other girls in the group homes. She picked up assault charges and a scar across her right cheek­bone. People and their houses, pets, furniture, dishes – these came and went. Food was more stable, and Crystal began tak­ing refuge in it. She put on weight. Because of her weight, she developed sleep apnea.

    A homeless encampment in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

    A homeless encampment in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Photograph by Charles Edward Miller. Used by permission.

    When Crystal was sixteen, she stopped going to high school. At seventeen, she was examined by a clinical psycholo­gist, who diagnosed her with, among other things, bipolar dis­order, post-traumatic stress disorder, reactive attachment disorder, and borderline intellectual functioning. When she turned eighteen, she aged out of foster care. By that time Crystal had passed through more than twenty-five foster placements. Because of her mental illness, she had been ap­proved for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a government income subsidy for low-income people who are old, blind, or who have a disability. She would receive $754 a month, or a little over $9,000 a year.

    Poverty isn’t a line. It’s a tight knot of social maladies.

    Crystal was barred from low-income housing for two years because of an assault charge she received for fighting in the group home. Even if she had not been barred, she would still have found herself at the bottom of a waiting list that was six years long. Crystal secured her first apartment in the private market: a run-down two-bedroom unit. The apartment was located in a majority-Black neighborhood that ranked among the city’s poorest, but Crystal herself was Black and had been turned down for apartments in the Hispanic and white areas of town. Crystal’s rent took 73 percent of her income, and it wasn’t long before she fell behind. A few months after moving in, she experienced her first official eviction, which went on her record, making it likely that her application for housing assistance would be denied. After her eviction, Crystal met a woman at a homeless shelter and secured another apartment with her new friend. Then Crystal put that new friend’s friend through a window, and the landlord told Crystal to leave.

    Crystal spent nights in shelters, with friends, and with members of her church. She learned how to live on the streets, walking them at night and sleeping on the bus or in hospital waiting rooms during the day. She learned to survive by rely­ing on strangers. She met a woman at a bus stop and ended up living with her for a month. People were attracted to Crystal. She was gregarious and funny, with an endearing habit of slap­ping her hands together and laughing at herself. She sang in public, gospel mostly.

    residents of a homeless encampment

    Photograph by Charles Edward Miller. Used by permission.

    Crystal had always believed that her SSI was secure. You couldn’t get fired from SSI, and your hours couldn’t get cut. “SSI always come,” she said. Until one day it didn’t. Crystal had been approved for SSI as a minor, but her adult reevalua­tion found her ineligible. Now her only source of income was food stamps. She tried donating plasma, but her veins were too small. She burned through the remaining ties she had from church and her foster families. When her SSI was not reinstated after several months, she descended into street homelessness and prostitution. Crystal had never been an early riser, but she learned that mornings were the best time to turn tricks, catching men on their way to work.

    For Crystal and people in similar situations, poverty is about money, of course, but it is also a relentless piling on of problems.

    The job market asks us to start over more and more these days, as well. Half of all new positions are eliminated within the first year. Jobs that used to come with some guarantees, even union membership, have been transformed into gigs. Temp workers are not just found driving Ubers; they are in hospitals and universities and insurance companies. The man­ufacturing sector – still widely mistaken as the fount of good, sturdy, hard-hat jobs – now employs more than a million temp workers. Long-term employment has declined steadily in the private sector, particularly for men, and temp jobs are ex­pected to grow faster than all others over the next several years. Income volatility, the extent to which paychecks grow or shrink over short periods of time, has doubled since 1970. For scores of American workers, wages are now wobbly, fluc­tuating wildly not only year to year but month to month, even week to week. America has welcomed the rise of bad jobs at the bottom of the market – jobs offering low pay, no benefits, and few guarantees. Some industries such as retail, leisure and hospitality, and construction see more than half of their work­force turn over each year. Workers quickly learn they are ex­pendable, easily replaced, while young people are graduating into an economy characterized by deep uncertainty.

    Poverty is the constant fear that it will get even worse. A third of Americans live without much economic security, working as bus drivers, farmers, teachers, cashiers, cooks, nurses, security guards, social workers. Many are not officially counted among the “poor,” but what then is the term for try­ing to raise two kids on $50,000 a year in Miami or Portland? What do you call it when you don’t qualify for a housing voucher but can’t get a mortgage either? When the rent takes half your paycheck, and your student loan debt takes another quarter? When you dip below the poverty line one month then rise a bit above it the next without ever feeling a sense of stability? As a lived reality, there is plenty of poverty above the poverty line.

    And plenty far, far below it. In the land of the free, you can drop all the way down, joining the ranks of the lumpenprole­tariat (literally the “ragged proletariat”). According to the lat­est national data, one in eighteen people in the United States lives in “deep poverty,” a subterranean level of scarcity. Take the poverty line and cut it in half: Anything below that is con­sidered deep poverty. The deep poverty line in 2020 was $6,380 annually for a single person and $13,100 for a family of four. That year, almost 18 million people in America survived under these conditions. The United States allows a much higher pro­portion of its children – over 5 million of them – to endure deep poverty than any of its peer nations.

    Poverty is often material scarcity piled on chronic pain piled on incarceration piled on depression piled on addic­tion – on and on it goes. Poverty isn’t a line. It’s a tight knot of social maladies. It is connected to every social problem we care about – crime, health, education, housing – and its persis­tence in American life means that millions of families are de­nied safety and security and dignity in one of the richest nations in the history of the world.


    From Matthew Desmond, Poverty, By America (New York: Crown, 2023). Used by permission.

    Contributed By MatthewDesmond Matthew Desmond

    Matthew Desmond is a sociologist at Princeton University.

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