Shuttered shops and vanishing jobs: a closed-down restaurant in Arkansas © Jim Goldberg/Magnum Photos

Scars and stripes: the horror of US poverty

Deprivation is felt everywhere. But nowhere in the well-off world is it so tragically normal as it is in America 
May 10, 2023
The Forgotten Girls: An American Story
Monica Potts (RRP: £20)
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Poverty, by America
Matthew Desmond (RRP: £25)
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It’s a funny thing for me to say immediately after publishing an edited volume about Britain’s desperate poverty crisis, but it could be worse. Consider just two tales drawn from two new books on the penury that lurks amid American opulence.

In Poverty, by America, Matthew Desmond, a sociologist who has previously taken an anthropological approach—moving into a trailer park for a close-up view of the problems covered in his 2016 book, Evicted—writes about his former roommate, Woo. He “stepped on a nail one day in a run-down duplex apartment we used to share in Milwaukee, ignored the injury because he couldn’t afford to pay it any mind, and lost his lower leg when the infection, accelerated by his diabetes, threatened to take all of him”. Meanwhile, journalist Monica Potts, in The Forgotten Girls, tells of her second-cousin George in Arkansas, who “moved out of his trailer—which was easy, since he owned nothing, and started hiking through the woods… He apparently slept out there.”

Don’t get me wrong. The reporters whom we sent out to interrogate contemporary Britain for Broke (reviewed here) certainly uncovered both neglected disease and rough sleeping. But the former fell heavily on those in the grip of addiction, the latter on those our immigration system deliberately makes destitute to try to drive them away. In the rich world, only in America is it routine for established citizens to see life and limb threatened due to a lack of medicines or other basic means of survival. America also stands out for having experienced such a prevalence of premature mortality before the pandemic that in some years—for all the miracles of modern medicine—death was actually beginning to strike younger across the nation as a whole.

With both the NHS and our social safety net in dire straits, you could argue that dispatches from a land that has neither might serve as a warning of where we are heading unless we change course. Indeed, as austerity ground on in the 2010s, official statistics registered that women in poorer parts of England had started dying somewhat earlier. Among the uneducated white women of smalltown America, however, this average decline is not measured in months but in terrible leaps of four or five years. Suicides, alcoholism and drug overdoses—the infamous “deaths of despair”—account for much of this, but not all: at the rough edges of American life, more hearts and lungs are simply giving out. Something nasty is getting deep under the skin. 

A senior reporter at the nerdy stats website FiveThirtyEight, Potts is in full command of the numbers, but handles them lightly in her book. As she writes, “Words like malaise and despair hint at stories that can’t be told with data and statistics.” Uncovering those stories is a personal mission for her because they are the tales of her own family, of the home town she fled in rage, and—above all—of her childhood best friend, Darci, a similarly bright kid who got stuck there and suffered all the consequences. 

The book is arranged around tales of their intertwined 1980s and 1990s childhoods; their severed connection around the turn of the millennium; their chance reconnection in 2015; and then the pieced-together reconstruction of their divergent fortunes in between. Monica had made a break for the elite Bryn Mawr women’s college in Pennsylvania, while Darci remained in Arkansas with its bad jobs, bad men, bad housing, opioids, crystal meth and—eventually—an unforgiving criminal justice system. 

As a frame for exploring character, circumstance and destiny, it’s perfect—and deployed with unflinching candour. Witness Potts’s meticulous answer to Darci’s uncomfortable question about the book, which makes the latter’s ruined life into the former’s great professional project: “Will [readers] know we’re best friends?”

“We didn’t have the push and pull of best friends, nor the honest conversations. We didn’t read the same books or watch the same movies,” Potts concedes of where they’ve stood in recent times, “I had sometimes avoided her, to save myself frustration and pain. Yet I’d never had a better friend than Darci, not one with the same uncomplicated closeness… We were friends because we had once been friends, because the strong connections young children forge can stay locked in place forever. Your life bends around that bond, keeping it intact. Darci knew my deepest wounds.” 

All this rings poignantly true, after we have seen rich portraits of both girls emerge through recollections of sleepovers, of flicking through Judy Blume books for the racy bits, of giggles in the Gifted and Talented class, of New Kids on the Block gigs, of early sexual encounters, of secrets kept and shared, of small but mighty acts of betrayal and loyalty in school playgrounds and corridors. I originally felt I needed to read this book to find out what was killing working-class Americans, but before long—despite the grim subject matter—I wanted to read it, too. I felt that I knew Darci, and flicked the final pages in the small hours desperate to find out where she had landed. 

In the rich world, only in America is it routine for established citizens to see life and limb threatened due to a lack of medicines or other basic means of survival

There is the most tremendous sense of place as well as character, as Potts details the shuttered shops, the vanishing jobs and the literally shrinking sidewalks—proper pavements being one casualty of public squalor—in Clinton, Arkansas. (There isn’t a single mention of the world-famous Arkansan of that name, who rose to the presidency in the years covered, but did nothing durable to arrest the decline of such places, instead conspiring with the Republicans to “end welfare as we know it”.) Like John Steinbeck on the Dustbowl and Robert Caro on the Texan Hill Country of Lyndon Johnson’s boyhood, Potts describes how the American Dream came crashing down with special force on arid soils that were never meant to be farmed and settled, and never successfully were, save for a few passing decades between presidents Roosevelt and Reagan, when the federal government provided not only cheap “frontier” rhetoric, but also meaningful resources. 

In the contemporary American “poverty canon”, The Forgotten Girls nestles between JD Vance’s bestselling 2016 midwestern memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, and 2020’s Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, by Anne Case and Angus Deaton, the economists who first highlighted the shocking recent rise in deaths among middle-aged uneducated whites. Potts matches the horrors of Vance, whose mother had threatened to kill him, and whose grandmother set fire to his grandfather; towards the end, I realised I’d lost count of even the toll of childhood deaths in the families of Darci, Potts and their circle. But she marshals these tragedies towards very different conclusions to Vance, whose emphasis on self-reliance over “learned helplessness” have now meshed with his ambitions to make him a Republican senator of Trumpian leanings. By contrast, and despite the biographical nature of her endeavour, Potts is more interested in the way society conspires to narrow the choices that shape lives than she is in individual psychology.

Distilling the same remorseless decline in working-class life from her own community’s story that Case and Deaton uncover in decades of wage data, Potts diagnoses a “particularly American disease” that lets “more and more people down” in material terms while misconstruing problems such as Darci’s addictions “as a personal moral failing”. This individualistic account, she contends, misses the clear link with societal conditions—and the prescription medicines dished out to answer them.

Potts is well versed in, and gloriously sceptical of, the vast social-scientific literature that makes an elixir of university study: its writers have “the highest level of education,” and so find “explanations” that “put themselves on the winning side of that equation… tempting”. In truth, much higher education is about certificating and entrenching advantage. Brute luck often matters more than merit.

I wasn’t quite convinced by Potts’s protestation that Darci’s fate could have been hers—a palpably conscientious disposition surely helped her rise—but she revealingly describes how a chance call to a college administrator and a sample essay whose subject touched a nerve with an admissions tutor opened up summer schools and scholarships she’d otherwise have known nothing about. Conversely, a headteacher’s harsh response to Darci’s absences at a difficult time denied her the chance to graduate with her class, catalysing an “identity crisis” that became a fateful unravelling. Such are the unforseeable curses and flukes that shape working-class destinies. To deny this, and insist instead that people freely forge their fortunes, is a damaging delusion: the “flip side of American independence is a tendency to abandon people to their fates”. 

In Poverty, by America, Desmond is also out to debunk a “hard-wired belief in the meritocracy”, which many progressives imagine confuses America into conflating “material success with deservingness”. Not Desmond. It would be absurd, he says, to point at “housekeepers with skin peeling from chemicals or berrypickers who can no longer stand up straight” and think they’re “stuck at the bottom because they are lazy”. The “I’ve worked hard to get where I am” shtick of America’s have-a-lots is bad faith: they well understand that “untold numbers of poor people have worked hard to get where they are, too”. The “rudest” but only plausible reason why such rot is indulged, along with an obscenely unjust status quo, is because “we like it”.

These lines, especially that punchy last “we”, give the flavour of a sizzling 189-page editorial that is about poverty but not “about the poor”. Instead, it is aimed squarely at the “other other half”, at those (sometimes “us”) who prosper at their expense. He takes on right-wing finger-jabbers, fixated on feckless paupers, but also hand-wringing leftists “fluent in the language of grievance and bumbling in the language of repair”, who trade in abstractions, not immediate concrete choices. “Serious grown-ups,” he says, are always wont to “shush” those who look at injustice and “with the brutal clarity of a brick through glass, express a deep moral truth”. But he isn’t going to be put off: he’s the son of a pastor, a man who gets into chest-poking arguments about tax dodgers in restaurants. Like the anti-slavery agitators of old, he opens the eyes of the prosperous to how today’s economic system is rigged in their favour, and asks them to become “poverty abolitionists”. 

© Mark Power/Magnum Photos © Mark Power/Magnum Photos

What the American way of business means for its victims is made vivid: the two amputations per week in meatpacking plants; the free Advil and Tylenol dispensing machines in Amazon warehouses; the return of hookworm, a parasite that thrives in broken sanitation. The twist, however, is the emphasis on the perks enjoyed by the winners, and not just the super-rich either, but the middle managers whose pension pots contain Walmart stocks that rise in line with its freedom to commodify staff, and the lawyers whose buy-to-let properties yield steadier returns when landlords are allowed to turf tenants out at will.

These uncomfortable insights inform Desmond’s hunt for solutions to a poverty problem that, he demonstrates, isn’t too big to fix. The cumulative shortfall of incomes below the poverty line was, in 2020, only $177bn: Americans throw away food worth more than that each year. Under the (admittedly optimistic) assumption that policy could target money precisely, it follows that poverty could be abolished for less than 1 per cent of national income. Washington could just redirect the resources spent on perks for wealthy and middle America: tax-deductible mortgage interest ($25bn plus); earnings caps on social security contributions ($65bn); favourable treatment of dividends and capital gains ($37bn), and so on. (An equivalent list in the UK would include tax-free gains on family homes, pension lump sums and council tax rates that rise less than proportionally with property values.)

A sprinkling of anecdotes from past travels and a childhood where his mother “used to post-date cheques, floating our family between paydays” keep the human interest alive. But this is not a volume of reportage: it is a book-long argument. Like Potts, Desmond draws on the research lightly, never drowning the passion in detail. But exhaustive endnotes provide an authoritative underpinning, and give chapter and verse on his shattering facts. To take a few examples, there are more impoverished Americans than there are Australians in total; more than 5m Americans are absolutely poor by the standards used in India or Bangladesh; and 3.6m “eviction filings are taped to doors” annually—an order of magnitude more than in Britain, even after allowing for the five-fold difference in population.

Desmond opens the eyes of the prosperous to how today’s economic system is rigged in their favour, and asks them to become “poverty abolitionists”

The only frustrating thing from a European point of view is the emphasis on the peculiar official US poverty line. Set at three times the cost of meeting basic nutritional needs 60 years ago, and since pegged to general (not food) inflation, it is now an entirely arbitrary income line. In evolving societies, the exact price adjustments steadily become contentious: mobile phones, for instance, become cheap and ubiquitous, and yet, as Desmond says, “you can’t eat a cellphone”. There are also US-specific disputes about counting things such as Medicaid as income, leading to a plethora of alternative measures, all discussed in the notes. But had Desmond used a straightforward, European-style relative low-income measure, he would have registered not a “long stasis” in poverty rates, but a rise since the 1970s

Parts of both books may also strike Europeans as being shaped by contemporary American polarisation. It sometimes feels as though Potts defines herself against the oppressive religious right. She acknowledges research that has correlated church-attendance and positive outcomes for individuals, yet blames Darci’s mother’s staunch faith for engendering a fatalism that helps to sink her daughter. She mentions a half-empty church car park in her hometown without the context of a nationwide collapse in church membership, context that at least raises the question of whether—as in poor and previously religious parts of the UK such as the Welsh valleys—religious decline has fed a wider withering of community.

Then there is race. A singular degree of segregation tracing back to specific housing policies makes America a special case. The question is so fundamentally intertwined with poverty that the two issues are sometimes regarded as one and the same. The disadvantage is staggering: Desmond reports that lifespans for poorer African Americans are “similar to [those] of men in Pakistan and Mongolia”. The nuance, however, is the distinction between a big problem and a growing problem—the worst recent slide in fortunes, albeit from a better starting point, is among the white working-class. When Desmond quotes polling that suggests a two-thirds decline since 1990 in the proportion of Americans who presume Black people are lazy, he emphasises the stubbornly racist minority not the rapid dwindling of their number. Perhaps the unending need to confront Trump-style denial of racism makes it difficult to discern any progress. 

But such quibbles are marginal. In different ways, both these books wake the world’s most powerful country up to its most important problem. Desmond’s electrifying pen cuts through the usual evasions and exposes the “selfish”, “dishonest” and “sinful” pretence that poverty is a problem that America cannot afford to fix, rather than one it chooses not to. For her part, Potts reveals the human toll in a masterly labour of love.