Ending Poverty in America: How to Restore the American Dream

Ending Poverty in America: How to Restore the American Dream


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John Edwards puts a seminal issue back on the map, presenting blueprints for ending poverty in America.

"This is one of the great moral issues of our time. The day after Katrina hit, new government statistics showed that 37 million Americans live in poverty, up for the fourth year in a row."—Senator John Edwards

Is poverty a fact of life? Can the wealthiest nation in the world do nothing to combat the steadily rising numbers of Americans living in poverty—or the 50 million Americans living in "near poverty"? Senator John Edwards and some of the country's most prominent scholars, businesspeople, and community activists say otherwise.

Published in conjunction with one of the country's leading anti-poverty centers, Ending Poverty in America brings together some of America's most respected social scientists, including William Julius Wilson, Katherine S. Newman, and Richard B. Freeman, alongside journalists, neighborhood organizers, and business leaders. The voices heard here are both liberal and conservative, and tackle hot-button issues such as job creation, schools, housing, and family-friendly social policy.

The contributors explain why poverty is growing and outline concrete steps that can be taken now to start turning the tide. In a political landscape seemingly bereft of daring and forward-thinking ideas, this new book lays out a path toward eliminating poverty in America—a template for a renewed public debate for an issue of intense urgency.

Contributors include: Jared Bernstein, Anita Brown-Graham, Carol Mendez Cassell, Richard Freeman, Angela Glover-Blackwell, Jacob Hacker, Harry Holzer, Jack Kemp, GlennLoury, Ron Mincy, Katherine S. Newman, Melvin Oliver, Dennis Orthner, David Shipler, Beth Shulman, Michael Stegman, Elizabeth Warren, William Julius Wilson.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781595581761
Publisher: New Press, The
Publication date: 04/02/2007
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.38(w) x 9.34(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

John Edwards is the former director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. He practiced law for twenty years before serving as a senator from 1998-2004 and running for vice president in 2004. He holds an Alumni Distinguished Professorship at UNC. Marion Crain, the director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, is the Paul Eaton Professor of Law at UNC. Arne L. Kalleberg is a Kenan Distinguished Professor of Sociology and the Senior Associate Dean for Social Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences at UNC.

Read an Excerpt


Connecting the Dots

David K. Shipler

Since September 11, 2001, we have been told that if only we had connected the dots, we might have foiled the plot. To fight terrorism, it seems, we have to draw lines among scattered facts until a complete picture emerges.

The same is true of poverty. To understand it and to fight it, we have to connect the dots. The far-flung problems that burden an impoverished American — housing and health, transportation and debt — may seem unrelated to one another, but they are all part of a whole, and they interact in surprising ways. Each element of vulnerability is worsened by the entire whirlwind of hardship.


The federal government defines poverty very simply. If you were a single parent with three children and earned $19,874 in 2005, you were poor. If you earned a dollar more, you were not. Naturally, working families at the bottom know very well that getting out of poverty is more complicated than showing a passport and crossing a frontier.

Poverty is not just income, and using a year's income as the only index is like portraying a complex life with one still photograph. You may catch the essence, or you may miss the full ebb and flow of suffering and struggle. Poverty is not just income.

Copyright 2006 by David K. Shipler.

Poverty is also debt. The wealthiest 10 percent of the country's households had an average net worth in 2004 of $3.11 million, according to the Federal Reserve, up 6.1 percent from 2001. But the poorest 25 percent, whose assets equaled their debts in 2001, dropped to a net worth of minus $1,400 in 2004. In other words, they owed more than they owned.

I met such a man while researching my book The Working Poor: Invisible in America. His name was Willie Goodell. While he was unemployed and without medical insurance, he never saw a dentist, so whenever he got a cavity and a tooth ached, he went to an emergency room. If you show up with an emergency, hospitals are required by law to treat you, but they can also bill you, so Willie ran up $10,000 in debt that he could not pay. Even after he got a roofing job, whose wage put him above the poverty line, his credit report was so bad that he couldn't get a phone installed. Such is the way of debt, a burden of the past carrying a hard history into the present. It restricts the future by draining off options, stifling choice, and sapping a person's power.

Poverty is a sense of powerlessness, often a learned helplessness in which choices seem absent. Today's decisions appear deceptively small, without long-term consequences. The timeline of planning is relentlessly short, with little room for imagining that a deed done now will have benefit much later. A poor person on the edge of crisis is trapped in a perpetual moment of acute fragility.

Poverty is relative. A Vietnamese farmer who owns a water buffalo to plow his few acres of rice paddy is not poor in Vietnam. But a Mexican farmworker paid by the bucket of cucumbers he harvests, and crammed with five other men into the concrete cell of a miserable barrack in eastern North Carolina, is poor in America.

The working poor stand on the margins of an affluent society looking in, unable to enjoy the comfort to which they contribute. The single parent with three children, working a full 40 hours a week for 52 weeks a year, must earn $9.55 an hour to stay at the poverty line. This does not happen in many low-skilled jobs, no matter how essential to the economy they are. And so the man who washes cars does not own one. The assistant teacher cannot afford to put her own two children in the day-care center where she works. The woman who files canceled checks in the back room of a bank has a balance in her own checking account of $2.02.

The working poor harvest sweet potatoes in time for Thanksgiving. They cut trees in time for Christmas. The fruits of their labor are in our lives every day, yet we rarely see them. Even when we encounter them face-to-face stocking shelves in Wal-Mart or checking us out at the supermarket, we do not see them as whole people, and we surely do not see them as poor. They are hidden in plain sight, to borrow a phrase from Edgar Allan Poe.

The reason for their invisibility is that they wear their jobs like camouflage, blending into the American Dream, the American Myth, which holds that anyone who works hard can prosper. It is such an important myth in defining what we imagine to be our reality that Richard Wright called it "the truth of the power of the wish."


A society's myths are often valuable, as is this one about the American Dream. It is useful because it sets a high standard, a lofty goal to which we aspire. And the gap between the goal and the reality is a gap that most Americans yearn to close. That is a noble yearning.

The myth has a judgmental side, however, for if it is true that anyone who works hard can prosper in America, then it must also be true that anyone who does not prosper does not work hard. So this myth is a coin with two sides: one an ideal, one a condemnation.

Alongside the myth stands the antimyth, which holds societal institutions, not individuals, responsible for poverty. The failures of public schools, private enterprise, and government programs line up to thwart even the most persistent ambitions of those who begin life as poor. So holds the antimyth.

The myth and the antimyth parallel the conservative Republican and the liberal Democratic sides of the debate over poverty. This is a sterile game of blame. Conservatives tend to see individuals and families as responsible for their own predicaments; liberals often fault the private sector and government alone.

But real people do not fit comfortably into such neat boxes. I've had trouble finding poor folks whose own behavior has not contributed something to their hardships: having babies out of wedlock, dropping out of school, doing drugs, showing up late to work or not at all. Yet it is also difficult to find behavior that has not somehow been inherited from the legacy of being badly parented, badly schooled, badly housed in neighborhoods where the horizon of possibility is so near at hand that it blinds people to their own potential for imagination.

Conservatives have their pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, the internal individual and family dysfunctions, and liberals have theirs, the external failed institutions. Imagine if, in this age of political stalemate between the extremes, conservatives who care and liberals who dare to listen would each bring their pieces of the puzzle to the table and assemble them all together. Then they would have a full picture of the problems of poverty. You cannot solve a problem without defining it, and if you don't allow yourself a complete definition, you will never approach a thorough solution. Connect the dots.

In the 1950s anthropologist Oscar Lewis popularized the term "culture of poverty," which has since been twisted into an epithet used by the Right to absolve the society of responsibility for the poor. But I don't think that poverty is a culture. It is not an array of rituals, mores, and values passed down from generation to generation. It is, rather, an ecological system of interactions among individuals and families, on the one hand, and on the other, the environment of neighborhoods, housing, schools, government programs, and the private economy. Altering this ecology of poverty is not easy, but it is also not impossible.


When asthma attacks brought an eight-year-old boy repeatedly to the pediatrics department of the Boston Medical Center, doctors prescribed the usual steroid inhalers, but they doubted that the treatment would work, for they knew from the mother that her apartment had a leaky pipe and wall-to-wall carpeting, perfect for mold and dust mites, features of poor housing that studies show can trigger asthma attacks. And in this case the boy was missing so much school that he was falling behind; the mother was missing so much work that she risked being fired.

A nurse wrote a letter to the landlord asking that the carpeting be torn up and the pipe be repaired. There was no reply. So a lawyer at the pediatrics department called the owner twice, and presto! The pipe was fixed and the carpet removed. The boy improved, and the mother saved her job.

The Boston Medical Center now has five full-time attorneys in its pediatrics department. As doctors have learned that lawyers can help treat disease caused or worsened by conditions of poverty, the idea has caught on, and nearly 40 clinics in the country now use attorneys.

Housing is a key link in the chain reaction of hardships that afflict poor families. Lisa Brooks, who was a single mother when I met her, lived through a domino effect of startling difficulties, one after another, that began with the interaction between her bad housing and her son's asthma.

She was just 24, but she wore weariness on her face as if every year of her young life had been multiplied by her ordeals. Paid $8.21 an hour as a caretaker in a group home for mentally ill adults, she was covered by medical insurance. But she couldn't afford to save anything; every dime that came in went out. When she had to move into a drafty wooden house, her son's asthma grew worse.

Twice, when he couldn't breathe, he had to be rushed by ambulance to the hospital. For reasons that Lisa was never able to unravel, her insurance paid for the emergency room but not the ambulance charges, which amounted to $240 one time and $250 the next. Lisa could not pay them either, not all at once, so they went on her credit report.

With that bad credit rating, she was denied a mortgage to improve her housing by purchasing a mobile home. When her old car died (she needed one to get to work), and a dealership ran a credit check, it came up so negative that the salesman said that he couldn't offer her a car loan. So she ended up at a sleazy used-car lot that didn't check her credit but charged her 15.747 percent interest on a loan. A low wage thus led to a bad house, to a sick child, to a poor credit rating, to a car loan with exorbitant interest. Connect the dots.

Housing, then, is more than a place to live. In a perverse way, it can also contribute to malnutrition. Many low-wage working families without government subsidies — no public housing, no Section 8 vouchers that help pay private landlords — have to spend as much as 50 to 75 percent of their incomes on rent. In a tight, high-rent housing market there is no way families can economize to squeeze that part of their budget. They have to pay the rent, they have to make the car payment, they have to pay for auto insurance, electricity, telephone. These bills come due relentlessly, and the penalties for deferring them are unacceptable.

The part of the budget that can be squeezed is for food. If you spend time in malnutrition clinics, as I have, and you talk to parents who bring in their underweight, developmentally delayed children for treatment, you will quickly discover that virtually all of them are struggling on the private housing market, without subsidies. They are skimping on food because they don't have enough cash, the food stamps they may get are inadequate, and they are not earning enough in wages to sustain their children adequately.

There are other reasons for malnutrition, including the junk-food inventories of stores in poor neighborhoods, inadequate knowledge of what foods are nutritious, allergies that cannot be avoided because parents cannot stock and test a variety of foods, or work schedules that shuttle children among multiple caregivers who don't monitor a toddler's intake. High rents loom especially large, however: a 2005 study of nearly 12,000 low-income households in six cities found an increased incidence of underweight children in families without housing subsidies.

Malnutrition that occurs in the last trimester of pregnancy or the first two or three years of childhood can cause lifelong cognitive impairment. Longitudinal studies have found that even if children get proper nutrition later, the early deficit does lasting damage. That, in turn, affects school performance and life opportunities. Older children who go to school hungry do not do well either. "Learning is discretionary," says Dr. Deborah Frank, head of the Boston Medical Center's malnutrition clinic, "after you're well-fed, warm, secure."

I asked youngsters in inner-city schools what percentage of the time they did not understand what the teacher was saying. Their answers were shocking: 25, 50 percent. I wondered how those children could bear spending hours every day, days every week, weeks and weeks every year sitting in classrooms where half of what was said was not getting through. There would be no pleasure in learning, no joy of discovery or mastery, no sense of competence. Who would stay in school after years of such an experience? Is the high dropout rate any great surprise?

There are many reasons that children drop out besides cognitive impairment and malnutrition. But it is important to see the interactions and to recognize that as the federal government plans to reduce housing subsidies even further, malnutrition and school performance are bound to worsen. Connect the dots.


Internal obstacles often seem insurmountable to folks in poverty, and chief among them is a corrosive sense of incapacity. If you have failed in school, failed in relationships, and failed in job after job, you don't suddenly expect to succeed.

One evening, at a halfway house for recovering drug addicts within sight of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., a group of men talked among themselves about their search for jobs. They were tough. They had survived the crack wars in Washington. Many had lived on the streets. A few had been in prison. Yet the emotion they talked about feeling as they looked for work was fear. They were afraid to apply. They were afraid of being asked about their police records. They were afraid of being rejected. And a couple even said that they were afraid of being accepted into jobs they did not think they could do.

At a couple of Los Angeles housing projects that had job-placement programs, I asked staff members what obstacles faced the residents. All put "fear" near the top of the list. People in the projects wanted to work, but they wanted jobs with the Housing Authority inside the projects. They were afraid to go out into the larger working world whose customs and procedures they did not know. The projects were centers of gang and drug activity (I was advised not to interview there after dark), but that is where residents felt most comfortable.

The best job-training programs aim to repair these internal disabilities. At one center I met a woman then living in a homeless shelter, who asked that I call her "Peaches." She had been terribly abused as a child in a foster home, had bounced from one violent man to another, and thought so little of herself that when she had to steal food to survive, she said, she never thought to take anything good like a steak. She figured she was worth nothing more than a package of bologna.

Many of the trainees in the center, run by a Washington, D.C., Catholic organization called So Others Might Eat, arrived barely able to conduct aconversation. They looked at the floor; they mumbled. But over several months remarkable transformations took place. The training was calibrated to give each person at least a small success every day, to treat the full range of handicaps, to teach not only the hard skills of reading, math, and computer mastery, but also the soft skills of self-esteem, personal interaction, anger management, and work ethics. Slowly, slowly, the eyes came up off the floor, the voices gained clarity, and most people began to believe in themselves. They often ended up with respectable jobs that had potential for advancement.

Some hard-nosed employers and politicians scoff at the touchy-feely notion that self-esteem needs to be cultivated, but I believe that it has an impact on job performance. After hearing employers complain repeatedly about low-wage workers not showing up on time, not showing up at all, and not calling when they were out sick, I put the problem to Ann Brash, a brilliant woman who grew up in the middle class and fell into poverty after a divorce. Ann had an unusual perspective on the syndrome of destitution, and she had a perceptive observation on this point. "People who don't call when they can't come to work probably don't think they're important enough to matter," she said.

Among the most severe disabilities mentioned by women I interviewed were the results of sexual abuse. The question that usually triggered the stories was a simple request to tell me about their childhoods. More often than not, they said that they had been abused by their fathers, their stepfathers, their mothers' boyfriends, or the older siblings in a foster home. Sometimes the accounts would come in the first interview, sometimes not until the second, third, or fourth. To these women, the experience of abuse seemed a central explanation for the kind of life in which they now found themselves.


Excerpted from "Ending Poverty in America"
by .
Copyright © 2007 author.
Excerpted by permission of The New Press.
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Table of Contents

Title Page,
Chapter 1 - Connecting the Dots,
Chapter 2 - Economic Mobility in the United States: How Much Is There and Why …,
Chapter 3 - The Vanishing Middle Class,
Chapter 4 - The Great Doubling: The Challenge of the New Global Labor Market,
Chapter 5 - The Risky Outlook for Middle-Class America,
Chapter 6 - Single Mothers, Fragile Families,
Chapter 7 - A New Agenda for America's Ghetto Poor,
Chapter 8 - Up and Out: When the Working Poor Are Poor No More,
Chapter 9 - Making Work Pay,
Chapter 10 - Education and Training for Less Affluent Americans in the New Economy,
Chapter 11 - Reducing Wealth Disparities Through Asset Ownership,
Chapter 12 - Assets for All: Toward Universal, Progressive, Lifelong Accounts,
Chapter 13 - An Affordable Homeownership Strategy That Promotes Savings Rather …,
Chapter 14 - The Role of the Entrepreneur in Combating Poverty,
Chapter 15 - Why We Should Be Concerned About Young, Less Educated, Black Men,
Chapter 16 - A Hopeful Future: The Pathway to Helping Teens Avoid Pregnancy and …,
Chapter 17 - Public Schools: Building Capacity for Hope and Opportunity,
Chapter 18 - Top-Down Meets Bottom-Up: Local Job Creation in Rural America,
Chapter 19 - Fighting Poverty with Equitable Development,
Conclusion: Ending Poverty in America,
About the Editors,
About the Contributors,
Copyright Page,

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