Thinking On: The Impoverished & Isolated

Kate Starr, Heron’s head of capital deployment, shares lessons and thoughts on how the American experience of poverty has changed from the recent past, and reminds of the ancient past.

I attended a book talk at the Open Society Foundations this week on “The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives” by Sasha Abramsky, and gained new insights into a problem that we at the Heron Foundation think about every day.  Here are a few:

1. Abramsky uses Michael Harrington’s “The Other America: Poverty in the United States” published 50 years ago as a starting point for a contemporary inquiry. Harrington described seven pockets of deep poverty—including Appalachia, the Delta, Native American reservations, inner cities across the country. Yet now we have a landscape—urban, suburban, rural—rife with poverty camouflaged behind the veneer of overleveraged homes, cars, and post-secondary education.

2. Abramsky talked a lot about material poverty—sharp hunger and dilapidated housing—but he also raised the specter of a poverty of experience. Because of many people’s diminished economic participation, they often are deprived of the means to mingle with friends, neighbors and strangers—the social activity that leads to participation in the democratic process. We’ve traded the geographic isolation of poverty from 50 years ago for a pernicious social isolation that compounds the material suffering of more and more Americans.

3. Missing from the talk was mention of private enterprise and its role as employers of and producers for the populace. With this omission, Abramsky constrains the resources available to address this major divide and leaves it to government and philanthropy. He’s not the only one. I realized maybe it’s this sense of deprivation of resources for the problem that drives so many government and foundation programs to utilitarian solutions. It also could be the reason that so many givers give up on the United States and take their money to countries like Bangladesh or Tanzania where their money goes farther.

Abramsky concluded with a reminder about the Roman caste system and the humiliores who were the only persons in the Empire that could be subjected to crucifixion.  Poor people in the United States, with low incomes and even less cash, are subjected to a daily litany of humiliations as they scrounge for non-cash supports such as food stamps, Medicaid, and transit vouchers. Our modern society suddenly feels terribly ancient.

Read more reflections from Heronites on aspects of our work and many the reasons we do it.

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