Poverty by America, by Matthew Desmond****

“Hungry people want bread. The rich convene a panel of experts. Complexity is the refuge of the powerful.”

Desmond is the author of Evicted, the Pulitzer winning examination of urban homelessness. Desmond himself grew up poor, and his family was forced out of their home when he was a child. These things give him a different and more authoritative perspective than most urban ethnographers.

 My thanks go to Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the invitation to read and review. This book will be available to the public tomorrow, March 21, 2023.

This book is written for a general readership, and it’s more readable than any other nonfiction work I’ve seen on this subject. His tone is conversational, and his research is impeccable, drawing from a wide variety of sources, well integrated and organized. He addresses the past and present roles of racism, explaining how the overtly discriminatory statutes and policies of the past have morphed into more subtly framed, yet still ubiquitous ones of today. He tells us “why there is so much poverty in America and…how to eliminate it.” He speaks to an audience of middle and upper class readers, warning that we must “…each of us, in our own way, [must become] poverty abolitionists, unwinding ourselves from our neighbors’ deprivation and refusing to live as unwitting enemies of the poor.”

In revealing the roots of American poverty, Desmond is thorough. He discusses the role played by medical costs, and the many workers that still cannot afford health care; the withering of unions, and the way that gig workers and independent contractors have replaced permanent employees; incarceration, and the debilitating effects it has, not only on the person sent away, but on their families for generations to come; the way that government assistance programs have been legally diverted to programs having nothing to do with the poor; the way that poor people are forced to pay more for the same goods and services that the better off pay. He discusses the ways that those living in poverty are cut off from political and economic opportunities. He does these things better than anyone else is doing them right now, and it makes me mad as hell, seeing millions of ruined lives all laid out so starkly.

It is when he approaches solutions that things become a little muddy. There are a few of his suggestions that I genuinely disagree with, but most of them are sound; the problem is that, despite his assurance that all of these changes can be made without much incursion into the lives of the wealthy and powerful, the chances of these people agreeing to implement such changes are somewhere between slim and none. He assures us that he is no Marxist (and that’s the truth, alas,) and that the rich can still have plenty; yet in reality, it’s clear to this reviewer that the kinds of changes that are needed are ones that working people will have to force from the tightly closed fists of the rich. This is where the fifth star falls off of my rating.

Nonetheless, Poverty by America is well worth your time and money, and I recommend it to you.

The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair *****

thejungleIt’s not your best beach read, but it’s an important bookmark in the history of American literature.

The second wave of immigrants who came to the USA around the turn of the century (our setting is 1905) came mostly from Eastern Europe. Political turmoil and poverty were the push factors for myriad Italians, Greeks, Slavs, Turks and others who needed to get away, and the still vivid hope of the American dream, the possibility of social mobility unthinkable in Europe, was the pull factor. The Statue of Liberty still meant something back then.

It wasn’t as simple as it seemed, though. One of the primary large cities to which immigrants flocked was Chicago, and one of the chief industries that would offer them work–as usual, work that those born here would not do–was meatpacking. It looked like good money, even after meeting coworkers who had fewer body parts at the end of their tenure at the packing plant than they’d had going in. It was bloody, nasty, inhuman, and heartless, both toward the workers and the animals. And the stuff that landed on the conveyor belt went into the product to be sold at the supermarket, whether it belonged there or not.

I’ll let that sink in a moment.

Sinclair’s novel was intended to be a workingman’s call to arms. Cast off the bonds of wage slavery. Let the people who do the work own the means of production, set the time tables, and divide the spoils. He’d been reading Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, and believed his book would be a revolutionary vehicle. After all, working people read back then, and their attention spans had not been reduccd by the instant gratification that television and video games would later provide. He hoped it would be effective.

It was, but not the way he planned. When Americans read about all of the disgusting stuff that was landing in what they intended to serve for dinner, they revolted, and the Food and Drug Administration was born.

Today, meat packing workers are still among the most injured and the lowest paid, and they are still largely manned by immigrant workers.

The bottom line: read this for its historical importance and its place in American literature, but don’t expect to enjoy the experience. It’s pretty grisly material, but rightly so.