The overwhelming perception of poverty in America is one of inner city black and brown people living off public assistance. This deeply rooted narrative doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the life experiences of the majority of the individuals in question.
In recent decades poverty has migrated to suburbia. That shouldn’t be surprising since we’ve built nothing but tract homes, strip malls, and office parks out along America’s highways for the last sixty years. Most people of every kind now live in suburban communities. The suburbs are also aging – not all of them well. As income inequality continues to rise there are winning and losing suburbs as more prosperous people migrate to better zip codes.
The statistical reality is that most poor people in the United States are, and always have been, white. The greatest number live outside of dense urban centers in suburbia and the countryside. Most adults living at or near the poverty line have jobs – often more than one. Ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented among the poor compared to whites and concentrated poverty in big cities is more visible. But the overall poor population is white and non-urban.
The average voter thinks of poverty as something that happens to people who live somewhere else and who don’t look like them or share their values. Consequently public policy devolves into a series of incoherent stop gap half measures. What we think of as government assistance to the poor is actually public money that goes directly to landlords, grocery stores, and medical providers in the form of vouchers and debit cards. These are subsidies to large powerful interests that use the poor as a conduit to access public revenue streams.
Many people who find themselves living hand-to-mouth without a permanent address don’t identify as poor or even homeless. They may have lost their home to foreclosure. They may have been evicted from their apartment. Creditors may have seized their bank accounts and garnished their wages. They may be living in a car or RV. And they may be scraping by on very little income even though they work a great deal. But they don’t see themselves as poor. Instead, they imagine they’re still middle class folks who have been robbed of their proper place in society. Their instinct is not to fight for the poor because those are “other people.” To admit that you’re poor in America is to include yourself in a class of people who are deemed unworthy and irrelevant.
No one should be surprised that the middle class is in decline and that the working class is devolving into intractable poverty. The trend for the last few decades has been to radically devalue labor by relocating production to low cost destinations and to automate humans out of the business model entirely.
Decades of exclusionary zoning, minimum lot sizes, minimum home sizes, prohibitively complex building codes, and the proliferation of HOAs and NIMBYs have made small affordable entry level homes and modest rentals illegal almost everywhere. Our de facto national housing policy of drive-till-you-qualify suburban development works well enough for people with an education and a professional salary. It fails the working class entirely and that’s by design. The poor are intentionally filtered out. If you can’t afford a nice house and at least one car you’re just not wanted unless you commute in for the day to cut the grass and mop the floors.
Having a job or two does no good if the money you’re paid is insufficient to cover basic expenses. Raising the minimum wage to $15 or $20 an hour only encourages employers to automate and outsource even more agressively. Having a Section 8 voucher and an EBT card (food stamps) doesn’t equal a meaningful life if you’re not engaged in the larger culture and economy. Building cheap tract homes and garden apartments out on the far edge of the metroplex only burdens the working class with the need to own a car to get to insecure no-benefit low-wage jobs.
The wealthy will cherry pick the nicest areas along the lakes, near the country club, and on the hills with the best views. But a large number of not-so-great poorly aging suburbs are already in the process of becoming slums. The definition of a slum is a collection of properties that has less value than the cost of minimum maintenance. I see this all over the country from coast to coast.
We’re not going to resolve these complex structural problems voluntarily. Our current trajectory will bring an ever greater bifurcation of society into haves and have-nots, particularly as Artificial Intelligence rapidly innovates its way into white collar occupations. The middle class will be squeezed even harder and we need to be prepared for the social disorder that will result. The existing political establishment isn’t capable of addressing these issues. Instead, the old systems will fail and be replaced with a new set of arrangements. We could pull together as one people with common goals, or we might splinter and dissolve into a fractured police state. My guess is we’ll do a little of each…