Acclaimed journalist Sasha Abramsky gave a talk titled “The American Way of Poverty” at the McCune Conference Room Tuesday afternoon, with his presentation honing in on the epidemic of poverty in present-day America.
Hosted by the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center (IHC), Abramsky’s talk discussed the meaning of poverty and the way inequality has grown while social mobility has decreased in America. It also focused on how poverty has shaped modern society while exploring potential solutions to the problem.
An accomplished journalist and lecturer, Abramsky’s writings have appeared in journals and magazines such as The Nation, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone and The Atlantic, amongst other publications. Apart from his work as a writer, Abramsky is a part-time lecturer in the University Writing Program at UC Davis. He is also a fellow at New York City-based Demos, a United States research and policy center. His most recent work, American Way of Poverty: How The Other Half Still Lives, reflects a belief that the death of the American dream is a direct result of the current American system.
To begin, Abramsky told the story of Mary Vasquez, a 67-year-old telephone operator for Walmart. Abramsky said the woman was a cancer survivor and had faced heart attacks, diabetes, high blood pressure and spinal problems.
“She was on her feet all day, and after taxes and all the other deductions were taken out of her paycheck, she would bring in less than $1,800 a month. She was basically at the poverty line,” Abramsky said. “And I said to her, ‘You’ve got diabetes and all these other health problems; you’re supposed to eat properly, aren’t you?’ And she said, ‘Yeah.’ And I said, ‘Well, what can you afford to eat?’”
According to Abramsky, Vasquez could only afford an 88-cent TV dinner from Walmart — and this was on a good day.
Following the anecdote, Abramsky went on to highlight his perception of the U.S. government’s failure to address the problems facing Americans such as Vasquez. Abramsky said the government response has “proven to be utterly inadequate.”
“In the case of Vasquez, the government, for years and years and years, just stood by the sidelines, as large companies scandalously underpaid workers,” Abramsky said. “They stood and ignored a situation whereby Walmart, McDonald’s and many other large companies basically told their employees to make ends meet.”
Abramsky said part of the reason for the growing number of Americans in poverty is the government’s failure to provide preventative measures and adequate safety nets.
“Risk that used to be borne by society is now being borne by individuals. Risk that used to be borne by corporations, are now being borne by workers,” Abramsky said. “The consequences are dramatic. In 2014 America — nearly 50 million Americans — one-in-six Americans lives at or below the poverty line.”
Later, Abramsky discussed education and said many people believe that education is a way to move up in society, but flaws in the education system are one of the major reasons for growing inequality. Abramsky referred back to the Great Recession, noting that the K-12 system, particularly in California, faced increased class sizes. According to Abramsky, the quality of education declined and multiple courses were no longer offered.
“And it wasn’t just the K-12 system,” Abramsky said. “Everybody in the university system ended up paying more, the risk shifted onto the backs of individuals and one of the consequences was that student debt soared. There is now more student debt in this country than there is credit card debt.”
Toward the end of his talk, Abramsky spoke on multiple ways that the public could contribute to reducing poverty. According to Abramsky, these contributions and ideas stem from preliminary but practical discussion.
“We could, for example, have a sensible conversation about taxation … or we could have a conversation about the minimum wage,” Abramsky said. “What about a conversation about social insurance for higher education? … You can create viable social insurance systems that would make higher education essentially free.”
This story is a Daily Nexus online exclusive.