By THOMAS B. EDSALL
In her presentation on Sept. 7 at a symposium on inequality at Yale, Alice Goffman, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, talked about the winter of 2011-2012, which she spent living in Detroit among the very poor. Goffman described some of the effects of extreme poverty by quoting the words of a Detroit resident to whom she gave the pseudonym “Marqueta”:
Your fingers get slow, you know, your whole body slows down. You can’t really do much, you try to put a good face on for the kids, but when they leave you just keep still, keep the covers around you. Almost like you kind of fold into the floor. Like you’re just waiting it out. You don’t really think about too much.… November your stomach is crying at you but by December you know, you start to just shut down…. Around 3 you get up for the kids. Put the space heaters, so they come home and it’s warm in here.
There are further manifestations of the suffering on the east side of Detroit, according to Goffman:
The cold, hunger, and the depression that accompanies them both, makes for a certain moral relativism. Lots of people have written about what people become willing to do under conditions of uncertainty and extreme duress. Sailors who are lost at sea, or people in war. By the end of Detroit’s winter people become willing to do to things that they would not have considered in the more plentiful months. Like stealing, or selling their bodies.
Underneath the statistics, hidden behind the desolation of the poor in the poorest big city in the United States, lies one of most intractable political dilemmas of our era: Can the Democratic party, the party of the left, address issues of poverty and want in today’s political environment? For example, can they talk about hunger?
Hunger has grown sharply since the financial collapse of 2008, although it is felt acutely by a relatively small percentage of the population. In 2007, 12.2 percent of Americans experienced what the Department of Agriculture describes as “low food security,” including 4 percent who fell into the category of very low food security. By 2011, the percentage of those coping with low food security rose to 16.4 percent, and those experiencing very low food security went up to 5.5 percent.
The U.S.D.A. defines “low food security” as a lack of access “at all times to enough nutritious food for an active, healthy life.” It defines “very low food security” as individuals going without or with very little food “at times during the year because the household lacked money and other resources for food.”
Looked at through the calculus of contemporary partisan politics, the U.S.D.A. data demonstrates that in 2011 low food security was a problem for just under one in eight whites — a matter of concern but for many white voters, a virtually invisible issue. Very low food security affects the lives of only one in 24 whites.
For African Americans, low food security is a problem affecting one in four, and one in ten experience very low food security. The percentage of Hispanics who experience low food security is higher than the percentage of blacks, although the percentage of Hispanics suffering very low food security is slightly lower.
Here is the 2007 U.S.D.A. data broken down by race and ethnicity:
And here is the parallel data for 2011:
The issue of hunger sheds light on the broader politics of poverty.
Democrats have concluded that getting enough votes on Nov. 6 precludes taking policy positions that alienate middle-class whites. In practice this means that on the campaign trail there is an absence of explicit references to the poor — and we didn’t hear much about them at the Democratic National Convention either.
Republicans, in turn, see taking a decisive majority of white votes as their best chance of winning the presidency. The 2012 electorate is likely to be 72% white, according to a number of analyses. In this scenario, Republicans need to get at least 62 percent of the white vote to win, and Democrats need to get 38 percent or more of the white vote.
Elijah Anderson, a sociologist at Yale and the author of several highly praised books about race and urban America, including “The Cosmopolitan Canopy,” organized the symposium. When I asked him about the Democrats’ problems in addressing poverty, Anderson wrote back in an email:
Apparently, the Republicans have backed the Democrats, and President Obama in particular, into the proverbial racial corner. It is a supreme irony that Obama, the nation’s first African-American President, finds himself unable to advocate for truly disadvantaged blacks, or even to speak out forthrightly on racial issues. To do so is to risk alienating white conservative voters, who are more than ready to scream, “we told you so,” that Obama is for “the blacks.” But it is not just the potential white voters, but the political pundits who quickly draw attention to such actions, slanting their stories to stir up racial resentment. Strikingly, blacks most often understand President Obama’s problems politically, and continue to vote for him, understanding the game full well, that Obama is doing the “best he can” in what is clearly a “deeply racist society.” It’s a conundrum.
The issue of race helps to explain another development in academia as well as in the public debate: the near abandonment of the once powerful tradition of exposing the exploitation of the poor.
Matthew Desmond, an assistant professor of sociology at Harvard, another speaker at the Yale symposium, described the extensive history of landlords, lenders and employers profiting from the rent and labor of slum dwellers. Desmond posed a question:
If exploitation long has helped to create the slum and its inhabitants, if it long has been a clear, direct, and systematic, cause of poverty and social suffering, why, then, has this ugly word — exploitation — been erased from current theories of urban poverty?
Instead, Desmond argued, contemporary urban poverty research
pivots upon the concept of a lack. Structural accounts emphasize the inner city’s lack of jobs, social services, or organizations. Cultural accounts emphasize the inner city’s lack of role models, custodial fathers, and middle-class values. Although usually pitted against one another, structural and cultural approaches share a common outlook: that the inner city is a void, a needy thing, and, like supplies lowered into the leper colony, that its problems can be solved by filing the void with more stuff: e.g., more jobs, more education, more social services.
This approach, Desmond contends, results in the misjudgment that proposals to lessen poverty by raising the minimum wage or improving welfare benefits would be sufficient. Not so, says Desmond, who spent months exploring evictions of the poor — white and black — in Milwaukee: “In a world of exploitation, such an assumption is anything but obvious.”
When Desmond began his Milwaukee fieldwork, he
wondered why middle- and upper-class landlords would buy and manage property in some of Milwaukee’s roughest neighborhoods. At the end of my fieldwork, I wondered why they wouldn’t. As Sherrena [Tarver, the pseudonym of one of the landlords he spoke to] would tell me the first time we met, “The ’hood is good. There’s a lot of money there.… A two bedroom is a two bedroom is a two bedroom. If it’s nice enough, and the people are O.K. with their living arrangements, they’re gonna take it. They are at our mercy right now. They have to have a place to stay.
At the height of the housing collapse, Tarver saw an opportunity. “This moment right now,” she told Desmond, “it’s going to create a lot of millionaires. You know, if you have money right now, you can profit from other people’s failures. … I’m catching the properties. I’m catching ‘em.”
Desmond backs up his argument — that cash transfers to the poor get siphoned off by landlords — with evidence from his study of evictions:
If Milwaukee evictions are lowest each February, it is because many members of the city’s working poor dedicate some (or all) of their Earned Income Tax Credit to pay back rent, the majority paying steep fees to receive early payments through refund anticipation loans. The E.I.T.C., it would seem, is as much a benefit to inner-city landlords and H&R Block as it is to working families. In fixating almost exclusively on what poor neighborhoods lack, social scientists and policymakers alike have overlooked a fact that never has been lost on landlords: that there is good money to be made by tapping into the riches of the slum.
Desmond makes the case for the elevation of
the concept of exploitation to a more central position within the sociology of inequality. For who could argue that the urban poor today are not just as exploited as they were in generations past, what with the acceleration of rents throughout the housing crisis; the proliferation of pawn shops, the number of which doubled in the 1990s; the emergence of the payday lending industry, boasting of more stores across the U.S. than McDonald’s restaurants and netting upwards of $7 billion annually in fees; and the colossal expansion of the subprime lending industry, which was generating upwards of $100 billion in annual revenues at the peak of the housing bubble? And yet conventional accounts of inequality, structural and cultural approaches alike, continue to view urban poverty strictly as the result of some inanity. How different our theories would be — and with them our policy prescriptions — if we began viewing poverty as the result of a kind of robbery.
Desmond’s presentation raises another question: How different would the nation’s politics be if either party, or at least the Democrats, added the concept of economic exploitation to its repertoire?
Not only would doing so risk inflaming the issue of race, but it would put at risk existing sources of campaign finance on which both parties are dependent. The finance-insurance-real estate sector is the single largest source of cash for the Democratic Party, $46.3 million in the current election cycle, and for the Republican Party too, at $67.7 million.
This dependence on moneyed interests effectively precludes exploitation as a theme for either major party to develop. These sources of campaign cash would dry up if they became the target of policies or positions they found threatening.
Even as polarization poses more sharply defined choices to the voter, pressing issues remain off limits. Poverty and hunger have been dropped from the agenda. The range of policy and electoral choices remains confined to what fits comfortably into a world of muted ethical concern, a world in which moral relativism has permeated society not so much from the bottom up, as from the top down.
The unshackling of moneyed interests — in the name of first amendment rights — from restraints on campaign contributions has, in fact, constrained the free speech of the disadvantaged. It empowers those whose goal is to hinder consumer-protection legislation, to forestall more progressive tax rates and to quash populist insurgencies.
This skewing of the odds in favor of the rich comes at a time when the Democratic Party is already inhibited by accusations that it likes to foment “class warfare” and to play “the race card.” The result has been a relentless shift of the political center from left to right. The two most recent Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, have pursued agendas well within this limited terrain. There is little reason to believe that Obama, if he wins in November, will feel empowered to push out much further into territory the Democrats have virtually abandoned.