Jun 16, 2023 7 min read

We Can End Poverty

Original art depicting tree, fruit, winding road, community, transformation, in grays, blues, golds.

Vol. 1, No. 5

That is a bold statement on a Friday afternoon. This newsletter may not completely convince you, but I'd like to share three good reasons to believe.

I just finished reading Matthew Desmond's amazing new book, Poverty, by America. Matt makes a clear case that in a land of such plenty, it is within our collective power to end poverty across the US. That is a bold premise, and he not only tells us why it is important but how it can be done. Learn more in the READINGS section of this newsletter.

Vicki Meath and her team at Just Economics, in Western North Carolina, are working every day to combat poverty and to build economic justice across the communities in their region. There is so much to learn from their example. My discussion with her was so encouraging. It reminded me that we can make smaller changes while advocating for and working toward more comprehensive change. We don't have to wait. Listen to or read the text of our discussion by following the links in the FROM OUR PODCAST section.

How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world. – Anne Frank

For us to end poverty in the U.S., more of us must get proximate to the reality of poverty, build stronger empathy and understanding for our neighbors, and find within ourselves the moral outrage and courage necessary to insist on and contribute to the necessary systemic changes. In short, as discussed in Episode 44, Inclusion Starts Here, we have to be willing to wake up, listen up, open up, speak up, and step up. In this issue's LEARNING SPOTLIGHT you can read about simulation as one type of learning tool and how being part of a local Poverty Simulation taught me so much.

Until the great mass of the people shall be filled with the sense of responsibility for each other's welfare, social justice can never be attained. - Helen Keller

FROM OUR PODCAST - Just Economics

Vicki Meath, and her team at Just Economics, are working to build an economy in Western North Carolina that works better for everyone. In this episode, we learn about the creative and practical steps they are taking toward economic justice. If you are working on economic justice, equity, or inclusion in a smaller city or rural community, this episode is for you. If you're part of a community where state and local policies aren't friendly to economic justice, inclusion, or equity, this episode is also for you. Join us as we learn how Just Economics is leading and empowering change in the communities they serve.

Image of Guest Vicki Meath and a quote from the transcript.

LISTEN OR READ NOW • 30 min read, 48 min listen

LEARNING SPOTLIGHT - Poverty Simulation

I open the envelope and read the description of my role for the afternoon.

I am a young single mother with three young children and an elderly and disabled father living with us. I’m the only one in my family working and do not currently have a bank account. Per the instruction sheet, I must use the small collection of tokens provided for transportation whenever I go anywhere - to the grocery store, the drugstore, or the local check cashing office. My three children are young enough that they must always be supervised, or I am reminded that I risk being reported and having my children taken from me.

As the afternoon progresses through round after round of the simulation and envelope after challenging envelope, my tradeoffs become more and more difficult. Finding a way to balance competing needs of work, school for the children, and family needs, all with no regard to my own needs, requires every bit of creativity we can muster. My young children should not have to worry over the challenges of survival, but we are a team, and survival requires all of us to pull together, and a wrong step by any one of us can send the game spinning out of control.

At some point in the afternoon, I am nearly broken, and things have become virtually impossible. My heart is racing; I’m sweating and feeling near panic. I realize I don’t have enough cash to pay our rent and purchase my father’s medicine. One child has been suspended and taken by juvenile justice for being involved in a disruption at school. I have one last transportation token to go and attempt to extricate him from the justice system, but no transportation tokens to use for our return trip. To even try this, I will have to leave the two smallest ones at home with my father, who is in no shape to care for the children. I was more than grateful when the facilitator blew the whistle bringing my role in the poverty simulation to an end.

Beyond Stereotypes

Sometimes, we may have trouble seeing and relating to our neighbors’ lived experiences. Stereotypes and social messaging can be so strong that we cannot suspend judgment and cynicism enough to understand and recognize the challenges many face, even those close to us. We do not understand how barriers, scarcity, and daily struggles can alter even our own decision-making and priorities. One way to achieve a deeper level of understanding and awareness is through participating in simulations. Whenever I engage in one of these simulation sessions, I’m surprised by how quickly we all step into our new roles and begin to feel and behave in ways we think we might never do. Through these experiences, we have a small moment to better empathize with our neighbors and move beyond stereotypes.

Words of Caution

When well-designed and well-facilitated, the ah-ha moments keep coming throughout these kinds of sessions. Organizations across the country are skilled at leading poverty simulations, simulations of community re-entry experiences for those returning from prison, and other simulation techniques such as SIMSOC (simulated society). Because of their potential for harm or to act as triggers for some, simulations should always be optional for participants as well as carefully designed, tested, and facilitated. Still, they offer powerful learning opportunities.

Sign in and leave a comment about this spotlight on the related post at The Inclusive Community site.

FROM OUR READINGS - Poverty, by America

I just finished reading Matthew Desmond’s most recent book, Poverty, by America. If you want to better understand poverty, what makes it so pervasive and persistent in the U.S., as well as ideas about what we could all do, this book is for you. Read it. Share it. In fact, today, I’m writing this from my notes because I’ve already shared my copy with a friend.

Desmond has well established his strengths as an ethnographer and social researcher through his work on evictions, including his groundbreaking book Evicted and the subsequent creation of the Eviction Lab to help communities and policymakers across the country to discover new facts about how eviction is shaping your community, raising awareness and working toward new solutions.

In this new book, Poverty, by America, Matt Desmond shows how, as a country, our understanding of and our approach to addressing poverty is flawed but flawed in a uniquely American way.

Early on, Desmond lays out the central question of the book:

Why is there so much poverty in America, a land of such abundance, and why has our poverty level remained essentially unchanged since the 1960s?

In answering this question, his book isn’t just an analysis, a research treatise, or a book of facts, even though there are plenty of great analyses, references, and data. Desmond goes beyond facts to let us feel his moral outrage when he shares early in the book what he feels is the answer to those central questions:

Poverty is a choice we are all making. In our country of abundance, poverty exists because some wish and will it to.

It felt as if he was speaking directly to me or to someone like me, a white person of some privilege. It felt like he was telling me that poverty is a choice that I am making, and it exists because I will it to continue. At that point, there was no way for me to close his book and look away.

Then, it was if he was reading my mind, our country's collective minds, and listening to all of our possible arguments. Matt leads us through a series of chapters and searing analyses that disabuse us of whatever excuses we might offer.

  • We spend so much on our welfare system and social safety net. We’re spending more than ever. We’re already giving too much. We can't afford more.
  • It’s because of immigration and immigrants taking jobs and burdening our system.
  • It’s the breakdown of the family and single parents.
  • It's lazy and dependent individuals.

He covers each of these and more. In the end, we realize there are no excuses. We understand that none of the excuses we make or hear are the real reasons poverty persists in a land of plenty.

Next, Matt shows us just how we all perpetuate poverty by:

  • Exploiting workers and subsidizing low pay through government programs.
  • Forcing the poor to pay more and feeding off of their poverty.
  • Hoarding opportunity through economic class disparities that lead us to private opulence and public squalor.
  • Spending on a welfare system that operates as a leaky bucket into which we pour more and more money yet, by design, give the most help to those who need it the least.

Thankfully, Desmond then shares ideas about what we can collectively and individually do, such as:

  • Lifting the economic floor by rebalancing the social safety net
  • Empowering the poor by reigning in exploitation
  • Investing in broad prosperity by turning away from all forms of segregation

Desmond doesn’t stop there; he goes on to help us envision a new world without poverty. He reminds us that poverty will only end when a nationwide mass movement demands it. He calls on us to be poverty abolitionists.

Every person, every company, every institution has a role in perpetuating poverty – and ending it.

If you've interested, you might also want to listen to this interview and panel discussion with Matt Desmond, hosted by the Urban Institute. Whether you read the book, listen to the interview or both, please make time to sit with the ideas Matt shares and to reflect on what we can and must do to be a part of the solution.

Sign in and leave a comment about this reading on the related post at The Inclusive Community site.

Thank you for joining us at The Inclusive Community, a newsletter produced by State of Inclusion. If you're interested in building a more inclusive community and world, I'm sure you know others who are too. Please share this newsletter with a colleague or friend.

Each one of us can make a difference. Together we make change. -Barbara Mikulski
Ame Sanders
Founder of State of Inclusion. A seasoned leader & change-maker, she is focused on positive change within communities.
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