When Democrat Bill de Blasio campaigned to become New York City’s 109th mayor in 2013, he addressed the class inequality rampant in the metropolis and pledged that, if elected, he’d do what he could to level the economic and social playing fields. “We have the worst income disparity since the Great Depression,” de Blasio told audience after audience, adding that it was unacceptable to allow 46 percent of the city’s population to live at or below the poverty level while the “1 percent,” a total of just 34,500 households in a city of 8.2 million, held one-third of the income reported by residents.
Candidate de Blasio’s focus on ending “the tale of two cities” roused voters and he sailed into office with 73 percent of the vote. But his message, that a huge chasm divides the rich from everyone else, isn’t only applicable to New York City. In fact, as explained in Nashville, Tennessee-based activist and essayist Tim Wise’s new book, Under the Affluence: Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Sacrificing the Future of America from City Lights Publishers, class inequality is a nationwide problem—and it is getting worse every year.
Although Under the Affluence zeroes in on the many ways that the rich are lauded and the poor debased in popular discourse and media, it’s a statistic-heavy book. This is unfortunate, given that people seem to remember stories and anecdotes far more than they recall facts and figures, no matter how upsetting or horrifying they are. Nonetheless, Under the Affluence is an important source of data—bubbling over with hard, footnoted facts—to strengthen readers’ resolve against the escalating inequalities in the United States.
In Section One, “Pulling Apart,” Wise sets the stage with some startling numbers—among them, that a tremendous number of United States residents are presently living in extreme poverty, subsisting on less than $5,500 a year for a single person and $11,800 for a household of four. “As of 2013, nearly twenty million people lived in this state of destitution,” he writes, using a statistic gleaned from the 2014 Current Population Report of the U.S. Census. This, he adds, is an increase of about eight million people since 2000.
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Not surprisingly, kids are disproportionately affected. Wise uses statistics from the Southern Education Foundation to report that since 2013, slightly more than half of public school students have qualified for free or reduced-price meals, the demarcation used by the federal government to designate a child as low-income. All told, he puts the number of impoverished youth at about 15 million, a number taken from the 2014 U.S. Census Bureau.
What’s more, Wise adds that The Global Wealth Databook and research compiled by writer Les Leopold suggest that roughly three in four Americans live from paycheck to paycheck, “meaning that they either have no savings or so little in savings that they could not withstand a layoff or medical emergency.”
Overall, in 2010, the “bottom half,” meaning the 50 percent with the least earned income and fewest assets, owned approximately 1 percent of all national wealth, while the richest 1 percent mirrored what Mayor de Blasio was seeing in New York City: They possessed more than a third of the nation’s assets.
And little has changed, despite claims that the economy is rebounding. Wise points out that the three million people who comprise the U.S. 1 percent saw their incomes rise by more than 30 percent from 2009 to 2013, “largely making up for whatever stock market-related losses they suffered during the recent Great Recession.” On top of this, Wise adds that corporate profits are now at an 85-year high, while “worker compensation as a share of the economy remains at the lowest point in the past sixty-five years.”
More mind-blowing is this tidbit: In 2013, 165,000 Wall Street bankers took home bonuses averaging $162,000 each—almost double the combined take-home pay of the 1.1 million U.S. workers who were then earning the minimum wage, a finding initially reported by the Tax Policy Center.
Are you angry yet?
If not, you’re far from alone; the second section of Under the Affluence, “Resurrecting Scrooge: Rhetoric and Policy in a Culture of Cruelty,” explains that the body politic has been conditioned to accept huge wage differentials and idolize the ultra-privileged, as if they are somehow superior—smarter and better-prepared—rather than luckier or better-connected. The result is that many working-and-middle-class people hunker down as individuals, focusing on improving themselves and their kin, as if that will inevitably lead to material success.
It wasn’t always like this: Wise explains that during the 1930s, people helped one another because they understood that poverty had little to do with gumption or personal frailties and was instead the function of cultural barriers, a theory influenced by preachers and writers of the social gospel. Starting in the 1960s, however, a backlash against two decades of progressive economic policy that culminated with Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society erupted, and resentment toward the “welfare state” conjured images of the “undeserving” demanding a handout.
“Resurrecting Scrooge” further documents the raft of speeches and policy initiatives that fueled this misconception and that presented the poor as morally weak, lazy, and undeserving. Both Democrats and Republicans have been responsible for promulgating these ideas, but in recent years, Tea Party and other conservative activists have led the attacks and Wise chronicles some real doozies that, thanks to Fox News, conservative talk-radio, and the Internet, have spread like wildfire. There’s Rush Limbaugh, who has likened the poor to wild animals who have forgotten how to hunt because they are fed by keepers. There’s Ann Coulter, who has insisted that “welfare” creates “generations of utterly irresponsible animals.” Lastly, let’s not forget Bill O’Reilly, who apparently thinks that anyone who receives welfare, food stamps, or federal aid should be publicly shamed for their needs.
Still other conservatives, including lawmakers and policymakers, are what Wise calls poverty deniers. They argue that “America’s poor are fabulously wealthy by global standards and thus should essentially stop complaining; second, that the poor buy expensive food with their SNAP benefits and have all manner of consumer goods in their homes, which means they aren’t poor in any sense that should cause concern; and third, that large numbers of welfare recipients commit fraud in order to get benefits, and then misuse the benefits they receive.”
Obviously, this is hogwash. Shocker alert: The average food stamp recipient receives $133 per person, per month (less than $1.50 per meal), so is unlikely to buy anything gourmet. In addition, Wise concludes that no one receiving assistance is living like a Kardashian: When it comes to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, average monthly grants amount to $387 per family.
Still, when lawmakers pass legislation to bar TANF recipients from using their benefits on “psychics, tattoos, or lingerie”—as recently happened in Kansas—it promotes the idea that recipients squander their grants on frivolities and stupidity.
Wise makes clear that this portrayal is intentional, meant to fuel resentment and rivalries between those who get “something for nothing” while others toil. Whether the buzz is around the so-called culture of poverty or social dependence on benefits programs, the impact is the same—it stokes anger, dividing would-be-allies along race, class, and gender lines, and limiting solidarity between people who could and should support each other. It also deflects attention from the rich, who are, more often than not, making out like bandits thanks to tax breaks, income shelters, and subsidies.
Wise lays out these factors in stark terms, but also contends that it does not have to be this way. In fact, he’s amazingly optimistic, arguing that we can build a society that is more just and loving.
First up, he writes, is contesting the idea that the United States is a meritocracy: that if you work hard, success will automatically follow. The fact that this has worked for many notable people—think Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, and Bill Clinton—has allowed the idea to flourish, but Wise urges his readers to challenge this and demonstrate the racial, gender, ethnic, and religious biases that have limited many other meritorious people from rising. “Only by directly confronting the myth of meritocracy—indeed the very idea what the United States is, at present, a land of unfettered opportunity—might progressives build the kinds of coalitions needed to truly replace a culture of cruelty with a culture of compassion,” he offers.
Similarly, he points out the fallacy of the idea that some women and men are self-made—people who, by dint of character, have triumphed. This myth, too, needs to be trampled. Wise urges each and every one of his readers to acknowledge the help we’ve received—whether from a mentor, a scholarship, a subsidized school loan, welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, or other forms of aid. In addition, he prods us to call out racism and sexism, and be wary of the ways they are typically used to split us and keep us unorganized.
Under the Affluence does not provide concrete policy proposals—a road map to construct a new “war on poverty.” Some may see this as a weakness, since it will require us to do the hard work of planning and strategizing for solutions to economic injustice. Still, the book is an essential compendium of numbers, one that will prove useful in strategizing to end inequality and arming readers with the facts they need to tackle these seemingly intractable problems. Overall, the book is an impassioned and heartfelt defense of the poor that is rooted in the idea that America can, as Wise says, “crawl from under the affluence to a place more equitable.”