Poverty Isn’t Gravity: An Interview with Colleen Shaddox and Joanne Goldblum

The barriers to eliminating poverty in the U.S. aren't technical or economic - they're deeply political.

Living under capitalism, it is not necessarily surprising that almost half of people in the U.S. can’t always meet their basic needs: water, food, housing, health care, and more. After all, these needs are also commodities, and if people cannot afford to purchase private goods, they go without. The pandemic has only exacerbated the problem, though according to Joanne Goldblum and DSA member Colleen Shaddox, the authors of Broke in America: Seeing, Understanding, and Ending U.S. Poverty, it has also made people more amenable to solutions once seen as impossible.

Still, for all the proposals to give families with children money (which may not even be made permanent—more on that later), there are policies in place designed to denigrate poor people and blame them for their poverty. Until that narrative is destroyed, poverty will still be considered, and most importantly, legislated, as a personal problem instead of a resource problem.

Joanne and Colleen recently sat down with Socialist Forum to discuss how ending poverty is actually quite simple: through the redistribution of resources. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Socialist Forum: You published Broke in America in February of this year, right in the middle of the pandemic. How did you both come to write this book?

Colleen Shaddox: I always wanted to write about social justice. I hadn’t grown up around poverty. I thought that it was hidden from the world and that if people saw they would just make things better, right? I became a journalist and started writing about these issues, and was told by a boss that I wrote too many stories about poor people, [that] it just kills us in the suburbs. So, I quit and started doing work supporting nonprofits and doing freelance reporting on the subjects I cared about. And along this path I met Joanne. Joanne was doing really interesting work, first at The Diaper Bank and now at the National Diaper Bank Network, that addressed poverty in a way that other people just weren’t. She was addressing it as a resource problem as opposed to a character deficiency. And as we got to be friends over the years, Joanne kept saying we should write a book. And she finally wore me down.

Joanne: It’s funny because we had mostly finished the book before the pandemic. We had a conversation with the publisher who sort of was like, “Well, do [you] want to add a chapter?” And we declined to do that because we really wanted to say this is not a product of extraordinary times. This is a product of ordinary times. And we felt like it was really important to focus on that.

Colleen: It’s amazing how little of the book we had to change. We went through it again after COVID, because we were in the middle of this economic disaster—but all the conditions had been there forever.

Could you talk about how you define poverty and then describe what causes poverty in the U.S.?

Joanne: The way that we define poverty for the purpose of this book is purely just not being able to afford to meet your basic needs. When people can’t afford housing and food and water—that’s poverty. I think that what causes it, the short answer to that is there’s a gap between what us Americans make and what it costs to live. And there are lots of ways to address that. We have lots of possible answers to that, right? It can be raising wages, it can be lowering costs of commodities, it can be universal basic income…there are lots of possibilities. What we know is that working doesn’t pay, and it doesn’t pay enough to live a life where you can meet your needs.

Colleen: I also think it’s really interesting that that is not the definition that we use in the United States. The federal poverty line is so low that welfare agencies regularly accept people who are making twice the federal poverty level for assistance, as they’re considered low income. We’ve tried to define poverty so narrowly as a nation that it doesn’t look like a big problem. And that’s just not the case.

Joanne: Right. We try to define our way out of poverty instead of actually ending poverty.

An agency accepting 200% of the poverty line is like an admittance that the poverty line is not adequate.

Colleen: And everybody knows that. It wouldn’t be hard to change. The federal poverty line was developed in 1963 when food was a much larger percentage of your basic expenses than it is now. The federal poverty measure is based on a calculation that multiplied the cost of the government’s cheapest food plan in 1963 by three, as people spent about a third of their income on food back then. Now they spend about a tenth of their income on food. This measure has only ever been updated for inflation. Right now, the federal poverty threshold for a family of three is $20,852. It hasn’t made sense for decades.

You outline how poverty keeps people from accessing basic needs: water, food, housing, utilities, transportation, hygiene, and health. But basic needs are seen as consumer goods in the U.S.

Joanne: As a country, we don’t really consider them basic needs because if we did, they would be rights. We don’t treat them as rights. We treat them like luxuries: water, diapers, and tampons.

Colleen: Look at the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which of course we have not signed. It calls things like water, housing, and food rights. And [as a country] we’re not on board with that. We do think that these things are optional and that you have to somehow deserve them. So poverty is baked in.

It brings to mind how companies can make money by things like water being commodities. And the housing market is another conversation. If we viewed these things as rights that would take away a lot of profit for some people.

Colleen: Absolutely. The water chapter in the book. Our jaws dropped every day when we were working on it.

Joanne: Colleen and I both feel like we know a lot about what poverty in the United States looks like. But we were shocked by the water chapter.

Colleen: Wells are growing dry, multinational corporations are tapping thousands of gallons a day for like, you know, $200 a year or something.

And you wrote about the water shutoff crisis in Detroit.

Colleen: Yeah. It really seemed like a gentrification move. A number of people in Detroit felt that the water shutoffs were a way to force out low-income African-American families who had lived in the city forever. And it’s hard to argue with that when you look at what’s happening.

It can be easy to talk about how poor people are ignored in our country, but at the same time, they aren’t really, because low-income people provide the services that middle- and upper-income people rely on. What would you say to the argument that this country in its current state couldn’t exist without poverty?

Joanne: I think that you could pay people more to do those jobs and they would still do them. People talk about how they don’t want their tax dollars to go to people—there’s lots of demonization of poor people in the United States. But we’re subsidizing large companies who don’t pay their employees. We’re not giving individuals food; we’re giving McDonald’s the opportunity to not pay their workers living wages.

Colleen: You know, there’s this identification with very high-income people, even among folks whose interests go completely the other way. You have people who would actually be helped by social programs saying, “Oh, that’s for layabouts.” In fact, as a middle-class person, I have far more common cause with people in poverty than I do with super rich folks. When I was born, the marginal tax rate in this country was close to 90 percent. There were still rich people; there weren’t necessarily a whole lineup of people who could afford to blast themselves into space. Economic inequality has gotten worse and worse in this country since the seventies. And that benefits a handful of people. But I think most of us are really hurt by poverty. That’s a message that really needs to get out: that economic injustice is hurting middle-class people too, and we should care about it.

How do you think that we push middle-class people to identify more with low-income people than with rich people at the top?

Colleen: I think that’s a hard battle. Racism plays a huge role in this sort of perverse economic identification we have going on.

I belong to the religious socialism working group within DSA. And this is something that we talk about a lot. We come from all different faith traditions, but we do have this idea of solidarity of common cause of reaching out to people who have less. And I think that that is one avenue, not the only avenue, but I think that’s one avenue to get Americans to take a hard look at their values around wealth and poverty, because they do not jive with any of the major religions. And if you say that religion is a big part of your life, but you’re okay with [poverty and inequality]…religion is not as big a part of your life as you say.

Joanne: It’s why we named the book what we did. [The subtitle is] “Seeing, Understanding, and Ending U.S. Poverty.” A lot of U.S. policy related to poverty is extremely antiquated and very detrimental to the people it’s meant to support. I believe that most U.S. Americans don’t know anything about how entitlements—including people who get them—about how they’re written, what they’re actually meant to do. It’s really important for us to have public conversations about these things. I think that’s one place where Colleen and I differ a little bit. I wish that morality would push people. I’m less convinced that that’s the answer just because I’m less convinced that it moves people, but we go at it from both directions.

Colleen: I do think you’re right that exposing just how bad the social safety net is in this country is helpful. Especially when you look at what people have to go through to get any kind of meager help.

So back to rich people. Billionaires in the U.S. have made more than $2.1 trillion just since the start of the pandemic. And to people of means, whether it’s middle-, upper-middle-class, or upper-class people, it may feel like the pandemic’s ending or is already over, while millions of people are still struggling to pay their bills. Can you talk about the disconnect there? 

Colleen: It’s the disconnect that’s always been there. Before the pandemic, we knew 40 percent of Americans couldn’t meet their basic needs. We often say the pandemic showed the fault lines in the economy, but they were there already. The pandemic has exacerbated what was already there, but we already had the cruelest possible incarnation of capitalism, where there are winners and lots and lots of losers.

Joanne: I also think that it goes back to our taxation system. The fact that we only pay income tax on earned income is in large part what allows wealth to grow at the rate that it’s growing. In the United States, differently than some of the, say, European or Scandinavian countries, we view taxes as something bad as opposed to how you maintain society. For wealthy people, avoiding taxes legally is sport. It’s so complicated and there’s such a business—this isn’t in the book, but the U.S. is one of the few countries in the world where people have to do their own taxes and pay to do their own taxes. In most other countries the government knows what you have, and they just tell you what you owe. And we have this enormous system and lobbyists related to it to keep it going.

Could you talk about our currently anti-poverty policy and how it affects how people view poverty?

Colleen: What has been the case for decades is we provide very modest assistance to a few people for a finite period of time, because we have this conviction that if you make it too easy, people will become dependent. They’ll just stop working. And that’s never been the case. But we have seen some changes come about as a result of COVID that we’re really happy about. [For example] the [expanded] child tax credit (CTC) is great: you don’t have to do something to be worthy of it. [For most families, the expanded CTC payments of up to $3,600 for the year are deposited automatically.] The assumption is that everybody should have the resources they need to take care of their children. And now it’s a big battle to keep it going.

The expanded CTC is in some ways a repudiation of some of these stereotypes that make people jump through all these hoops to get assistance.

Colleen: There’s the Reagan phrase, “the welfare queen,” which is racist and misogynist. That was so successful for him because it captured prejudices that were already guiding American thinking.

Joanne: The policies that are the cornerstones of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF, or cash welfare) have the welfare queen in the policy. There are four tenets to TANF and one of them is to reduce the number of out of wedlock births. Another one of the four is to encourage marriage between a man and a woman. One is to provide for people’s basic needs. And then the fourth is to keep children in their home or relative caregiver situation: it’s a way that you can use TANF dollars for the child welfare system. The fact that that is built in, that it’s the framework, shows us that what the policy is. The language that’s there is that people, women, who are receiving cash welfare are promiscuous. If you have a child while you’re on TANF, [in many states] you can’t get more money. Also the lifetime ban on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called Food Stamps) and TANF benefits for drug felonies. That’s been removed in many states, but in the legislation, it says anyone who’s been convicted of a drug felony can never receive SNAP benefits or cash welfare: not rape, not murder, all good, you can have all the SNAP you need. That is a racist dog whistle.

Let’s talk about the reconciliation framework. Democrats were originally considering a $6 trillion package to expand anti-poverty programs and combat climate change. We’ve seen that whittled down to less than a third of that. And it might not even pass.

Joanne: I was on one hand thrilled by the package, and on the other hand extremely disappointed. I think that it is more than we ever, ever would’ve gotten without COVID. The fact that it was whittled down so much…we’re continuing to have discussions about things that are so basic [such as paid leave]. If you have a child or family member who needs care, [like] when schools weren’t open last year, how can you work if you have a young child at home?

Colleen: The thing that makes me optimistic is that Joe Biden, a centrist Democrat, proposed an economic policy that I liked. I didn’t like every bit of it, but I liked a whole lot of it. It saw poverty as a resource problem, not a personal problem. That was a huge step forward. And I think that he was able to do that because of activists like us who have stood up. He’s been stymied by the coal baron from West Virginia. So I think it really shows that we have to take our democracy back. We’ve got to get rid of Citizens United, we’ve got to get the money out of politics. What Biden was proposing was what most Americans wanted. But their government just does everything it can to wrestle it from them. And we’ve got to fight back.

One cool aspect of your book is that at the end of each chapter you include suggestions for what people themselves can do. We agree that individual actions are not going to be enough. What are some ways that people can build solidarity with movements to change people’s lives for the better?

Colleen: There’s so many. One of the things we suggest is find out what your power base is. What’s your community? Start talking about these issues and organizing around these issues there. You and I are DSA members, that is a great way to do something. The reconciliation agenda would not be what it was if it wasn’t for DSA pressure. We know that. And the other thing I would say is don’t turn up your nose at local action—that can make a huge difference in people’s lives and build power in movements. I am delighted to see DSA members getting elected on the local and state level. It makes a difference today and builds the bench for later on.

It’s good that “ending” poverty is in the subtitle. It implies that it’s a real possibility, if we know what to do, if we can build a different infrastructure through which people can actually get their basic needs met. So what do we do?

Joanne: The truth is—and I don’t mean this to sound flippant—it’s really quite simple. It’s a matter of redistributing and reallocating resources. We know how much it costs to live in the U.S. We know how much money people have. We need to fill that gap. Whether it’s by increasing income or decreasing prices of commodities or some combination of those things. You started the interview talking about how poverty is built in because we have all of these [low-wage] workers—pay them! I am sometimes gob smacked that we continue to have this conversation.

Colleen: The fatalism to some extent—the poor will be with you always—makes it acceptable to us. But poverty is a choice.

Joanne: Absolutely. Poverty is not gravity. We made it; we can end it.