Greenfield Recorder, July 15, 2023
By ANDREA AYVAZIAN
I grew up in a New Jersey suburb until age 9, when my family moved to Saranac Lake, New York, deep in the Adirondack Mountains. Our New Jersey neighbors said we were lucky to be moving to what they called “God’s country.”
Maybe it seemed like “God’s Country” to them, but it was a challenging place to live for an Armenian family — we were viewed as oddballs in our new community. No one knew the history of the genocide by the Turks, or could fathom the fact that my father was a survivor of the genocide. No one could pronounce our name; it seemed as though no one had ever previously met an Armenian.
Another reason our new community in the mountains held us at arm’s length was the class difference. My father was a physicianand my mother was a schoolteacher. Although my father was still paying off medical school loans while I was growing up, we had more income, a larger house, and more luxuries than most of my friends.
Children do not have words to understand class differences. They see and note them, but do not know how to respond or speak about them. And no one helps them, at least back in those days.
I remember going to visit my best friend Arlie and discovering that her family of five lived in a very tiny house. Arlie’s frail grandmother, Mimi, slept in the screened-in front porch that had no heat. Mimi had an enormous pile of blankets on a cot-like bed, and Arlie and I would play among the covers. But often Mimi told us that she was cold. This was the mountains, pre-global warming, and the winters were brutal.
Arlie’s father was the caretaker for the vacation homes of rich people who came in the summer months to enjoy the lakes and mountains. He shoveled snow off the roofs of these homes, made sure the pipes did not burst, and kept a watchful eye on second homes triple the size of his own, year-round home. Arlie’s mother bagged groceries at the local IGA — a good job in a community with little year-round employment.
With Arlie and so many of my classmates, I witnessed the differences in our homes, lives, cars, clothes, leisure activities, and even the number of books in our houses. But I had no words for and no help in understanding what it all meant — how these disparities are baked into a capitalist system, how Arlie’s and my other friends’ families were just as bright and capable as my own, but had been born into low-income families and been trapped in a cycle of poverty that I could not then comprehend.
Memories of growing up in an isolated, rural, depressed community with visible poverty all around came back to me as I read the remarkable new book “Poverty, By America,” by Matthew Desmond, professor of sociology at Princeton University and the founding director of the Eviction Lab.
Delving into history, drawing on extensive research, and adding observations from his own life experiences, Desmond’s book asks several vital questions: Why does the United States, the richest country on earth, have more poverty than any other advanced democracy? And what can we do about it?
How, Desmond asks, can we tolerate living in a land of abundance when one in every eight children live in hunger? How do we quiet our conscience when countless members of our communities live and die on the streets? And how can corporations, decade after decade, pay their workers poverty wages?
In meticulous and painful detail, Desmond explains how middle- and upper-class Americans keep poor people poor — both knowingly and unknowingly. These, he says, are the three most prevalent ways: First, we exploit poor people in myriad ways. Second, we prioritize the subsidization of affluence over the alleviation of poverty. And third, we create and inhabit prosperous and exclusive communities.
But Desmond also offers us a path forward that is concrete and hopeful. Urging us all to become “poverty abolitionists,” he discusses how we can create a shared prosperity.
Desmond advocates not investing in “targeted”or “universal” programs, what he calls a false binary, but creating a “broader, bigger tent” often called “targeted universalism,” which allows aid to flow not just to the poor, but to working class families as well.
“Broader targeting policies have proven to be quite popular over the past several decades,” Desmond writes, “and they’re difficult for Congress to cancel when political winds shift (as happened with cash welfare in the 1990s).”
Desmond also argues that the best way to address labor exploitation is to promote worker empowerment. “Choice is the antidote for exploitation,” Desmond writes. “So a crucial step toward ending poverty is giving more Americans the power to decide where to work, live, and bank, and when to start a family.”
In his final chapter, “Tear Down the Walls,” Desmond elaborates on the ways to reverse segregation which, he says, “poisons our minds and souls.”
Issues surrounding class and poverty are discussed in some circles when affluent people are present, but are generally ignored. Children see, and we all know, that class inequity is rigid and relentless in this country. Breaking the silence by talking about poverty and seeking solutions to what has seemed like an intractable problem is the work that lies before us.
Thank you, Matthew Desmond, for a best-selling book that may inspire real change on what is an ongoing, unjust, and painful reality in America.
The Rev. Andrea Ayvazian, Ministerial Team, Alden Baptist Church, Springfield, is also founder and director of the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership.
See also: American poverty is a calamity by design
Sociologist Matthew Desmond explains the roots of poverty in America in exploitation, and the willful policies at all levels of government that keep people trapped in precarity. (Chris Hedges interview on The Real News Network.