Skip to main content

Jacobin - December 29, 2020

When we speak to our sisters and brothers living in poverty in the United States, the confessional trope that describes so many dysfunctional relationships should be our opening line. “Poverty is a choice that the fortunate collectively make,” social worker Joanne Goldblum and journalist Colleen Shaddox write in Broke in America: Seeing, Understanding, and Ending U.S. Poverty. “No American should ever be poor.”

Of course, we fall far short of that mark. By Goldblum’s and Shaddox’s measure, over 120 million people living in the United States struggle to meet their most basic needs. The pandemic has caused another eight million to fall into poverty this past year. Worse yet, the poor in our nation are often blamed for their own crises, with lawmakers and even service providers citing bad behavior or ignorance as the cause of individual poverty.

In Broke in America, Goldblum and Shaddox reject that narrative. US policies that benefit the wealthy cause poverty, they insist — and changes to those policies can end it.
Fran Quigley interviewed Goldblum and Shaddox for Jacobin.

Fran Quigley (FQ): Almost immediately in this book, you confront the maxim, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime”: “Antipoverty efforts should stop making assumptions about people’s fishing abilities,” you write. “It’s past time to stop judging and give that hungry person a fish.” Why did you take that on?

Colleen Shaddox: (CS) That saying summarizes everything that’s wrong with how the United States addresses poverty: we say the problem is the person, so we need to fix the person and what that person lacks in skills. But does he even have a fishing pole? Is he too weak with hunger to go fish? Is the “he” in question actually a woman, and women aren’t allowed to fish there?

It’s so paternalistic and so horrible. Yet people say it all the time, like they’ve said something wise and caring.

Joanne Goldblum (JG): At the policy level, we create systems that actually make it harder for people to be self-sufficient.

For example, many people who are part of the TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) or workforce development programs are trained to become certified nursing assistants, CNAs. That’s a very important job that we need to do. But it is a poverty-wage job. By and large, people who work in those positions don’t have workplace benefits and are not paid a living wage. But the government trains someone to be a CNA and then it can feel like it’s done something because it’s gotten that person off of the rolls. ...
Read full interview at Jacobin