The Lies We Tell
by Stephen Pimpare
February 10, 2021
This interview with Stephen Pimpare, director of the Public Service & Nonprofit Leadership Program, a faculty fellow at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire, and author of A People's History of Poverty in America, was conducted and condensed by franknews.
Stephen | I research and write on poverty, mostly in the United States and mostly with a historical bent, although my training is in political science rather than in history.
Before I went into academia, I spent about a decade in New York City working with and for emergency food programs — soup kitchens and food pantries and feeding programs in homeless shelters. This was in the 1990s, as the welfare reform debates were gearing up. I was spending my day in some of the poorest places in the entire United States of America while listening to this public rhetoric about who poor people were and how they supposedly behaved.
I was genuinely flummoxed. The rhetoric was absolutely unrecognizable in terms of the people who I was working with day in, week out, month out. What is going on here? That question is actually what sent me off to grad school. I had this, perhaps deluded notion, that maybe I need to read more in a systemized kind of way, and that will help me make sense of this disconnect.
The book you wrote is called, A People's History of Poverty in America, can you talk about that work specifically?
Sure. The title was explicitly modeled on Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States. He was actually a series editor for the New Press, so I had a little bit of engagement with Howard, which was extraordinary. Everything that you want him to be is exactly who he was as a person.
If I’m honest, I was introduced to this book as a 13-year-old watching Goodwill Hunting, so in my mind, Howard Zinn sounds like Matt Damon.
Oh, that's hysterical. I'm sure he would appreciate that.
Well, as you know, the idea of A People's History of the United States was much more unusual in the late sixties and early seventies than it is now. It was a realization that most of U.S. history has been told from the perspective of largely powerful white men, so what happens if we invert the narrative and bring other people into that story and let them tell their experiences of it. The idea behind A People's History of Poverty was very much the same thing.
When we look at the history of poverty and of social welfare in the United States, it is often told as a story of what great leaders did, Jane Addams or FDR or LBJ. Or it's a story of policymaking. How did we get to the Social Security Act? What are the machinations in Congress that led us to the war on poverty programs?
President Lyndon B. Johnson on his Poverty Tour visiting the Tom Fletcher family, Inez, Kentucky.
The conceit of A People's History of Poverty is to simply ask, instead of asking how policy has changed over time, what happens if we ask how has the experience of being poor and insecure in the United States has changed over time? I sought to do that through firsthand accounts from poor and low-income people through diaries, memoirs, newspaper accounts, and the ethnographies that allowed them to speak about their own experiences, in order to see how the story changes when these voices are brought to it.
You talk about poverty as a politics problem, and less as a policy problem. Can you clarify what you mean by that?
If you were to gather together scholars of poverty in the United States, there would be some broad-based agreement on what kinds of policies could radically reduce poverty. We know that because there are two places we can look for those answers. One is almost every other rich democracy on the planet has lower rates of poverty than we do. Everybody else has figured this out, so surely it cannot be all that mysterious. We can also look to our own history. We can see those moments of policy innovation, most notably in the 1930s and the 1960s, where the government successfully, radically reduced poverty. We can also look to our very recent history, April, May, and June of 2020, after the passage of the first COVID relief bill.
As unemployment rates approached 20%, the poverty rates fell. Why? Because we sent money to almost every household in the United States.
And one of the things that we know from other countries is one of the easiest ways to reduce poverty is to send people money. We also essentially federalized the unemployment insurance program and bumped the payments up to the equivalent of a $15 an hour wage. The $600 a week supplemental payments to unemployed people combined with cash payments actually increased the income and the savings rate in some nontrivial number of people.
So if you want to reduce poverty, it's simple, put more money in people's pockets.
There is a whole boatload of ways to do that. You can do that through child tax credits or child allowances or family allowances or a universal basic income. You can do it by increasing regulation and raising the minimum wage so that people who are working are earning enough. You can do that through universal daycare and pre-K programs so that you make it possible for people who want to work and have children to be able to do so.
As a policy matter, none of this is particularly complicated. We could argue around the edges about which of those is the best approach for us, but those are really arguments around the margins. The problem is that we have this sense that we have to be so careful about making sure that money doesn't ever go to anyone who we deem undeserving, so we build these elaborate, constrained programs that severely limit benefits and hinder access to them.
The idea of who is deserving flows top-down on the institution side, but I also think it's a personal truth many Americans hold on to.
I think those things are not unrelated. If there is a particular facet of American culture that makes us individualist and mistrustful of government and less willing to receive public benefits, then, it seems to me, we should ask where that comes from? Collective ideas about one's place in society are not things that one is born with. These are produced; they are produced in the family, they're produced in religious institutions, they're produced in schools, and they're produced in political institutions.
And we cannot make sense of how these ideas are produced without looking at the particular ways in which immigration and race have played out throughout our history. If you look at the efforts in the mid-19th century to rationalize relief policies, the question of how do we make sure that people who we are giving money to are actually deserving. How do you make sure that they are not just shirkers who are showing up here for a free bowl of soup, but that these are people who have exhausted all of their efforts to earn money through the private market and are here because they have no other recourse? This results in an elaborate apparatus of welfare policies.
We see this play out in the New Deal programs of the 1930s. Why is Social Security in its initial form so narrowly restricted? Because Southern Democrats were fearful that cash benefits coming into Black households would reduce the availability of low-wage labor. Why does the AFDC program through the thirties and the sixties so aggressively limit women's ability to form relationships with men and to form relationships with the labor market?
I would argue that much of that is an inherent mistrust of Black women and the belief that their reproduction and their participation in the labor market needed to be regulated.
Instead of offering broad-based universal programs based on citizenship status, as so many other countries have done, we have created these targeted programs. This program gets you food, but it's only available for this group of people if you meet these narrow kinds of criteria. I think this is another way in which we have seen the extent to which propertied, white men have dominated the policymaking processes. Their ignorance and their biases show in the policies they create.
What was the shift from private market philanthropy models to government models of anti-poverty solutions?
I think the shift is less from private to public, and more a shift from local to state to federal. State government wasn’t really involved in welfare until the late 19th, early 20th century. They funded schools, hospitals, and that sort of thing. And throughout our history, right up to today, even when services were provided by not-for-profit organizations they have typically been funded With public money.
New York City: in the absence of substantial government relief programs during 1932, free food was distributed with private funds in some urban centers to large numbers of the unemployed. National Archives.
Do you feel like this paternalism is destined to continue?
My levels of optimism and pessimism will often shift from hour to hour and day today. As we sit here, in this moment, I am hopeful. I do feel as if we are seeing a significant shift in the way that national political leaders think about poor people and low-income working people.
The classic way for historians to think about the 1930s is, in shorthand, that suffering was so widespread among so many people that it became impossible to hold onto the stereotype that people were poor because they deserved it. Suddenly, you knew people who had no jobs and were living in their cars, but who had worked just as hard as you did and were good at caring for their kids, and were terrific neighbors.
I think that rings true today, and I think that knowledge has accumulated. Look back to the Great Recession of 2008. A lot of people learned lessons the hard way about the insufficient reaction of the government at that moment. And extraordinary activism has taken place since then. The fight for $15 jobs for janitors, the unionization efforts of hotel workers in Vegas, are active, thoughtful, and forthright activities that have pushed ideas once radical into the mainstream.
We are inhabiting a moment where all of the stuff that we have been told was completely impossible, seems not so impossible after all. The payments we sent out through the CARES Act were insufficient, but, essentially, we had universal basic income when we just sent everyone money. We suspended evictions. Many cities and states barred utility companies from turning off people's electricity and water. There is serious talk of using executive orders to cancel student debt. This doesn't come from nowhere. This is the cumulative work of all of the people who have been pressing these ideas for decades and decades.
I am hopeful that the Democratic party is finally realizing that nobody gives a damn about process.
Nobody gives a damn about whether they change filibuster rules in order to make it easier for them to govern as a majority. Nobody really cares about deficits and debt. People pretend to care when it suits their interest, but nobody actually cares about these in any meaningful way.
The Democrats’ surest path toward political power is making people's lives better, and making sure that people know why their lives are better.
My grandparents grew up in the Great Depression. They were fervent Democrats, their entire lives. Why? Because FDR was a Democrat, and he was the president who, in their eyes, saved their family. They spent the rest of their lives rewarding the Democratic party for coming through for them in an emergency. I think there is an opportunity for the current Democratic party to realize the same thing. If they deliver meaningful assistance to people, if they make their lives better, and are smart about taking credit for it, it not only makes us a better country to live in, but also solidifies their political power.
Democrats’ ownership of the poor as members of their own party has shifted over time. The Republican party successfully convinces poor people that they're working in their best interest.
There are rich people who vote Democratic, and there are poor people who vote Republican. But overall, the pattern is the higher your income, the more likely you are to vote Republican, and the lower you are on the income ladder, the more likely you are to vote Democratic. Those are still their core constituencies, which is rational if you look at the slate of Democratic policies and the slate of Republican policies. The problem is that the further down the income ladder you look, the more likely you are to be encountering people who are not voting at all – that is an overwhelmingly Democratic constituency who are not showing up at the polls.
The more vulnerable and precarious your life is, the more complicated your life is, the harder it is to vote in the United States.
That is one part of the story. Republicans have known that for decades. I mean look at these awful, but supposedly heartwarming stories, about people standing outside for six hours in order to vote.
First of all, that is not heartwarming. That's dystopic and that's horrifying.
As a middle-aged white guy, a professor, if I need to take 6 hours to vote, I can. My time is my own. But if my shift starts at nine o'clock and ends at three, and my daycare ends at three, I can't do that. I can't sacrifice a day's pay, so I literally can’t show up at the polls. We never got rid of the poll tax.
But there's another piece to why lower-income people are less likely to vote: their experience of government itself. There is a long line of research on this.
Imagine you are going into a welfare office in order to try and get some cash assistance for you and your kids. More often than not, you are treated like trash. It is an awful experience. The physical environments are rundown. The office hasn't had a coat of paint in 40 years. The people who are working there are tired, overworked, and impatient and speak to you curtly and rudely. You are dealing with this byzantine array of indecipherable, incomprehensible paperwork. You have to go through arbitrary rules and regulations about needing this form or paperwork or that or needing this ID or that.
People extrapolate from this experience. Why am I going to go through all of this effort to vote for a system that doesn't even work and doesn't give a damn about me? That's the other piece that explains why we've got lower participation rates among lower-income people: they are more dependent on systems that treat them badly.
Apathy doesn’t create non-voting. The way we structure our policies creates non-voting.
I was listening to a conversation about the vaccine rollout in Los Angeles. Someone kept saying, “We're in Hollywood! Let Live Nation, a group that shepards thousands and thousands of people in and out of the Hollywood Bowl every night, run the vaccine program.” I understand wanting to bypass bureaucracy. But is that really our best solution?
President Lyndon B. Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson, standing on the ground, speaking to the Fletchers, who are standing on the house's long front porch.
There are a couple of ways to solve that problem. One is that so much of the variation, whether we're talking about welfare or Medicaid or vaccine rollout, is due to this bizarre system of U.S. style federalism. We have divided power between the national and state government. When you look at the legislative history of programs specifically targeted towards low-income people, those are often hard-fought battles by members of Congress who explicitly did not want the federal government to be in charge of the programs.
They wanted to be sure that their state would have the ability to discriminate against people they wanted to discriminate against.
The original plan for the GI Bill was that it was going to be a federal program run out of Washington, DC, and every veteran, everywhere in the country was going to be treated the same way through a well-funded, well-staffed office. So, what happened? Southerners said, no, thank you very much. There are going to be lots of Black soldiers coming back, and we do not want to see them treated as equal citizens. So please allow the state to administer this.
Some of the answer here is to push power back up to the federal government. But, especially in the wake of Trump, that is always a nervous-making thing to say out loud. Arguably, what saved some cities during the first couple of waves of Coronavirus was that there was enough space for cities to make up for federal failures to step in.
The other thing to do is to stop making programs so complicated and varied. Take Medicaid. Instead of Medicaid functioning differently from state to state and county to county, make it a national program with national rules, national regulations, and a national benefit formula. Healthcare is one of those places where it is easy to see how we could offer better care to radically more people and spend less money than we currently do. When we look to other countries, we see that nationalizing healthcare is not necessarily more expensive.
I interviewed Mitt Romney a few months ago, who famously implemented state-run healthcare in Massachusetts, but, as a presidential candidate, wasn't interested in any sort of nationalized program. He said he didn’t think it was hypocritical at all. He was the governor of a state where that worked really well. It should be up to states to decide if it works well for them.
Well, that argument basically is that your ability to access healthcare will be dependent on the accident of your birth or circumstance.
So my kids are going to be X percent more hungry than they would be if I lived one state over. I get that line of thought coming from a former governor, but as someone who doesn't care so much about a governor's prerogatives and is much more concerned with people's wellbeing, I think that's an incredibly unsatisfying answer.
You write that some of the lowest levels of poverty we've seen were under Nixon, is this true?
It is important to keep in mind that the method by which the Census Bureau calculates poverty at the national level is terrible. If you find someone who wants to defend it, you don't need to take them seriously. But, by using that admittedly faulty Census Bureau standard, the lowest point of overall poverty that the United States has ever reached was 11.1% in 1973, under Richard Nixon.
Franklin D. Roosevelt Giving a Check to a Farmer Paying Him for Plowing Under His Cotton Crop.
There were some important policies that were enacted by a Democratic Congress that Nixon signed because he saw that it was in his political interest to do so, but most of what you are seeing is the effects of "War on Poverty" programs from the mid-1960s. That's just not Medicaid and the beginnings of food stamps and disability insurance and the SSI, but also the expansion of social security itself. More people were brought into that program, and benefits were raised.
And it worked. If you look at those official numbers, in the mid-1960s the demographic group with the highest rates of poverty was people over the age of 65. By the time we get to the contemporary period, of all demographic groups people over 65 have the lowest rates of poverty. And again, that is because we send them money every month and provide them with decent quality, relatively affordable healthcare.
I think we overthink this stuff. There are so many people who have these entrenched ideas that we will destroy the nation if we move toward those kinds of broad-based universal programs. But, look at the rest of the world. You're hard-pressed to find evidence for that American, irrational fear.
There's a stubbornness to it that stagnates the imagination of the United States. Some of that was ripped apart in the Trump administration because he just did what he wanted to do. There was a simplicity to it. Do you see poor people self-identifying and organizing, in a way that is putting their agenda first?
The modern version of the Poor People's Campaign, run by Reverend Barber and others, is the notable exception when it comes to organizing specifically around the notion of poverty.
There is a pretty good empirical account to be made that the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 were the largest, most sustained, most widespread protests in all of U.S. history. The organizing framework for that was absolutely about race, and about the ways in which particular groups of Americans have been singled out for violence from the state. But it is hard to separate our racial caste systems from our economic caste systems. We see radically higher rates of poverty among Black Americans than we do among others. That is not a coincidence. That's a very long legacy of exclusion in the labor market and the housing market and access to healthcare, and so on and so forth. The central BLM claim was "stop killing us." If you look at the other movement demands, a lot of that is economic focused. It is baby bonds. It is reparations. If you look at the people who have been at the heart of the $15 minimum wage movement, they are overwhelmingly people of color or those working in vulnerable, low wage jobs. I think that these are all, in many ways, economic movements.
The biggest lie that we tell ourselves and that we tell to the rest of the world is that there is a unique opportunity for upward mobility in the United States of America.
We say that this is the thing that distinguishes us. Anyone, if they work hard and play by the rules, can grow up to be bigger and better. Well, that's just empirically false. There are much higher rates of intergenerational mobility in a whole host of other, mostly Nordic and Western European countries. We have a more rigid class structure than Great Britain does. They might still have a queen and a monarchy, but they actually have more mobility between class groups than the United States does.
If you are born poor in the United States, you are radically more likely to die poor here than if you were born poor in a whole host of other places.
It’s a sad layer of self-hatred or self-doubt that comes when you’re told if you work hard, you can do it. You think there must be something wrong with you if you don’t succeed.
I think that's absolutely right. I would even say that it serves a function. I think that is precisely the function that the myth of mobility and hard work provides. If I believe that I live in a world where the only thing standing between me and my ambitions is my own determination, then it's not the government's fault, it's not my employer's fault, it's not the fault of my landlord who won't keep up the housing that gives my kids asthma. It must be me. That then becomes its own justification for limited government intervention to improve people's lives.
Of course, people will always point out some heartwarming rags to riches story, which absolutely happens. I'm not saying there's no mobility, but those are the exceptions rather than the rule.