Poverty in the United States. (Photo: Razonyrevolucion.org)

We don’t all have the courage to join Bob Wells, founder of the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous and CheapRVLiving. And sociologically, the film Nomadland distorts the common experience of ageing and poverty-afflicted Americans. But others have taken up the challenge of finding a more plausible alternative when “the powers that be are making too much money from people accepting their death and decline without protesting,” as Nicholas DiCarlo puts it.

COVID-19 has hit two groups of society particularly hard: the poor and the old. Has this led the U.S. to revise its neo-liberalist strategies? Despite President Biden’s efforts to create a fairer society, a lot of structural problems remain. But some U.S. academics are actively challenging the stereotypes, and have offered ideas about how to fix a damaged and damaging system.

COVID-19 has hit two groups of society particularly hard: the poor…(Photo: Steve Knutsen, Unsplash)
…and the old. (Photo: Bianca Jordan, Unsplash)

Let’s start with these two facts:

  • In 2020 life expectancy for Black Americans was recorded as having declined by more than five years. It has also dropped for Latin Americans in the U.S.
  • In their lifetimes, a majority of Americans will live for one year below the poverty line, and three-quarters suffer poverty or near poverty.

The first fact is cited by Carroll L. Estes and Nicholas B. DiCarlo in discussing their latest book on ageing. The second comes from Mark Robert Rank, co-author of a study of American misunderstandings about poverty.

Aging A-Z: Concepts Toward Emancipatory Gerontology (Routledge) by Estes and DiCarlo was published in 2019. But, as fellow activist Stephen Dozeman notes, “the COVID crisis has brought to light how vulnerable our elderly are, how understaffed our care-facilities are, and how much needs to change to provide lives of safety, comfort and dignity to our elders, but in many ways all this crisis has done is exacerbated certain tensions and antagonisms that were already there, barely concealed by the relentless optimism of neo-liberal technocrats.”

In Poorly Understood: What America Gets Wrong about Poverty (Oxford 2021), Mark Robert Rank, Lawrence M. Eppard, and Heather E. Bullock challenge the idealized image of American society as one of abundant opportunities, with hard work being rewarded by economic prosperity.

All three spoke in New Books Network (NBN) podcasts at the beginning of March, just before International Women’s Day (8 March).

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The majority of Americans will live on average for one year below the poverty line. (Photo: Borgenproject.org)

As Estes, a former President of The Gerontological Society of America (GSA), and her co-author Nicholas DiCarlo pointed out, women in the U.S. often give up paid work to look after elderly relatives or others in their community, as well as to raise children, and lose their entitlements to social security. In the U.S. system, it is expected that “women will do the work and they will do it at great sacrifice and do it until they drop.” As a result of COVID-19, “women are dropping out of the labour force like crazy.” The phenomenon is known as ‘she-cession“, recognized by Canadian premier Justin Trudeau in his International Women’s Day speech.

‘Social security has become social insecurity’

Despite the American triple-pillar system for financing retirement, for 20 per cent of people in the U.S. social security payments account for 90 per cent of their income, Estes told Dozeman on 3 March in a 66-minute podcast produced for NBN’s Critical Theory channel. Two-thirds of the elderly do not get enough to eat. “Social security has become social insecurity.”

A major part of the problem has been “age segregation”. Senior centres have been called “playpens for the elderly”. But older members of the community find it difficult to get to places such as restaurants and open spaces where they can meet people of their own age and other generations. “Gentrification [of human habitats] aids and abets this segregation,” argues Di Carlo, and some places are “dangerous and unsafe” for the elderly to be out and about.

Scene from Nomadland . Sociologically, the film distorts the common experience of ageing and poverty-afflicted Americans but offers an alternative view of van culture.

The New York care home scandal and what it means

The commercialized U.S. nursing home industry puts proper care out of the financial reach of many retirees. The New York scandal swirling around Governor Andrew Cuomo during COVID-19 has simply brought to the foreground the problems with nursing homes, their staffing and quality measures, Estes declared. Privatization has “camouflaged what has been going on in our societies: deprivation of basic human care and rights”.

DiCarlo, from the University of California at San Francisco, adds that stereotypes about the elderly also work against them. These treat people as “growing into irrelevance” in society if they are not earning. It leads to “infantilization of elders,” says Estes. And the emphasis on individual earnings “dehistorizes” social movements where people helped each other, adds DiCarlo. “In fact, we have all paid into social insurance,” Estes notes, so everyone should have a claim on a comfortable old age.

‘We need a media watch against stereotyping elders’

Dozeman, the podcast moderator, has spent most of the COVID-19 lockdown working in elderly care. But DiCarlo reported that people without any experience of caring or working with the aged today see their future with despair and nihilism as a result of stereotyping. “We need a media watch” to counter public falsehoods and prejudiced descriptions of ageing, he declared.

At the same time, as Nomadland suggested, intergenerational understanding is essential, DiCarlo points out. Not all old folk are grouches. In the current system where politicians and advertisers pitch different messages to the various sections of society, “there’s discrimination against youth and baby boomers,” Estes observes. It encourages blind faith in the future and in “Making American Great Again” — what DiCarlo calls “delirium”, a term from the French (Jewish) philosopher Jacques Derrida, referring to those German Jews who thought they could survive in Hitler’s Germany.

According to Mark Rank, not only is reducing poverty the right thing to do, but from an economic point of view it is also the smart thing to do. (Photo: Chris Murray, Unsplash)

‘Poverty affects nearly everyone for at least three years’

Mark Rank, a professor at Washington University in social work, noted in his 4 March podcast: “Poverty affects virtually everyone in the U.S. for three years during their life.” It can result from the loss of a job, the breakup of a family, or illness — ordinary but unanticipated events.

From his research to estimate the economic cost of childhood poverty, with its resulting increase in health care spending, loss of lifetime earnings and increased criminal justice costs, he concluded that the costs reached slightly over $1 trillion in 2015, “28% of the entire federal budget”.

The worst of it is that the U.S. pays for it “on the back end of the problem rather than the front-end”, which is always more expensive, Rank observed. “It costs a lot to incarcerate people and [the] health care costs are really expensive.”

Reducing poverty is the smart thing to do economically

He added: “For every dollar we spend reducing child poverty, we would save between 7 and 12 dollars in preventing those future costs. Not only is reducing poverty the right thing to do, but from an economic point of view it is also the smart thing to do.”

Interviewer Stephen Pimpare, director of the Public Service & Nonprofit Leadership programme and Faculty Fellow at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire, also pointed out that many people falsely believed poverty is a city rather than suburban phenomenon, and a “permanent geographic condition” rather than something that comes and goes.

U.S. suburbs have more poor than city centres

“Actually there are more people in poverty in suburban areas than there are in central cities,” Rank agreed. But “some of the most extreme poverty in the United States is in rural America [—] Appalachia, or the Deep South, the Mississippi Delta, American Indian Reservations, the Central Corridor of California.”

And poverty is generally not permanent, though it can recur throughout people’s lives. Rather than talking of poverty, we should focus on “economic insecurity” to cover everything from poverty to needing social security. His research had found 80% of Americans would experience this insecurity at some time between the age of 25 and 60.

“We’ve been creating more and more jobs that don’t pay a liveable wage, that it’s hard to support a family on, that don’t have benefits,” Rank argues.

An American myth: Working hard does not necessarily bring one out of poverty. Investment in countering poverty is far more effective. If you believe the myths, you don’t have to take any responsibility for the results, Rank maintains. “It’s much easier to say: it’s your fault.”(Photo: David Todd McCarty, Unsplash)

False foundational myths

Pimpare described it as “a foundational myth of the United States” that the way to escape poverty is to work hard, get an education, and make your own decisions.

“Hard work is important in terms of trying to achieve goals in life,” Rank observed. But “I have talked to many people who are working extremely hard but are still in poverty or near poverty [with] one job, two jobs […] because of the labour market, structural problems.”

‘A game that produces losers’

As for social mobility, often considered a positive factor by conservatives with regard to movement in both directions, “we have less mobility in the United States than in a number of other high-economy OECD countries”. Of people in the bottom 20% economically, only 6-8% will be able to climb to the top 20% of U.S. incomes.

Rank compares the education and skills myth to a game of musical chairs, where a number of players are bound to lose no matter what the reason. “The game produces losers […] for structural reasons. We don’t have enough jobs to pay a living wage. We don’t have social policies that protect individuals that other countries have.”

“Altering individual behaviours can’t alter those fundamental structures,” Pimpare commented. “Exactly,” said Rank.

Surviving at someone else’s expense

As a result, making yourself more likely to overcome poverty take place at the expense of somebody else, he added. The employment line only has so many good jobs. “We can change people’s position in the queue, we can move them up or move them down by education and skills, but at the end of the day, there are only so many people who can get those jobs.”

We need “a fundamentally different way of thinking,” Rank argues. “In the book we try to bring this out.”

Single parents face a higher risk of poverty in the United States but not in many parts of Europe. (Photo: Thiago Cerqueira, Unsplash)

The single mother myth

Single-parent families face a higher risk of poverty in the U.S. “It doesn’t have to be the case. In Denmark, for example. Why is that? Because they have policies that protect children from falling into poverty. Welfare reform has really been driven by principles of responsibility and behaviour.”

Rank pointed out: “One of the myths out there is that women on welfare have more kids to get a higher welfare payment. One of my earlier analyses looked at this. They actually have a slightly lower birth rate than women in the general population. Number two, almost every woman told me: you have to be crazy to have another kid for an extra $50 a month. It doesn’t make any economic sense. Yet that myth is around […] particularly among conservative politicians, even though it has been flatly refuted.”

People caught up in poverty are both white and non-white. The more racially heterogeneous a society is, like the United States, the less generous its social welfare. (Photo: La Hu, Unsplash)

Race and poverty

“In the U.S. we often look at poverty through a racial lens,” Rank observes. “We often think of poverty as folks that are non-white. One of the interesting things that research shows is that the more racially heterogeneous a society is, like the United States, the less generous its social welfare. When people look different than us, we are less likely to be generous in social policies. The States that tend to be the least generous are the Southern States. States that would be most generous are States like Vermont.”

This helps explain what the U.S. is so “meagre” in offering help to people who fall into poverty, he suggests.

The money doesn’t go to the poor

But, Pimpare underlined, welfare is thought to take too much of official budgets, it is riddled with corruption, and is ineffective. “Compared to other countries we spend much much less,” Rank countered. The temporary assistance programme to needy families accounts for less than 1%. Medicare and social security do not directly target the poor. Medicaid mostly goes for elderly people in nursing homes, Pimpare added.

Investing in countering poverty makes both social and economic sense. It could save the United Nations billions of dollars. (Photo: Reise Uhu, Unsplash)

Spending on poverty has been effective

Rank also challenged assertions that government spending on poverty had been a waste.

As a result of the 1960s poverty programmes launched by President Lyndon Johnson in a strong economy, poverty fell from 22% of the population in 1959 to 11% in 1973. “The rate of poverty was cut in half in a little over 10 years.” In 1959 the poverty rate for the over-65s was around 35%. Today it is around 10%. This was a result of government programmes of social security and Medicare. “If we want to do something about it, government programmes can be quite effective.”

Other countries that are more proactive in fighting poverty have much lower rates. “Ronald Reagan was famous for saying: ‘We fought a war on poverty, and poverty won’. That’s not right.”

The United States needs to create jobs that pay a living wage. (Photo: Zac Durant)

Why the myths persist

Why do the myths persist when the evidence against them is “overwhelming”? The book takes on the question in a chapter by Heather E. Bullock. Who benefits? asks Rank. His reply: Reagan was “notorious” for using welfare myths to gain support from bluecollar Democrats. Bill Clinton, falling behind in the polls, started saying ‘We need to end welfare as we know it.’ “That garnered a lot of support.”

If you believe the myths, you don’t have to take any responsibility for the results, Rank concludes. “It’s much easier to say: it’s your fault.”

Using his musical chairs analogy, Rank says: “We need to provide more chairs for players in the game.”

More chairs for more players

  1. Create jobs that pay a wage a family can live on, i.e. the minimum wage, earned income-tax credits, and child allowances as proposed by the Biden Administration. “The fact that this is being talked about now is quite hopeful.”
  2. Make health care universal.
  3. Make child care affordable and accessible.
  4. Make education available to everyone.
  5. Make housing affordable.

“Ideas that get at the structure of the game,” Rank explains. “We have a few other ideas but the key idea is let’s have policies that don’t focus on who loses out at the game. Let’s focus on policies that change the game itself and reduce the number of losers.”

‘Invest in our children’

Poverty is a global problem, including in the United States. It is crucial to invest in children for the future. (Photo: Children.org)

As for the American economy, Mark Rank and a colleague are working on a book which shows that “when you have wide inequality and widescale poverty, that actually reduces our economic productivity.” And that goes back to his earlier research, which showed that investment in children provides major benefits in the future. “This isn’t a left or right issue. It’s just smart. Invest in our children. It is not smart to disinvest in them, to let them go hungry.”

Emancipation and resistance

Life off the grid as depicted in Nomadland, with its usual outstanding and finely judged performance by Frances McDormand, offers a vision — a romanticized view attractive to many — of a U.S. community for whom relative poverty can be liberating, and help resist social segregation, without glossing over its challenges.

Bob Wells is given time to explain his anti-capitalist stance against employment as a version of psychological incarceration and his vision of a different kind of society, while the nomadlanders — as in his Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (now gatherings of 10,000 at a time) — educate each other about how to survive life on the road. [Parenthetically, Fortune reported on 11 March that “a startlingly low number of remote workers want to go back to their office routine after the pandemic” (LINK).]

In the film, the ageing and the younger generation find something to exchange — advice and experiences as well as cigarettes and other gifts — while making clear through David Strathairn’s story that nomadland is not a solution for everyone.

From experiences that could have been unrelievedly depressing, using a different, docudrama take on this special kind of U.S. trailer park culture, Chinese-American filmmaker Chloé Zhao has produced an inspirational and emancipatory film exploring a rarely foregrounded side of American life. It has been nominated for an Oscar as best film, as well as for recognition of Zhao and McDormand.

Aging A-Z: Concepts Toward Emancipatory Gerontology (Routledge) by Estes and DiCarlo was published in 2019.
Poorly Understood: What America Gets Wrong about Poverty (Oxford 2021), Mark Robert Rank, Lawrence M. Eppard, and Heather E. Bullock.

Peter Hulm is deputy editor of Global Insights Magazine and the Global Geneva newsportal.

Other articles on this theme

Nomadland Leads the BAFTA Film Awards 2021 Winners. Rotten Tomatoes. (LINK)

The Nomads Of ‘Nomadland’ On Their Newfound Stardom. Huffpost. (LINK)

‘Nomadland’: Chloé Zhao and crew reveal how they made one of the year’s best films. CNN. (LINK)

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