A new study from the United Way claims that 43% of American households are in a status called “asset limited, income constrained, employed” (ALICE), which denotes employed people who can’t afford housing, food, childcare, healthcare, transportation, and a cellphone — the basics of modern living.
Umair Haque (previously) connects this to the idea of America as the world’s first poor rich country, a country that is awash in wealth, yet so unequal that nearly half its residents sink deeper into debt every month — and most Americans die in debt.
As Haque says, if you work hard all your life and die with no assets, no savings, and debt, that’s not employment, it’s serfdom. America’s former middle class have now hit the limits of their ability to survive with stagnating wages by taking on debt secured by their meager assets — the family home, pensions and so on. Now, Americans are both kinds of poor: asset-poor and wage-poor. Americans aren’t poor because they don’t work hard enough: they’re poor no matter how hard they work.
And unlike poor people in countries like Pakistan or Nigeria, American poor people live in a country where things like childcare, medicine, rent and food are very, very expensive. American poor people are poorer than the poor people in poor countries.
Poverty in America, in other words, has become endemic and ubiquitous because its systemic and structural. It’s baked into the system. It’s a feature, not a bug. And most Americans these days, I’d wager, understand this intuitively. Work hard, play by the rules, become something, someone worthy. Be a teacher, engineer, writer, coach, therapist, nurse etcetera. What do you get? You get your pension “raided” (read: stolen) by hedge funds, you get your income decimated by “investment bankers”, you get charged a fortune for the very things you yourself are involved in producing but never earn a fair share of, you get preyed on in every which way the predatory can dream up.
But it’s a new kind of poverty too — or at least one unseen since the Weimar Republic, really. It’s the poverty of decline, degeneration, decay. It’s the poverty of a middle class becoming a new poor. It’s the reversal of an upwards trajectory — not the failure to launch. It’s people who expected to live better and better lives finding themselves in the grim, unfamiliar predicament of never being able to reach them, no matter what they do. Except maybe sell out and become one of the predators. What happens when that takes place? Something strange, something difficult, something paradoxical and backwards.
If I say to the average American — “hey, I know you’re poor. Listen, I’m not trying to insult you. I’m trying to help you. I know it. The statistics tell me so. I can see it in on your stressed out, depressed face. I can see it in everything about you now” — what will the average American say? Well, he or she will respond defensively, probably. “Hey, go to hell buddy! I’m not poor!” That’s understandable. Nobody likes to be called poor — and especially not Americans, because living in a hyper capitalist society, poverty is stigmatized, scorned, mocked, and hated. To call an American poor is something like calling a Soviet a bad communist party member — or maybe even a capitalist. Comrade! To the gulag with you!