nonfiction

Book Review: Broke in America: Seeing, Understanding, and Ending U.S. Poverty by Joanne Samuel Goldblum and Colleen Shaddox

Poverty is a special kind of hell, and it takes a special kind of miracle to unearth oneself from its depths. The myth of working hard in order to better one’s station in life is some Horatio Alger-type nonsense; how can you work hard enough when the rent alone is over half of your take-home pay? How is it possible to get ahead when you’re barely keeping up and a blown tire or a minor medical emergency is all it takes to put you behind yet again? Salaries haven’t kept up with increases in cost of living, and if you don’t understand poverty well or have never picked up a book on the subject, Broke in America: Seeing, Understanding, and Ending U.S. Poverty by Joanne Samuel Goldblum and Colleen Shaddox (BenBella Books, 2021) is an excellent place to start.

In this well-researched and aptly argued primer on poverty in the United States, authors Goldblum and Shaddox lay out the case for exactly how dire the situation is- bad for some, worse for others (and notably worse for nonwhites in every case). The system is stacked against people to move up out of poverty; those who come from money are likely stay there, and those who don’t aren’t statistically likely to get ahead. Those who do manage to claw their way out end up nowhere near those who are born into money in terms of assets. It’s a terrible, vicious cycle, one that is unmistakable throughout every chapter of this book, with example after depressing example and even more disheartening statistics.

But poverty is a choice, the authors argue- not a choice made by the people living it, but a choice we as a society are making. We choose to allow this; we choose to maintain a system set up to sentence people to intense suffering and hideous living conditions. We don’t have to live like this, and myriad suggestions point out how easily (and not so easily) things could change. If you’re looking to make a difference in the landscape of American poverty, Broke In America should be on your reading list.

This is an intense book, one that will definitely open your eyes if you’re unaware of what life is like for people who live at or under the poverty line (currently defined as $26,200 for a family of four). Children going hungry and sitting in full diapers because parents can’t afford more. Women using toilet paper and old rags because they can’t afford menstrual products, and missing work and school because of it. Medical conditions that go untreated due to lack of insurance or money to pay a doctor. Families living in unheated homes and apartments in brutally cold winter temperatures, and children going without winter coats in the snow.

Charities aren’t enough; societal problems take societal solutions (you can’t personal responsibility your way out of a societal problem, as Twitter is fond of pointing out), and there are plenty, but Goldblum and Shaddox make the reader aware that it’s going to take a lot of action, and a lot of long-term action. We’ve let society become this kind of mess over a long period of time, and it’s going to take an immense amount of effort and political will that I’m not sure we have to solve this. The American myth of people deserving the situation they’re in is deeply baked-in here, and I don’t have the slightest idea how to disavow people of that, when not only is it something so many have believed all their lives, but the kind of people who believe that are most often not the kind who would pick up a book like this. They’re more interested in policing people already suffering (as evidenced by the woman I saw on social media the other day, complaining about how she always *insert eyeroll* saw people on food stamps buying shopping carts full of steak and lobster. I told her that was pretty nosy of her to not only monitor what other people were buying but to get close enough to check what kind of card they were paying with, and did she not have any more productive hobbies? Reader, she did not respond).

Broke in America is a sobering look at the way far too many of our fellow citizens live, and it’ll make you consider what you can do to make a difference. I already have some ideas.

Follow Joanne Samuel Goldblum on Twitter.

Visit Colleen Shaddox’s website here.

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