October 11, 2007
Professor of Sociology William DiFazio, Ph.D., doesn’t mince words
when discussing poverty in the United States.
“It’s a disgrace,” he says. “It’s a disgrace that in the richest
country in the world we officially have more than 37 million poor
people. And it’s a disgrace that we don’t want to deal with.”
Actually, 37 million represents just the tip of a large, ugly
iceberg of poverty that is beginning to impact the middle class,
says DiFazio, who outlines his argument in his recent book,
Ordinary Poverty: A Little Food and Cold Storage (Temple
University Press), which was nominated as a finalist in last year’s
Harry Chapin Media Awards.
Run by advocacy giant World Hunger Year, the
Chapin Awards honor journalists and writers for coverage that
positively impacts hunger and poverty. Each year, the organization
receives hundreds of submissions and nominates five to eight
finalists in a small handful of categories.
Ordinary Poverty, however, was never submitted to World
Hunger Year. Instead, it was nominated as a Chapin Award finalist
by the organization’s Director of Marketing and Fund-Raising,
After reading about Ordinary Poverty, Springstead
“wanted to get it into the mix,” she says, noting that nominating
from within the organization is somewhat rare. But the book was
“right on the money,” she says. “[DiFazio] really understands
hunger and poverty from a grassroots level.”
Ordinary Poverty has been hailed by several other
critics and notable intellectuals, including famed Princeton
University Professor of Religion Cornel West, who called DiFazio’s
voice “powerful and prophetic.”
In his book, DiFazio combines ethnographic data, longitudinal
statistics and personal, emotional accounts of working in New York
soup kitchens to present the argument that the U.S. poverty rate is
much greater than officials are willing to admit. So great, in
fact, that as many as 50 percent of Americans might be living in
poverty, but just don’t realize it, he says.
According to DiFazio, who cites statistics from the Organization of Economic and
Co-Operation and Development, 11 percent of Americans are
classified as poor. The poverty line for a family of four is
denoted by an annual household income of less than about
DiFazio says these figures are a sham. Poverty, he argues,
should be a term applied to all individuals who struggle to make
ends meet. A poor person, therefore, isn’t just the man who is
sleeping in shelters and begging on the street; it is the man with
a family who has difficulty making basic payments like health
insurance costs, housing bills and college tuitions.
To give an example, DiFazio hypothesizes a family of four living
on $40,000 a year in Meridian, MS, where the self-sufficiency
income for a family of four is officially listed at $30,000.
“This family is struggling,” he says. “They have to give up
things. They’re not going to the doctor. They’re teeth are rotting
because they can’t visit the dentist. They’re forced to eat a lot
of carbohydrates to fill themselves up cheaply.”
In New York City, where the cost of living is much higher,
DiFazio posits that a family of four should be classified as poor
if it lives on less than $50,000 a year.
The St. John’s professor explains that if the United States
calculated its poverty rate the way that the United Nations and
“all the other countries in the world” do, the resulting figure
would increase by at least 5 percent. And even that number would
grossly underestimate U.S. poverty, he says. (The United Nations
defines poverty as living below the 50 percent marker of a
country’s median income level, according to DiFazio.)
“We don’t like to admit how poor this country is,” says DiFazio,
noting that the United States has the most poverty among the
world’s 17 richest countries. “We like to look at [developing
countries like] Chad, because boy, we look good. But the reality is
that if we look at England, Switzerland, Germany and Japan, we
don’t look good at all. We look really bad.”
In the Spirit of St. Vincent:
DiFazio, a longtime Brooklyn resident, has plenty of street
credentials when it comes to the subject of poverty. From 1988 to
1994 he spent four days a week working for St. John’s Bread and Life Soup
Kitchen, where he met several people who would later become
characters in his book. He has been an active member with the Association of Community Organizations
for Reform Now for several years, serves on the board of
directors for the New York State Hunger Action Network and
participates in several political advocacy groups. He has even
voluntarily slept in New York City homeless shelters.
It is the meaningful relationships that he has formed with New
York’s poor people, whom he calls “my people,” that crystallize his
argument in Ordinary Poverty.
In the book, “You learn who these people are,” says DiFazio.
“You learn about their lives. You hear when they die. I take you to
their funerals. I take you into their houses. I take you into
poverty in all of its misery and seediness and disgrace.”
Looking toward the future in the face of what he’s witnessed,
DiFazio is hopeful, though not exactly optimistic.
“The poor have gotten poorer,” he says. “We’ve had 35 years of
wage decline and a decline in benefits. The entitlements of the
poor have been cut, and welfare grants haven’t been increased in 10
years. There’s something wrong here. I thought things were supposed
to get better, not worse.”
So what’s the underlying problem with American poverty? Ask
DiFazio, and first he’ll tell you what it’s not.
“Our tendency is to say it’s biological, but it’s not
biological. And it’s not psychological. It’s about resources and
jobs and being stigmatized,” says DiFazio, who thinks the U.S.
government should re-tax the rich and stop relying on charity.
“Most poor people in New York City work very hard for very low
wages,” he adds, and most of the nation’s poor don’t receive
At St. John’s, DiFazio teaches undergraduate and graduate
courses in social theory, the sociology of poverty, social
psychology and ethnography. He also hosts a weekly radio show on
WBAI (NY), in which he discusses New York City current events and
Ordinary Poverty is DiFazio’s third book. He is
currently working on a sequel to Ordinary Poverty titled
The Game Is Rigged: The Class War Against Ordinary People,
which focuses on the economic pinch on small businesses, the
“fictitiousness” of the free market, the danger of capital
investment and the author’s claim that the United States lives with
the most debt in the world.