Son of a pastor, Matthew Desmond grew up in Winslow, Ariz. When his father lost his job, the family lost their home. It wasn’t until Desmond enrolled in college (with the help of scholarships, loans, and wages from several jobs) that he realized how little money he came from compared to his BMW-driving, sushi-dining classmates. He began studying inequality and continued this work in graduate school. Desmond’s first book, the 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” features eight families in Milwaukee involuntarily displaced from their homes in 2008 and 2009.
Desmond’s new book, “Poverty, By America,” casts a wider net and embodies a different tone. It’s a data-driven manifesto that turns a critical eye on those who inflict and perpetuate unlivable conditions on others, and implores them to help wipe out a catastrophe they’ve prolonged for far too long. The United States has the knowledge and the tools to abolish poverty, he contends. But those who have the power to do so refuse to make it a priority.
The figures Desmond cites are staggering and shameful. More than 38 million cannot afford basic necessities in the richest democracy in the world. “Almost one in nine Americans — including one in eight children — live in poverty.” Despite the fact that federal spending for the poor has increased over the last several decades, the rate of poverty has remained stagnant for half a century.
The United States, which has the largest gross domestic product in the world, is in a far better position than any other country to eradicate poverty. Desmond’s frustration about why it hasn’t done so is palpable. “America’s poverty is not for lack of resources. We lack something else.” That “something else” is, in part, a refusal to reckon with racism, and an overall lack of urgency and compassion. And it has led to tax cuts for the rich, the deregulation of banks, the decline of unions, the end of guaranteed cash welfare, stagnant wages, soaring housing prices, mass incarceration, inadequate health care, and rampant segregation, says Desmond.
Desmond’s proposals to extinguish poverty are not novel (nor does he claim they are), nor do they require an overhaul of capitalism. Take tax evasion: Congress could increase the corporate tax rate and allocate funds to the IRS to go after individuals who don’t pay taxes on income hidden in offshore accounts. Closing tax loopholes would bring in billions — enough to raise the poor out of poverty. “[W]hat is maddening about this debate is not how difficult fair-tax implementation would be but how utterly easy it is to find enough money to defeat poverty...”
Desmond is equally exasperated (with good reason) when programs that prove to be roaring successes get cut off at the knees before they have a chance to become permanent game changers. The Emergency Rental Assistance fund and the Child Tax Credit that the Biden administration established early in the pandemic reduced childhood poverty by half. But the programs’ impressive results were largely ignored by politicians and the media, and the enthusiasm for them waned. With dwindling funds for renters and the end of the tax credit, families are once again struggling.
Language and perception play a significant role in poverty’s persistence. Though higher income individuals receive ample government assistance in the form of programs like student loans and mortgage interest deductions, they view them as earned, whereas food stamps and subsidized housing are considered handouts. This warped thinking is a significant barrier to mobilizing the privileged to do the right thing, Desmond argues.
But will the wealthy willingly join a movement to renounce their unearned perks? Here, Desmond is optimistic. With enough education, pressure, and a massive PR campaign, he believes the financially well off will get behind poverty eradication with the same gusto some of them have brought to ending the climate crisis.
It’s a tall order, though. Policies that overfund the rich and take from the poor remain wildly popular. States are increasingly expanding school voucher programs even though they deplete money earmarked for public schools. COVID mitigation measures that would improve the health and safety of service workers have disappeared. Calls for nationalized health care, which would alleviate individual medical costs, and for defunding the police, which could reduce mass incarceration, especially of low income Black people, have quieted. As it turns out, those who prosper in a blatantly discriminatory system are not inclined to make that system fair.
“Poverty” keeps good company with recent books of its ilk. Andrea Elliott’s “Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival, and Hope in an American City,” which won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize, captures the life of a young girl and her family as they navigate the daily trials of living without. In “Broke in America: Seeing, Understanding, and Ending U.S. Poverty,” Joanne Samuel Goldblum and Colleen Shaddox address policies that block the poor from accessing resources. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s “Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Ownership” focuses on how redlining and continued housing discrimination prevent Black people from owning property. And Dorothy A. Brown’s “The Whiteness of Wealth” exposes how a racist US tax system financially decimates Black Americans.
In other words, there is a library of books about poverty that suggest feasible and achievable solutions to eliminate it. It’s just a matter of executing them. “Why all this American poverty?” “Poverty” asks. Because up until now, not enough of us have said enough.
Poverty, By America
by Matthew Desmond
Crown, 304 pages, $28
Anjali Enjeti is the author of “Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change” and “The Parted Earth.”