In 2016 Matthew Desmond became one of the leading voices on poverty in America with the publication of Evicted, his Pulitzer Prize-winning account of eight Milwaukee families dealing with the trauma of being removed from their homes. With Evicted, Desmond joined a select group of writers who have written about poverty with the skill of observant novelists.
Jacob Riis’ 1890 How the Other Half Lives, Jane Addams’ 1910 Twenty Years at Hull House, and James Agee and Walker Evans’ 1941 book about tenant farmers during the Great Depression, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, are Evicted’s American predecessors.
In his new book Poverty, By America, Desmond, currently a professor of sociology at Princeton, has sought to further his reach by taking on the subject of poverty throughout the United States. In this ambitious project, he has followed in the footsteps of Michael Harrington in his 1962 study, The Other America.
In a book that became a bestseller and influenced Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, Harrington made the case for increased spending on poverty programs by describing how widespread poverty was in the United States and how the poor had become invisible for all too many affluent Americans.
Like Harrington in The Other America, Desmond does not offer radical solutions for ending poverty. The remedies he calls for fall in the realm of the practical and recognize how politically divided a country we are. Whether Desmond’s new book will have the impact The Other America did is the question. Poverty, By America rests on thorough and serious analysis rather than analysis likely to surprise readers in the case Desmond makes for what he calls “poverty abolitionism.”
“Why all this American poverty?” Desmond asks at the start of Poverty, By America. His answer is that American poverty is not the result of limited resources or impersonal economic forces. It is primarily the result of government policies and laws that worsen the lives of the poor. As Desmond puts it, his book is about “how some lives are made small so that others may grow.” There are, he argues, three principal ways in which the poor in America are made poorer.
First, we limit their choices and power, particularly in the labor market. The low wages American workers make are, Desmond contends, not simply a consequence of weak minimum wage laws. They also reflect a willingness by those in power to look down on workers. When in 1981 Ronald Reagan fired air traffic controllers for striking, he made antiunion policies respectable. Today, only one in ten American workers belongs to a union and most of them are public-sector workers such as firefighters, police, and nurses. Adding to this problem, Desmond points out, is the rise of gig workers, who as independent contractors do not get normal employee benefits such as health care and overtime pay, and the divided workplace in which the workers a company does not value are hired through temp agencies that offer lower wages and benefits than those that are standard for the workers the company values.
Second, we hurt the poor by prioritizing the subsidization of affluence over the reduction of poverty in our tax and budget policies. The biggest beneficiaries of federal aid are the affluent, Desmond observes. The money they make from capital gains is taxed at a lower rate than wages. They work in jobs with employer-sponsored health insurance, which is not taxed. They benefit from mortgage-interest deductions because they can afford to buy a house. And they benefit from 529 plans that allow them to put away tax-free money for their children’s college education because they make more money than they need to support themselves.
Third, we create prosperous and exclusive communities that keep out the poor. Desmond is mindful of America’s racial past in which banks refused to authorize mortgages for Black families in white neighborhoods, but he stresses that current practices have furthered such exclusion by laws that in many towns and suburbs limit the building of multifamily housing and require that houses be constructed on a certain amount of land. The consequence of these restrictions is that homes in such areas become scarce commodities the poor cannot afford. Their children are in turn locked out of what Desmond calls “high opportunity neighborhoods” with their excellent schools and low crime rates.
How do we end these injustices? Desmond asks throughout his book. “I’m not calling for ‘redistribution.’ I’m calling for the rich to pay their taxes,” he insists. “I’m calling for a rebalancing of our social safety net. I’m calling for a time when America made bigger investments in our social welfare.”
Desmond does not delude himself into thinking that bringing about an end to widespread poverty in America will be easy or quick. Poverty will be abolished in America only by a “mass movement” he writes in his epilogue to Poverty, By America.
“Movements need people to march and be in the streets, he points out, but movements also need graphic designers and marketing professionals and lawyers.”
What gives Desmond hope is that he sees poverty abolitionism possible through action on a variety of fronts. We can, he writes, “seek to divest from poverty in our consumer choices, investment decisions, and jobs.” Desmond has no doubt that, as in the past, unions, civil rights organizations, and groups favoring housing justice must be among the leaders of a national antipoverty movement, but he also believes that everyone can support and learn from such groups.
Movements need people to march and be in the streets, he points out, but movements also need graphic designers and marketing professionals and lawyers. “If you have found security and prosperity and wish the same for your neighbors,” Desmond writes on the last page of his book, “than this is your fight, too.” The moral sentiment behind such an appeal is unmistakable. Whether it can reach beyond those who currently think America needs more equality to be a just nation is not yet clear.
Nicolaus Mills is author of Like a Holy Crusade: Mississippi 1964—The Turning of the Civil Rights Movement in America. He is professor of American literature at Sarah Lawrence College.
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