"Poverty, By America" | Reviewed by Bill Schwab
Matthew Desmond catapulted from a young Princeton sociology professor to a Pulitzer Prize winner for his 2016 publication “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.” This spring his next book “Poverty, By America” hits the bookstores with diagnoses and solutions for ending poverty in the wealthiest country in the world. It is a jarring, thought-provoking, sometimes enraging essay.
Why do one in eight American children go without necessities? Why do we allow thousands of people to live and die on our streets each year? These questions, and more, aroused Desmond’s curiosity as a postgraduate student.
“There was something about the poverty debate that was bugging me,” he says. “There are all these books about poverty, and I started asking where's the tension in the story? Who is the bad guy? Is there a bad guy? Are there really 38 million people in this country who are poor, and it's no one's fault?”
These queries led to his dissertation and his award-winning book “Evicted.” The praise and awards were gratifying to him but he was not satisfied with telling the story of poverty alone. He wanted to make a difference in the lives of people. “Poverty, By America” is Desmond's answer to his plethora of questions and his remedy for United States poverty.
The author maintains the problem of poverty in the U. S. is solvable. However, the solution is obstructed, knowingly or unknowingly, by a bloc of entrenched, privileged citizens who live very comfortable lives due to the systematic exploitation of the poor and powerless. Who are these advantaged people? Look in the mirror. They are us, asserts Desmond. Ending poverty will only happen when we face our participation in its existence. We could alleviate poverty if only we had the will to give up benefiting from poverty ourselves, he argues.
Desmond explores many rationalizations progressives and conservatives have about the causes of poverty. He debunks the argument that poverty is caused by bad choices and fills his essay mostly with data and statistics on the causes and potential solutions for poverty in the U.S.
“America's poverty is not for lack of resources,” he maintains. “We lack something else.” That something else is compassion and the lack of a social system that insists everyone pull their weight—inclusive of corporations and wealthy individuals who, the IRS estimates, get away without paying upward of $1 trillion per year.
It would not take a miracle to eliminate poverty: about $177 billion, which would help end hunger and homelessness and “make immense headway in driving down the many agonizing correlates of poverty, like violence, sickness, and despair,” according to Desmond.
“Poverty, By America” is a call to action. The professor encourages readers to eradicate poverty by becoming informed about the systems and policies that contribute to the exploitation of the poor. He identifies tax codes, banking systems, zoning laws, and the hassle of applying for receiving assistance as some of the ways our society takes advantage of the poor. A large percentage of U.S. citizens enjoy perquisites not available to the poor. Free checking accounts and credit card rewards funded by exploitative late payment fees charged to the less fortunate are two of them. Votes to prevent low-income housing from being built nearby, and tax credits that reduce available funds that could reduce poverty, are other actions that hurt the poor. Desmond calls for each citizen to be engaged in the politics of community to bring in a new age of shared prosperity and finally true freedom.
Desmond’s essay is a lucid, thorough, and compassionate call for change in the U.S. by a scholar who knows his subject and cares about people. He provides a comprehensive introduction to an urgent problem that needs to be discussed more and acted on in our country. The author urges all of us to become “poverty abolitionists... refusing to live as unwitting enemies of the poor.”
About the Author: Matthew Desmond is a social scientist and urban ethnographer. He is the Morris P. During Professor of Sociology and the founder and Director of the Eviction Lab at Princeton University. He is also a Contributing Writer for “The New York Times Magazine.”