Jun 16, 2023 3 min read

Poverty, by America

Cover image of the book Poverty, by America, written by Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author, Matthew Desmond.

I just finished reading Matthew Desmond’s most recent book, Poverty by America. If you want to better understand poverty, what makes it so pervasive and persistent in the U.S., as well as ideas about what we could all do, this book is for you. Read it. Share it. In fact, today, I’m writing this from my notes because I’ve already shared my copy with a friend.

Desmond has well established his strengths as an ethnographer and social researcher through his work on evictions, including his groundbreaking book Evicted and the subsequent creation of the Eviction Lab to help communities and policymakers across the country:

Discover new facts about how eviction is shaping your community, raising awareness, and working toward new solutions.

In this new book, Poverty by America, Matt Desmond shows how, as a country, our understanding of and our approach to addressing poverty is flawed but flawed in a uniquely American way.

Early on, Desmond lays out the central question of the book:

Why is there so much poverty in America, a land of such abundance, and why has our poverty level remained essentially unchanged since the 1960s?

In answering this question, his book isn’t just an analysis, a research treatise, or a book of facts, even though there are plenty of great analyses, references, and data. Desmond goes beyond facts to let us feel his moral outrage when he shares early in the book what he feels is the answer to those central questions:

Poverty is a choice we are all making. In our country of abundance, poverty exists because some wish and will it to.

It felt as if he was speaking directly to me or to someone like me, a white person of some privilege. It felt like he was telling me that poverty is a choice that I am making, and it exists because I will it to continue. At that point, there was no way for me to close his book and look away.

Then, it was if he was reading my mind, our country's collective minds, and listening to all of our possible arguments. Matt leads us through a series of chapters and searing analyses that disabuse us of whatever excuses we might offer.

  • We spend so much on our welfare system and social safety net. We’re spending more than ever. We’re already giving too much. We can't afford more.
  • It’s because of immigration and immigrants taking jobs and burdening our system.
  • It’s the breakdown of the family and single parents.
  • It's lazy and dependent individuals.

He covers each of these and more. In the end, we realize there are no excuses. We understand that none of the excuses we make or hear are the real reasons poverty persists in a land of plenty.

Next, Matt shows us just how we all perpetuate poverty by:

  • Exploiting workers and subsidizing low pay through government programs.
  • Forcing the poor to pay more and feeding off of their poverty.
  • Hoarding opportunity through economic class disparities leads us to private opulence and public squalor.
  • Spending on a welfare system that operates as a leaky bucket into which we pour more and more money yet, by design, give the most help to those who need it the least.

Thankfully, Desmond then shares ideas about what we can collectively and individually do, such as:

  • Lifting the economic floor by rebalancing the social safety net
  • Empowering the poor by reigning in exploitation
  • Investing in broad prosperity by turning away from all forms of segregation

Desmond doesn’t stop there; he goes on to help us envision a new world without poverty. He reminds us that poverty will only end when a nationwide mass movement demands it. He calls on us to be poverty abolitionists.

Every person, every company, every institution has a role in perpetuating poverty – and ending it.

If you're interested, you might also want to listen to this interview and panel discussion with Matt Desmond, hosted by the Urban Institute. Whether you read the book, listen to the interview, or both, please make time to sit with the ideas Matt shares and to reflect on what we can and must do to be a part of the solution.

Ame Sanders
Founder of State of Inclusion. A seasoned leader & change-maker, she is focused on positive change within communities.
Great! You’ve successfully signed up.
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
You've successfully subscribed to The Inclusive Community.
Your link has expired.
Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.
Success! Your billing info has been updated.
Your billing was not updated.