Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond urges individuals to commit to abolishing poverty
In the prologue to his latest book, Matthew Desmond bluntly assesses who we are in the United States, “the richest country on earth, with more poverty than any other advanced democracy.”
Desmond, the Maurice P. During Professor of Sociology at Princeton, notes in “Poverty, by America” that books about poverty tend to focus on the poor, starting with Jacob Riis writing in 1890 about “how the other half lives.” Such books help readers understand the nature of poverty but, says Desmond, “they do not — and in fact cannot — answer the most fundamental question, which is: Why? Why all this American poverty?”
Desmond addresses the question head on in “Poverty, by America,” released March 21 by the Crown imprint of Random House Publishing Group. Crown published his previous book, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” which won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction. The new book is a call for Americans to become what he calls poverty abolitionists.
Why so much poverty in America? Factors Desmond examines include race and class, diminished labor unions, exploitive employers, tax breaks skewed to help the privileged at the expense of the poor, aid diverted from the needy, zoning restrictions, and greater spending on personal consumption and less on public works. As Desmond succinctly puts it: “More for me. Less for we.”
Calling poverty “a misery and a national disgrace,” Desmond concludes: “The citizens of the richest nation in the world can and should finally put an end to it. We don’t need to outsmart this problem. We need to outhate it.”
In a recent Zoom interview, Desmond discussed the book, his reasons for writing it and the impact he hopes it has to eradicate poverty. The following is a condensed and edited transcript from that conversation.
Your last book, “Evicted,” won the Pulitzer Prize. Can you describe the thought process that led you from wrapping up that significant achievement to conceive and write your latest book, “Poverty, by America?”
"Evicted" was really a hard look at the human cost of the housing crisis. Poverty is bigger than the housing crisis. It’s bigger than jobs and family and prisons. One in nine of us live below the poverty line in America, an incredibly high rate for a country this rich. I just felt like I didn't have an answer to why. I didn't feel like I had a clear and convincing case about how we could finally eradicate poverty. Toni Morrison said she used to write books that she wished existed. I guess for me, this is a book that I wish existed, this kind of book that answered these two questions: Why so much poverty, and how we can finally end it?
Throughout your career, you have focused on the plight of the poor. As you look back on your life, even dating to childhood, what sparked your interest in helping the poor and what drives you today?
I have been asked this question so many times, and I never feel like I have a good answer to it. My family was poor. We lost our childhood home to foreclosure when I was in college and went through some hard times, like so many other families do in this country. That must have worked its way into my psyche. Going to college, I'm at Arizona State University, with all the scholarships and loans and odd jobs I could get. I saw money around, I saw affluence, and it was so confusing to me, this kind of tolerance for vast inequality. I think that worked its way into my soul, too. Then I started spending a lot of time with homeless folks around my university, talking with them and listening to them and being in relationship with them. I kind of went to grad school because I was confused, chasing this question about all this deprivation around all this affluence. I guess I'm still chasing it.
Your book debunks commonly held misperceptions about the poor — it’s their own fault, they should get a better job, move to a better neighborhood, etc. But you point the finger of blame not at those below the poverty line but at those of us above it. How are we to blame?
Many of us who have found security and privilege enjoy our cheap goods and services. We enjoy high returns in our investments. Those often come at a cost of a human sacrifice. We often protect tax breaks that accrue to the wealthiest among us, tax breaks for wealth transfers and mortgage deductions that starves anti-poverty spending. And then we have the audacity to ask how we can afford to drive down child poverty and end hunger in America. Last, we build walls around our communities. We refuse to allow any kind of affordable housing to move forward. We concentrate affluence, and that results in the concentration of poverty. To understand the causes of poverty, many of us do have to search inside our own choices in our own neighborhoods.
In this era of social media, rife with misinformation, disinformation and deepfakes, many Americans believe only their own “facts.” They are hostile to academics and other experts. As a professor at one of the nation’s leading universities, do you believe the truths that your book reveals will get through to people? Can you convert the skeptics?
I launched this book at Parnassus Books in Tennessee. I did an event the night before the book launch, and one family drove 10 hours to be there. Ten hours! Then I flew to Washington, D.C., and I gave a speech at the National Low Income Housing Coalition and signed books. We ran out of books, and the signing went on for hours. I met so many people. I met two young women from Atlanta who were there, and one was living in her car with her kid, but she was a homeless activist. She was fighting for housing justice. They couldn't afford my book. I bought my book for them.
There are so many of us that are hungry for a new message on this topic. There are so many of us that are over the old story, the old tropes, the boring tendency to blame the poor for their miseries. I feel like this is a very pregnant and hopeful moment. It's like the old Antonio Gramsci saying that the old is dying, but the new hasn't been born yet.
We as a nation are ready for a different way of living and a different way of talking about this. I feel like our students are ready. When I teach my class on poverty, I get students with majors in math and computer science and biology and English and economics, sociology. I get students from affluence, and I get students whose parents were berry pickers or lawn foremen or were unemployed. It's a privilege to be engaged with them.
I think we're at a different place. When I went around the country talking about “Evicted,” I got a sense of this. I thought that I wouldn't be having an old conversation. And I just didn't. I didn't get the tropes and the pushback and stereotypes. That stuff still exists, and my inbox is a testament to that. But I'm also getting emails that are like: “I want to be a poverty abolitionist. What can I do more?” I got an email today by someone who said, “We're going to move to another bank that doesn’t charge overdraft fees.” I am optimistic here.
For those who wish to take part in this movement to abolish poverty — a Princeton student, someone who lives in town or a neighboring community, or anyone in New Jersey or elsewhere — what can or should they do that will make a difference?
We could commit ourselves to poverty abolitionism. Poverty is an abomination, and it has to go. It's something that has to go to give life to the fullest to all those families that are struggling. It has to go because it diminishes all of us. Once you make that commitment, you start looking at your consumer choices differently, your investment decisions differently. We might take our talents and our skills and our training and apply those in the service of poverty abolitionism. We need artists, we need lawyers, we need fair business practices, we need doctors that are willing to serve poor rural communities.
I meet a lot of students who ask, “How can I make the biggest difference?” What I always say is, “Let's find out what you love to do, and then let's apply that to this issue.” Those of us who are privileged can start questioning how the government subsidizes our privilege and start turning away from that. This is not an argument about redistribution. It's an argument about recommitting to equal opportunity and recommitting to making sure most of our resources go to families who need it the most.
There are so many amazing anti-poverty movements out there. I've created endpovertyusa.org. It's designed to connect people to those movements. It's designed to make sure families living everywhere in the country who need and deserve aid get connected to services that can help. It's designed to help all of us find movements wherever we live, to connect with them, or to connect with folks working on a national level.
Your new book has just been released, and you’re in the early days of the tour promoting it. What type of impact do you hope to have among lawmakers and others who set policy?
The last call I was on was with members of Congress and congressional staffers talking about upcoming congressional testimony. “Evicted” helped change laws at the local level, but also at the state and national level. There are bipartisan laws right now that are introduced in the Senate that are motivated by that research and that work. During the pandemic, the Eviction Lab had weekly meetings with members of the White House and the Treasury to talk about the eviction moratorium and emergency rental assistance, judging their effectiveness and what was needed to make sure renting families weren't exposed to the pandemic through eviction and displacement. A study at Duke estimated that the moratorium dropped the death rate by 11%.
My hope is that this book similarly has an opportunity to move policy and move the national conversation. I'll continue to meet with policy makers. I've met with a lot of community organizations already and anti-poverty advocates. There's a lot of overlap on these basic issues of economic justice and fairness across political lines. There's clearly polarization in Congress. But on the ground level, most Americans want higher wages. Most Americans want more investments in affordable housing. Most Americans think that poverty is structurally given, a result of unfair circumstances. So I think that's incredibly encouraging, too.
Is there a particular passage in the book that you wish every American would read and get energized by?
That's a good question. For me, the book builds to the first few paragraphs in Chapter Seven, where it lays out the case (to abolish poverty). Sometimes when you're writing it kind of comes to you, there's a flow state. In those paragraphs, there was kind of a flow state or an inspiration.
Chapter 7 begins:
In 1881, having published "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina," Leo Tolstoy moved to Moscow from the Russian countryside. He was fifty-three and a man of means, able to employ a team of servants who ran his household. One of the first things Tolstoy noticed about Moscow was its poverty. “I knew country poverty,” he wrote, “but town poverty was new and incomprehensible to me.” He was shocked to walk the streets of the city and see such hunger and hopelessness commingling with such ostentation and frivolity. The problem haunted Tolstoy, and he went looking for an answer. He visited houses of prostitution, questioned a police officer who had arrested a beggar, and even adopted a young boy, who eventually ran away. The problem wasn’t work, the great writer quickly learned. The poor seemed to never stop working. The problem, he ultimately decided, was himself and his fellow affluents, who lived idle lives. “I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means—except by getting off his back.”
True then and there, and true now and here. There is so much poverty in this land not in spite of our wealth but because of it. Which is to say, it’s not about them. It’s about us. “It is really so simple,” Tolstoy wrote. “If I want to aid the poor, that is, to help the poor not to be poor, I ought not to make them poor.”