To Hell With Poverty

To Hell With Poverty

In his new book, Matthew Desmond argues that abolishing poverty will require an ambitious moral undertaking.

A rally against rising rents in New York City on May 20, 2023 (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Poverty, by America
by Matthew Desmond
Crown, 2023, 304 pp.

One of the most revelatory sections in Matthew Desmond’s new book, Poverty, by America, focuses on housing. Excluding truly elite zip codes, such as those in parts of Manhattan, Desmond shows that it often pays more to be a landlord to the poor than to the rich. Working with MIT professor Nathan Wilmers, Desmond “found that landlords in poor neighborhoods earn roughly $300 a month per apartment unit after regular expenses are deducted from rent. Landlords in middle-class neighborhoods take home $225 a month per apartment unit, and landlords in rich neighborhoods take home $250 a month per unit after regular expenses.” The maintenance costs are not very different, and neither are the rents charged. Comparing middle-class sections of Indianapolis to areas of concentrated poverty, the median monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment was $991 versus $816.

Landlords can charge high rents for bad quality housing because our society has made the poor into a captive consumer base. The waiting time for government-subsidized housing can be many years long, which creates a pool of renters with limited options. In addition to being more likely to face racial prejudice and the stigma of being a single parent, “poor renters often have eviction and conviction records, bad credit or no credit at all, and no access to cosigners who appear on paper as safer bets.” And unlike wealthier movers, the poor often relocate in a moment of crisis. This forces them to accept what they can get, which is usually an apartment that takes so much of their income that they cannot save for something better.

The obvious beneficiaries of this arrangement are, of course, the landlords, but many others benefit as well. The lack of affordable housing inflates demand for less affordable housing, increasing property values for homeowners, which in turn provides a store of equity that has been essential to the accumulation of middle- and upper-class wealth since suburban life became appended to the American dream. And by excluding the poor from more affluent neighborhoods, those living in the oasis hoard for themselves the amenities that a robust tax base buys: good schools, parks, and the psychic benefits of beauty and safety.

Desmond opens his book with a simple question: “why is there so much poverty in America?” His central argument is that those of us who are not poor are the beneficiaries and authors of that poverty. We are the exploiters. Desmond argues these dynamics play out not just in the housing market, but in employment, banking, and tax policy. “Poverty isn’t simply the condition of not having enough money. It’s the condition of not having enough choice and being taken advantage of because of that.” For Desmond, this explains why poverty is so entrenched, and suggests why it’s a problem that is difficult to overcome politically. To tackle it will require a more ambitious moral undertaking. Poverty by America is a clarion call for poverty abolition—not as an act of charity, but of repentance.

To talk about poverty, one must define it. Desmond begins with the federal Official Poverty Measure (OPM), originally developed by Mollie Orshansky in the 1960s. “Orshansky figured that if poverty was fundamentally about a lack of income that could cover the basics, and if nothing was more basic than food, then you could calculate poverty with . . . the cost of food in a given year and the share of a family’s budget dedicated to it,” Desmond writes. Orshansky’s measure is austere, distinguishing between just two kinds of people: those who can buy groceries without skipping rent, and those who cannot. The latter eats when it falls into debt and starves when it pays for housing, while the former can draw on some financial reserves before it must sacrifice one necessity for another. Using the OPM, Desmond reports that there are 38 million Americans living in poverty today, or 10 to 12 percent of the population.

While Desmond does not disregard the official measure, he argues for a more expansive definition of who counts as poor. According to Desmond, “as a lived reality, there is plenty of poverty above the poverty line,” and he sees no other appropriate term to describe economic precarity further up the income distribution. “Many are not officially counted among the ‘poor,’ but what then is the term for trying to raise two kids on $50,000 a year in Miami or Portland?” Desmond cites research from Policy Link that finds “more than 100 million people in the United States are struggling to make ends meet.” PolicyLink places every family earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line within that struggle. This definition of poverty includes those deemed poor by the OPM but adds some 68 million Americans who would ordinarily be treated as lower-middle or working class.

The effort to expand the ambit of our social safety net is admirable, but the utility of a taxonomy is not only in inducing political action. Its primary purpose is to place together what is highly similar, which is why new terms like “concentrated poverty” have arisen to acknowledge differences where homogeneity had been presumed. I would have liked for Desmond to better defend the notion that a family earning less than $30,000 a year faces the same material reality as one earning twice that amount. Nonetheless, adopting the PolicyLink figure certainly does heighten the stakes of Desmond’s central question. If nearly one in three Americans are living in poverty, why have we accepted it for so long?

Many of the popular theories position poverty outside of the control of government, instead pointing to deindustrialization, globalization, the increased need for advanced education, or the rise of immigration. Poverty, then, persists because forces beyond our control nurture it. Desmond shows that none of these approaches hold up to a comparative analysis. Deindustrialization, as described by Desmond, “caused the shuttering of factories and the hollowing out of communities that had sprung up around them.” Other countries have experienced similar changes. “Yet Belgium, Canada, Italy, and many other countries haven’t experienced the kind of wage stagnation and surge in income inequality that the United States has.” Americans also have essentially the same rate of bachelor’s attainment as the Netherlands, Switzerland, France, and several other rich countries that all have lower poverty. And after comparing states with high and low influxes of immigrants, Desmond did not find anything to suggest that immigrants cause poverty.

Another set of popular theories eschews agentless forces in favor of narratives of personal responsibility. In this view, it is the fault of the individual that poverty persists. Much has been made, for example, of the increase in households headed by single mothers. “Roughly one in three families headed by a single mother is poor,” Desmond writes, “compared to just one in seventeen married families.” That correlation has led many to blame poverty on the breakdown of traditional family structures. But, according to Desmond, “a study of eighteen rich democracies found that single mothers outside the United States were not poorer than the general population.” Society has the option to provide the supports that single parents (not just mothers) need if they are to balance work with family, such as universal pre-K, free summer programs, and family leave. Alternatively, if a society wants to punish single parenthood with the destitution of parent and child, it can choose to. But it is making a choice.

Desmond’s discussion of motherhood dovetails with that of marriage, which also has declining rates among America’s poor. There is a popular conservative theory called the “success sequence” that holds that young people can avoid poverty by following three simple steps: graduate from high school, obtain a full-time job, and wait until marriage to have children. As reported by Desmond, “one study found that only 2 percent of people who completed the sequence were poor in 2007, compared to 76 percent of people who violated all three rules.” However, the study was guilty of selective reporting. You can examine the sample of all poor people or the sample of all people who completed the success sequence. When you do the former, there were more poor Americans who had followed all three rules (and remained poor) than had broken them. Black Americans who did all three steps still had higher poverty rates than peers who did the same—not the finding one expects in a meritocracy. At the same time, nearly all the benefit of the sequence comes from full-time employment. Marriage contributes so little to the result that its inclusion seems to have less to do with statistical significance and more to do with enforcing a set of values upon the poor.

On his early forays into poverty research, Desmond writes, “I bought into the idea, popular among progressives, that the election of President Ronald Reagan . . . marked the ascendancy of market fundamentalism, or ‘neoliberalism,’ a time when governments cut aid to the poor, lowered taxes, and slashed regulations.” Desmond finds that in the short term, Reagan was able to reduce spending on anti-poverty initiatives, but he was less effective in the long term: “spending on the nation’s thirteen largest means-tested programs . . . went from $1,015 a person the year Ronald Reagan was elected president to $3,419 a person one year into Donald Trump’s administration.”

Even as overall spending on benefits has increased, there have been significant changes in how those funds have been administered. One of the best sections of Poverty, by America examines how government funds are siphoned off before they can even reach the poor. Prior to the Clinton administration, welfare was often distributed directly to poor families in the form of cash assistance. But in the 1990s the government replaced the old model with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. TANF is distributed as a block grant to states, which are then allowed to distribute funds however they see fit.

According to Desmond, out of every dollar budgeted for TANF in 2020, poor families received just 22 cents. Some portion of the remainder went to indirect support, but an awful lot of it paid for things with no direct connection to the earnings of poor families. Oklahoma spent $70 million in TANF funds on a marriage initiative that offered workshops and counseling to everyone in the state, regardless of whether they were poor. Arizona paid for abstinence-only education. Pennsylvania subsidized anti-abortion crisis centers. Maine spent money on a Christian summer camp. In a 389-page audit performed in 2020, it was discovered that Mississippi spent TANF dollars on an evangelical worship singer, three cars for the family of a local nonprofit leader, and speaking fees for NFL quarterback Brett Favre. Perhaps more egregious is that states are not required to spend all the money they receive each year. In 2020, state governments held $6 billion in unspent welfare funds; “Nebraska was sitting on $91 million,” and Hawaii had four times that amount in reserve, “enough to provide every poor child in the state with $10,000.”

The American welfare system is, as Desmond puts it, a “leaky bucket.” But these leaks are no more capable of explaining the persistence of poverty than single motherhood. “The simple truth,” Desmond writes, is that “poverty is an injury, a taking. Tens of millions of Americans do not end up poor by a mistake of history or personal conduct. Poverty persists because some wish and will it to.”

How Desmond apportions blame for this problem shifts multiple times over the course of the book. Sometimes, the two-thirds who don’t live in poverty are “unwitting enemies of the poor.” At other times, the majority seem much more cognizant and culpable: “if this is our design, our social contract, then we should at least own up to it. We should at least stand up and profess, Yes, this is the kind of nation we want.” But there is a difference between seeing the majority as ignorant but complicit and seeing it as knowing and malevolent. These claims call forth different political strategies.

Desmond, however, prioritizes individual action over political organizing, calling upon readers to become “poverty abolitionists.” As he describes it, this “entails conducting an audit of our lives, personalizing poverty by examining all the ways we are connected to the problem—and to the solution.” Principally, it is a consumer activist approach: do not purchase from companies that pay low wages, that stifle unions, that dodge taxes, or do any number of things that might entangle you in the misery of the poor. We should also “brag” about these choices as we would environmentally conscious ones, because that is how we change the behaviors of others.

Consumer activism of this kind is a common prescription, though Desmond is uncommon in his willingness to call for personal sacrifice rather than pretend none will be required. “Since exploitation pays,” Desmond writes, “Banking and shopping in ways that express solidarity with the poor could mean we pay more.” But what is to stop people from abandoning these ethical consumer choices when they feel the pinch of another recession? Policy seems necessary to take exploitation off the table.

Desmond does not reject politics, but his lack of clarity about the role of political action and organizing in the abolition of poverty leaves open the possibility that readers will latch onto his most individualistic advice. “We can fashion a new society, starting with our own lives,” he writes. “Where we decide to work and live, what we buy, how we vote, and where we put our energies as citizens all have consequences for poor families.” Voting is the only explicitly political strategy on the table. Yet even the examples of successful consumer activism that Desmond mentions—like labels for fair trade, or cruelty-free products—required collective action to create and oversee them. There are serious limitations to consumer activism in the absence of any political organization. Unfortunately, this is one of several instances where Desmond does not address concerns that I would have expected him to anticipate. Assuming that his intended audience is larger than just newcomers, Poverty, by America could have done more to reconcile itself with other anti-poverty approaches.

Desmond set out to establish a fundamental theory of poverty, “a clear and convincing case as to why there is so much hardship in this land of abundance.” He wants to generate this theory from the ground up, implicitly eschewing the theories he has previously encountered. That is a tall order for a text of 189 pages (before endnotes), and not everyone will have patience for such a brash endeavor. I might not have had patience for it myself were it not for Desmond’s unusual background.

Writing about poverty tends to be a college-educated profession, and poor children rarely obtain bachelor’s degrees. Having been poor until the age of twenty-six, I cannot help but notice that the recent diversity on display at the bookstore–“BIPOC authors,” “women authors,” “immigrant stories”—has not produced a shelf for the poor. Radical educator and class interloper Paulo Freire argued that the poor must have a say in the architecture of their liberation, and we should be prepared for their vision of utopia to differ from other classes. The fact that Desmond hails from the lower rungs of the working class, that he has memories of eviction and deprivation, inclines me to appreciate his efforts even if in the end he gives short shrift to theories I would have spent more time on.

Poverty, by America offers a sweeping account of issues that new readers would otherwise have to ingest several books to encounter, though reading the others remains necessary if you are seeking solutions based in collective action. What is truly rare and recommendable in the text is the emotion that underlies it. Unlike many books written about the poor, Desmond’s is imbued with love—not a hokey, missionary-style sympathy for the downtrodden, but an earnest love arising out of a lifetime spent in conversation and friendship with people on the margins. Even his descriptions of those he finds fault with are deeply humane (recalling the kindness with which he wrote about landlords in Evicted). This is not a claim all class writers or activists can make, and it is by no means an easy thing to do.

There are weeks when it seems that the sole purpose of my phone is to connect me to the abject poverty of home, delivering horror story after horror story that neither I nor the person on the other side has money enough to fix. It is no small thing to offer yourself to people going through the trials of poverty. But Desmond holds nothing back in describing the value of these acts. “When we cheat and rob one another, we lose part of ourselves, too,” he writes. “Doing the right thing is often a highly inconvenient, time-consuming, even costly process, I know. I try, fail, and try again. But that’s the price of our restored humanity.”

Betrand Cooper is a writer and education professional based in Los Angeles. Drawing on personal deprivation and a master’s in education theory and policy, his writing explores popular and academic depictions of poverty.

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