We Can End Poverty Now. Do We Want To?
America is an obscenely rich nation. We have supermarkets with 50 different brands of potato chips and mega-mansions sprouting like buffalo grass across the prairie and TVs the size of barns. With all this wealth, all this bounty, all this stuff — why is there so much hardship and suffering? Roughly one in nine Americans live in poverty. If the American poor founded a country, that country would have a bigger population than Australia or Venezuela.
This is the paradox that Matthew Desmond explores in Poverty, By America. And the explanation he comes up with is both simple and deeply provocative: “Tens of millions of Americans do not end up poor by a mistake of history or personal conduct,” he writes. “Poverty persists because some wish and will it to.” In other words, poverty exists because people who are not poor — by that I mean people like me who have a roof over our head and don’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from — want it to exist. We don’t just tolerate it. We benefit from it. We get cheaper goods by allowing workers to be exploited. We live in walled-off neighborhoods that keep housing prices high. We hog all the tax benefits and subsidies and then complain that there is no money for better health care, child tax credits, or affordable housing. This is what’s radical about Desmond’s book. It’s not really about poor people. It’s about the rest of us.
Desmond is a professor of Sociology at Princeton University and the founding director of the Eviction Lab. His last book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and many other honors. Poverty, By America explores similar terrain, but rather than a deeply reported book about families who are losing their homes and apartments and tossed out into the street, Desmond’s new book is short, smart, and thrilling. The thrill comes from the sheer boldness of Desmond’s argument and his carefully modulated but very real tone of outrage that underlies his words. He is a sociological shock-jock, a guy who knows how to take you on a wild ride through the inequities of the tax code and the myth of welfare dependency without ever making you feel like you’re going to crash into a wall of dogma or stupidity.
“I’d spent most of my adult life researching, reporting on poverty,” Desmond tells me. “I’ve lived in very poor neighborhoods. I’ve read the statistics, got up on the data, talked to policy makers, but I just didn’t feel like I had this answer to why there’s so much poverty in this country. It’s kind of like Tony Morrison once said that she wrote the books that she wished existed, and I guess I felt that I just needed to do this for myself. I also felt like the country was ready and eager for a different kind of debate about poverty.”
Let’s start with this sentence, which is pretty much the heart of your argument. You write: “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.” Can you explain what you mean?
I mean that there’s so much poverty in America, not in spite of our wealth, but because of it, many of us do benefit from poverty. By us, I don’t just mean the guys just a little richer than we are. I mean, a lot of us who have found privilege and security in this country consume the cheap goods and services the working poor produce. We are invested in the stock market and see our savings go up often and often those savings go up because of a human sacrifice, the way that companies drive down labor costs. Many of us benefit from this imbalanced welfare state that gives the most to families that need it the least in the form of tax breaks, which far outpace everything that we do to fight poverty in America. Then many of us build walls around our communities, we zone ourselves into affluence. That creates pockets of wealth, but also pockets of concentrated disadvantage. The book is really trying to ask us to think about and look at ways that we are connected to the problem and connected to the solution.
In the book, you write about what you call “the scarcity diversion.” Which is the commonly held idea that there are only so many jobs, only so much food, only many houses — and that we’re sorry that some people have more and some people don’t have enough but it’s just the way that things are.
I just can’t get over this study I found years ago that shows that if the top 1% of us just paid the taxes they owed, that we could collect an additional $175 billion a year, which is more than enough to reinstate the child tax credit that we had during Covid that cut child poverty by 46% in six months. That’s more than enough to double our investment in affordable housing and still have money left over. That’s almost enough to lift everyone above the official poverty line.
For those of us who are seeking ways to move the poverty debate and spark a new language when it comes to talking about inequality in the country, one challenge we have to solve is that in a world of scarce resources, how could we afford this? We just have to have responses at the ready for these challenges that show those points of resistance to be dishonest and morally corrupt. We obviously could afford to do so much more to fight poverty in America if the richest among us took less from the government.
By chance, I went out to President Lyndon Johnson’s ranch in Texas not long ago, and I was thinking about LBJ and the war on poverty in the Sixties and Seventies. What is fundamentally different about the conversation you are trying to provoke about poverty today?
What I love about LBJs War on Poverty is that they set a deadline. He used his first State of the Union in 1964 to announce an unconditional war on poverty. His commission, which was led by Sargent Shriver, was like, “Okay, we’re going to wipe out poverty in this land by 1976.” It wasn’t just rhetoric, it wasn’t just talk. I love that we once had this moral ambition of poverty abolitionism, and I hope that we could rekindle that moral ambition today. The difference in the poverty debate that I’m trying to contribute to is this is about us, not them.
There’s a line from [novelist] Tommy Orange that I quote in the book that I just love and I always come back to. He writes, “It’s like these kids are jumping out the windows of burning buildings falling to their deaths, and we think that the problem is that they’re jumping.” Man, when I read that, I was like, that’s exactly the American poverty debate. For over a hundred years, we’ve had books and policy reports and documentaries and news stories that focused on the jumpers, the poor themselves. We should have been focusing on the fire. Who lit it? Who’s warming their hands by it?
So if poverty persists because some of us wish it and will it to, what does that say about us and our society right now?
I’m pretty optimistic and hopeful on this question actually. Maybe that’s a little surprising. I think a lot of us feel this in our everyday lives. We feel how connected we are to the poor when we go out to eat, when we go to a hotel room, when we just see deprivation surrounding us or experiencing it ourselves. I think that if you look at the data, most Republicans and most Democrats now tell pollsters that they think poverty is a result of unfair circumstances, not a moral failing. That’s a big change in American society. Most of us want a higher minimum wage. Most of us think the rich aren’t paying their fair share of taxes.
I think that the country’s primed for a new conversation. This book is trying to push that conversation in a way that helps us look at all the ways we’re entangled in these systems and act as unwitting enemies to the poor. There is something to be explored about the deep psyche of American life on this score, but I also think that there are a lot of folks who are eager to take a stand and take steps to start divesting their lives from contributing to poverty.
I hope that’s true. One of the things that struck me is that you don’t really talk about Trump at all in the book. I mean, at MAGA rallies, you see a lot of people who probably have trouble paying their rent who are in a cult-like relationship with this fake billionaire who posts on social media while he’s sitting on a golden toilet. It seems hard to have a conversation about wealth and poverty in America without thinking about that dynamic.
I guess there were two things behind my decision to leave Trump out of the book. One is that, my goodness, there’s been so much written on this over the last several years, and a lot of it is speculation. A lot of it’s opinion. I feel like I just didn’t go down the research hole on this one. You know what I mean? I went down a lot of other research holes, but on this one, I didn’t. The other thing though, I think the more important thing is this is a deep enduring problem in America. Trump’s a new problem. There are parts of the rise of Trump that do connect with older problems in America. I really loved Adam Hochschild’s book, American Midnight. It was startling these anti-democratic tendencies that arose between the world wars. Then you think of McCarthyism and other moves in that direction, of course white nationalism. The Trump phenomenon is connecting to those deep enduring problems. Also, when you think of the persistence of poverty in the American landscape, this is a problem that far predates the rise of Trump and it’ll likely far outlast him as well.
To that point, I grew up in the Bay Area and John Steinbeck has always been a hero of mine. In The Grapes of Wrath, he wrote about a different kind of poverty and worker exploitation. He also once said, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” What do you make of that?
Well, it’s a really great line. And there’s some truth in that. In my book I write about how even anti-poverty movements often do not march under the banner of the poor. Unlike other identity-based movements or the climate movement where you can say I’m an environmentalist and own that as an identity, a lot of folks who are struggling don’t want to own poverty as an identity. I think that has political ramifications for things like voting or forming movements on the ground.
My read of why a Labor party or socialism didn’t arise on the American scene has much more to do with racial divisions and racism and how even when unions were in their peak strength, they often were a white man’s refuge and that racism was self-defeating. I think that prevented the American labor movement from reaching its full potential and cresting into some of the reforms we saw in England or France when they experienced labor unrest in the 19th century. I guess I would say Steinbeck’s onto something, but I’m going to add that racial component to it.
There is a lot of overlap between the climate and anti-poverty movement. You talk about being a poverty abolitionist. Climate activists want to abolish fossil fuels. You talk about the problems of issues of divestment, polarization. Those are words that are very powerful in the climate movement also right now.
I’m so thrilled that you picked up on that. I mean, on the one end, one thing you’re picking up on is me learning from the climate movement and importing the lessons to the anti-poverty movement. What I feel that the climate movement has done so well is to say, “Look, if we’re going to get a handle on this thing, we’ve got to take geoengineering seriously, we’ve got to think about global logging and oil companies, these big structural things. Also, what are you eating? What are you driving? How’s your house? Is it carbon neutral?” I think that connection between structural change and individual change gives the climate movement incredible power.
It’s hard for me to imagine something like the Inflation Reduction Act passing without a lot of Americans evaluating their role in this problem in their own lives and building a political will on the ground level. I see a ton of potential there with anti-poverty movements, too. I can see people saying, “Yeah, we need new policies and new social movements, but man, let me think about my tax rates. Let me think how am I invested in the stock market, my consumption choices? Am I a defender of segregation?” I think that’s one cut on it.
Then there’s this other cut, which is just like, what is climate change going to mean for the American poor and the global poor? That question is looming on the short-term horizon with massive, troubling implications. This is a place where the research isn’t there yet though. You can hear my hesitation in my voice, because I’m like, it’s going to be massively impactful, but how exactly it’s going to hit the poor, I think, I don’t know? Do you have an answer to that?
Well, one thing that’s very clear is that climate change is a problem that has been caused by the rich — the richest 1% are responsible for 70 times more carbon pollution than the bottom 50%. In the climate world, a big question is — what do rich westerners owe the people of the Global South? It’s an economic question. It’s a political question. But it’s also a moral question. And you’re making in some ways a similar argument about poverty, aren’t you?
Yes. That seems totally unassailable to me. I think that where I have some hesitation with the climate debate, I suppose, is the effective altruism debate. The debates about what we owe the future, which I understand and grasp on a moral level, but man, that’s hard to tell a family who’s facing eviction. It’s hard to tell someone incarcerated that the future’s the thing that’s broken more. That’s a place where I struggle. We could definitely take steps to abolish poverty in the country and take steps to get a handle on climate change. We don’t have to choose the present over the future or the future over the present.
One thing that separates your thinking about poverty from the climate movement is this question of the power of consumer choice. Oil companies want us to talk about our carbon footprint, not fossil fuel subsidies and lobbyists. But the fact is, the only way we’re really going to have big impacts on how much carbon pollution we emit is by big changes to our political system. So for many climate activists, talking about consumer choice is seen as a kind of greenwashing, a distraction from the real problem — which is the political power of the fossil fuel industry. But obviously you don’t feel that way about the poverty issue.
I think I don’t see it as an either/or issue. I see it as a both/and issue. If we think about a real shot at abolishing poverty, we know we have the resources and we know how to do this. The big question is political will, how to build political will. How do you do that? Part of that has to be connected with the way we choose to live as consumers, as citizens, as dads and moms. I think that’s connected to these big structural changes. It’s hard for me to think about a movement to push for real tax fairness and enforcement in the country if all of us are just trying to get as much as we can from the tax code. You know what I mean?
I can see a movement building where those of us who are benefiting from this imbalanced welfare state really start thinking about that, really start questioning that, really start talking to our neighbors about, “Can you believe this? This doesn’t make sense, right guys?” Start winding down. I feel like those smaller movements don’t let the government off the hook, but the opposite, actually push and motivate us to call for bigger structural change.
I also think that sometimes, at least in the anti-poverty world, structural explanations can feel very absolving. You could think about conversations that are saying, “Well, gosh, look at how polarizingCongress is.” That’s both true and absolve it. It was polarized in the 1960s when LBJ launched the War on Poverty and the Great Society. It was polarized back then and movements didn’t stop. We can’t either.
If you think of something like segregation and upholding these walls around our communities that create private opulence and public poverty, part of that’s history. History creates these laws. There’s a racial history there, there’s a legal history there, but part of it is literally people going down to the zoning board meeting Tuesday night and yelling at the aldermen, circulating a petition and gumming up the process to build affordable housing. Is that a structural problem? Well, yeah, but it’s also an individual decision. The book is trying to collapse those two things a bit, not to let our policy makers or our corporate leaders off the hook, but quite the opposite.
What are the two or three things that you think are most important to happen right now policy-wise to end poverty?
This is a completely attainable goal for a rich nation like ours. We need to take three steps. First, we need to deepen our investments in fighting poverty, and we fund those deeper investments by rebalancing the safety net with clear tax fairness and enforcement. What could those investments be? There’s a lot of great ones. We could reestablish the child tax credit, we could deepen our investment in affordable housing programs, basically just extending the dosage of programs that we know work, but are just underdosed right now.
We don’t need just deeper investments, we need different ones. This is the second move. We also have to find ways to attack the unrelenting exploitation of the poor in the labor market and the housing market especially. This means doing things like finding ways to make organizing and worker empowerment easier in the labor market. It also means expanding the housing choices of low income families. That means doing things like on ramps to home ownership or building on our public housing infrastructure.
The third thing is we need to finally turn away from segregation and move toward open, inclusive communities. That means replacing exclusionary zoning laws — laws that make it illegal to build affordable housing — with inclusionary ones. That’s the argument in a nutshell. You lift the floor, you empower the poor, and you turn away from segregation.
One of the things that makes the book so interesting and maybe so successful is that much of what you are saying is talking about a movement that is going in the opposite direction that America is going. Democracy is under attack, there’s rising racism on the extreme right, guns, the war on “woke.” The scale of the change you’re talking about in your book seems both achievable and to require the creation of a new world.
No, I think it’s a creation of a new political order, not a new world. I think there is reason to hope and to despair at the same time. I don’t think it means creating a new America because many folks at the public level, neighbor to neighbor, person to person, they want this. Clearly, this is the fight for the millions and tens of millions Americans who are struggling, who are facing eviction and homelessness, who are cutting coupons floating in that space between poverty and anything close to stability. This is clearly their fight.
It’s also a fight that many Americans, even those who have found prosperity in this country, want too, because all this poverty offends their sense of dignity and decency. I do think a lot of us left and center want this, but the political order is polarized. The polarization that matters is with our electeds, more than among neighbor to neighbor on basic issues of economic justice. The trick is getting the electeds to really reflect and execute policies that are connected with the will of the American people. Now that is a challenge, and I’m not sweeping that under the rug, but that is a challenge of a different order than moving the American public.
I think so many people are hungry for this conversation. I was in Columbus [Ohio] last night and someone drove nine hours to come and be part of our conversation. When I launched the book in Nashville at Parnassus Books, this family drove 10 hours to be at that talk. I was in LA, someone flew in from Milwaukee. I just feel like this book is hitting a chord because the American public are fed up with all this inequity and unfairness. I think there is something happening out there.