A Feature Review of
Poverty, by America
Reviewed by Amy Merrick
“I have met poor Americans around the country fighting for dignity and justice—or just plain survival, which can be hard enough,” Matthew Desmond writes in the opening to Poverty, by America. More than 38 million people living in the United States—more than one in ten—cannot afford their basic needs. In such a wealthy nation, how can this be?
In Poverty, by America, Desmond sets out to answer this question. He received a Pulitzer for his 2016 book Evicted, which movingly chronicled the lives of families in Milwaukee who were upended by unstable housing and predatory economic practices. In his new book, the author deliberately foregoes the narrative style of Evicted, informing readers that this time he is more concerned with the origins of poverty than its effects. “To understand the causes of poverty, we must look beyond the poor,” he writes. “Those of us living lives of privilege and plenty must examine ourselves.”
Desmond gives three explanations for how Americans are complicit in creating and perpetuating poverty. We exploit people through unfair labor and lending systems; we prioritize tax benefits for those who are well off; we maintain segregated communities, excluding some from the comforts of an affluent society. “There is so much poverty in this land,” he writes, “not in spite of our wealth but because of it.”
For each of these points, the author marshals convincing evidence. First, people who are poor are penalized by an unreasonably low federal minimum wage, corporate hostility to labor unions, punitive bank overdraft fees, high-interest payday loans, and rents in low-income areas that are not much less than elsewhere. Those who are not poor, Desmond argues, profit from these injustices through artificially suppressed prices for goods and services, and growing retirement accounts. Regulation could address these problems.
Second, wealthier homeowners battle fiercely to preserve tax breaks such as the mortgage-interest deduction. Homeowner subsidies cost the federal government more than $193 billion in 2020, Desmond notes, while the government spent only $53 billion on direct housing assistance for low-income families. Yet affluent households typically don’t see themselves as reliant on handouts. We could rebalance the U.S. tax code to direct more help to those who need it most.
Third, people living in higher-income neighborhoods build walls to keep others out by crafting rigid zoning ordinances and opposing affordable-housing developments. “Most of us who live in safe, prosperous communities don’t want poor people for neighbors,” Desmond writes, “particularly if we are white and they are Black.” We cannot eliminate poverty without examining our continued support of segregation.
Desmond estimates that it would have cost $177 billion in 2020 to bring American families below the official poverty line up to its threshold. For those who claim that this would be impossibly expensive, it is less than 3% of this year’s projected federal budget of $6.2 trillion, and less than 1% of U.S. gross domestic product—challenging, but not unimaginable.
Perhaps the most controversial claim in Poverty, by America is that there has been essentially no progress against poverty since 1970. In making this case, Desmond relies on the federal official poverty measure, an income threshold originally calculated by determining what proportion of its budget a family must spend on food. “As estimated by the federal government’s poverty line, 12.6 percent of the U.S. population were poor in 1970; two decades later it was 13.5 percent; in 2010, it was 15.1 percent; and in 2019, it was 10.5 percent,” Desmond writes. “There is no real improvement here, just a long stasis.”
Some economists have countered that a better standard would be the supplemental poverty measure, which includes government assistance such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and SNAP, the successor to food stamps. By this measurement, poverty in the United States has declined significantly in the past five decades. Excluding federal antipoverty policies “can create the false impression that poverty is intractable and will persist no matter what government does,” researchers for the Center for American Progress, a think tank, wrote in 2014.
While the discussion matters, this rebuttal to Desmond’s argument has placed too much focus on the most appropriate measure of poverty—the kind of debate economists are comfortable having—and too little on his larger, more discomfiting point that poverty remains high, and our collective resolve to fight it is lacking.
In the 1960s, when President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty and established the Great Society programs such as Medicaid, Medicare and food stamps, his administration acted with a sense of urgency. In 1967, a group of physicians recruited by the Field Foundation delivered a report to Congress about the alarming levels of hunger they had witnessed. Like Desmond, the researchers emphasized that it was not the case that some people were rich while others were poor; rather, some were rich because others were poor, “If you go look you will find America is a shocking place. No other Western country permits such a large proportion of its people to endure the lives we press on our poor. To make four-fifths of a nation more affluent than any other people in history, we have degraded one-fifth mercilessly.”
The findings received extensive media coverage, and politicians swiftly responded. The food-stamp program was expanded from a pilot to serve many more Americans. School lunch and breakfast programs were strengthened. Elderly people were served meals in their homes and at gathering places. The Women, Infants and Children supplemental nutrition program was created.
By the 1980s, though, political neglect had eroded federal nutrition programs, and significant hunger resurfaced. The history of antipoverty efforts in America is one of forceful activity followed by complacency and backsliding. The will to fight poverty must be constantly renewed.
And here is where Desmond says we—we comfortable Americans—are failing our moral obligation to our neighbors. Federal antipoverty measures created during the acute phase of the COVID-19 pandemic gave extraordinary relief to families. Emergency rental assistance and an expanded child tax credit helped to drop eviction filings well below historical levels and dramatically reduce child poverty. Yet there was very little praise from constituents and very little outcry when the programs were allowed to expire.
“When we refuse to recognize what works, we risk swallowing the lie that nothing does,” Desmond writes. “We risk imagining the future only as more of the same. We risk despairing, perhaps the most exculpating of all emotions, and submitting to cynicism, perhaps the most conservative of all belief systems.”
The author places the responsibility to fight poverty back on individuals, and not only the most powerful. He calls on each of us to actively oppose segregation and to advocate for affordable housing in our own neighborhoods. He suggests that we evaluate companies on their antipoverty policies and make spending decisions based on what we learn. My first reaction was that this step is too difficult for an average consumer, but then I considered how much time I have spent online researching animal-welfare standards, or the safety of children’s products, or types of shampoo.
Sections of Poverty, by America can be repetitive, and the lack of narrative makes the book feel sterile at times. Whenever Desmond introduced a specific person—like the father he met who had turned to drugs to stay awake during his low-paid, overnight warehouse shift—I wanted to follow them longer. Individual stories help readers discover the universal in the particular; statistics show how the individual stories represent a larger whole.
Overall, the book makes an impassioned case that instead of tinkering at the margins, we should commit to eradicating poverty altogether. Desmond calls on readers to become “poverty abolitionists” who refuse to accept the status quo. During the worst months of the pandemic, there was a brief period of increased solidarity, and an openness to challenging the habits and structures that constrain our everyday lives. Desmond wants to catch us before, mindful of only our own privilege, we sink back into forgetfulness.
Amy Merrick is a senior professional lecturer in journalism at DePaul University in Chicago. She is also a freelance writer and editor, and a longtime member of the Religion in Literature book group at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, Illinois.
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