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A few years ago, a friend and I read Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, and even years later, it’s still one of the best books I’ve read. (If you have not read this book, run, don’t walk, to your local library or independent bookstore.)
Evicted follows Desmond as he lives in several different poor and working-class communities in Milwaukee and studies eviction, the experience of being evicted, and its immediate and long-term impacts on individuals and their communities. It is a haunting account of poverty and the housing crisis in the United States. When I found out Desmond was publishing a new book this spring, it went straight to the top of my To Be Read list.
In Desmond’s new book, Poverty, By America, the sociologist seeks to offer answers to a perennial question — why is poverty such a persistent problem in America? In particular, why is poverty so persistent in the richest country on earth? As Desmond notes in the prologue, “America’s poverty is not for lack of resources. We lack something else.”
So what’s going on? The argument Desmond posits is that we don’t do anything to seriously combat poverty because a good majority of us benefit, economically and socially, from the current set-up. In the first part of the book, he explores the problem of poverty — how we define poverty, what it’s like to be poor in America, how the poor are exploited and forced to pay more just for being poor.
Desmond also looks at our malfunctioning welfare state. A big chunk of the book deals with government aid and subsidies, the ways the middle class and rich benefit most from government aid, and how the money intended to help the poor rarely makes it to its intended targets. If America is so wealthy and already spends so much money to fight poverty, where is all this money going (spoiler alert – it’s not making its way to the poor but funneling right to the most affluent among us) ?
In the final few chapters, Desmond offers some solutions: “lift the floor by rebalancing our social safety net; empower the poor by reining in exploitation; and invest in broad prosperity by turning away from segregation.” He offers practical policy solutions as well as a broader societal vision for investing in disrupting poverty, getting the rich to pay their fair share in taxes so that we can strengthen the social safety net, and ending the segregation between the poor and the rest of us, all with the ultimate goal of abolishing poverty and giving the poor more freedom to live their lives as they choose.
You can feel Desmond’s passion for abolishing poverty in almost every page of the book, and he doesn’t hold back in calling out his fellow Americans — the middle class, the upper middle class, the wealthy, liberals, conservatives, and everyone in between.
- About the state of the American welfare state: “The biggest government subsidies are not directed at families trying to climb out of poverty but instead go to ensure that well-off families stay well-off…If this is our design, our social contract, we should at least stand up and profess Yes, this is the kind of nation we want. What we cannot do is look the American poor in the face and say, We’d love to help you, but we just can’t afford to, because that is a lie.
- About the destruction of the public sector by the well-off: “There was a time when Americans wished to be free of bosses. Now we wish to be free of bus drivers. We wish for the freedom to withdraw from the wider community and sequester ourselves in a more exclusive one.”
- About progressive cities’ exclusionary zoning policies that make expanding public housing almost impossible: “Perhaps we are not so polarized after all. Maybe above a certain income level, we are all segregationists.”
For all of Desmond’s anger and the frustration you feel as a reader as you learn all the ways this country exploits the poor and how you yourself benefit from this exploitation, the book ends on a hopeful note. “Whose fight is this?” Desmond asks. And he answers with a resounding call to action and a call to dream of a better future for everyone. Yes, it’s a fight for the unemployed, the homeless, the exploited, the undocumented, but it’s also a fight for all of us. Desmond leaves us with a call to solidarity and community with one another.
He concludes, “If you have found security and prosperity and wish the same for your neighbors, if you demand a dignified life for all people in America, if you love fairness and justice and want no part in exploitation for personal gain, if all the hardship in your country violates your sense of decency, this is your fight, too.”