Matthew Desmond’s Poverty, By America: a rallying cry to stop inequality – review

Matthew Desmond’s Poverty, By America: a rallying cry to stop inequality – review

by Suswati Basu
Matthew Desmond's Poverty, By America, surrounded by books Lot by Bryan Washington, Helen Levitt's photography, Mitch Epstein's Property Rights photography book and Joel Sternfeld's Hart Island book
Matthew Desmond’s Poverty, By America

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Prominent sociologist Matthew Desmond’s latest work “Poverty, by America” is another eye-opening book addressing the massive wealth gap in the US. This follows his 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City which saw the former Harvard University sociology professor follow and live with eight families for a year in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

In his previous book, he had charted the effects of poverty on communities, hence his latest work asks the question “why is there so much poverty in America?”

Unlike his previous work, Desmond’s book is a rallying call to fight against inequality. The US is the richest country in the world, yet it has more poverty than any other developed democracy. One in seven Americans live below the poverty line, a line that has not changed in over 50 years, despite the efforts of successive governments and extensive relief programs.

“Poverty isn’t a line. It’s a tight knot of social maladies.”

Matthew Desmond, Poverty, By America
Matthew Desmond's Poverty By America. He is seen here during a 2018 conference at the OECD Forum
29 May 2018 – OECD Forum 2018 (Photo: OECD/Mariano Bordon)

Who is Matthew Desmond?

Matthew Desmond is a MacArthur Fellow and the Maurice P. During Professor of Sociology at Princeton University. He is also the founder and principal investigator of the Eviction Lab, a research initiative that tracks evictions in the United States.

Desmond is the author of three books: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016), which won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Carnegie Medal, and the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction; The City of Refuge: A Tale of Two Americas (2019), which was a finalist for the National Book Award; and Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (2020), which was adapted into a film in 2019.

His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and other publications. He is a frequent commentator on poverty, housing, and criminal justice in the US.

His work has helped to shape public understanding of these issues and has inspired a new generation of activists and policymakers.

What is Matthew Desmond’s Poverty, By America about?

The acclaimed researcher argues that poverty is not simply a matter of individual failing, but rather a result of a complex web of factors. This includes discrimination, lack of access to education and jobs, and the high cost of housing. He also shows how poverty can have a devastating impact on families, children, and communities.

According to Desmond, the wealth gap between Black and white families is as large as it was in the 1960s. He adds: “Our legacy of systematically denying Black people access to the nation’s land and riches has been passed from generation to generation.”

In 2019, the median white household had a net worth of $188,200, compared with $24,100 for the median Black household. The average white household headed by someone with a high school diploma has more wealth than the average Black household headed by someone with a college degree.

“Poverty is often material scarcity piled on chronic pain piled on incarceration piled on depression piled on addiction—on and on it goes.”

Matthew Desmond, Poverty, By America

Consequently, Desmond writes that we need a new story about poverty. The current narrative, which pits liberals and conservatives against each other, is not helpful. Both sides abdicate responsibility, and ignore the reality that the advantages of the rich only come at the expense of the poor. The writer puts this squarely on tax cuts, highlighting former US President John F. Kennedy cut taxes in the 1960s, while Nixon actually raised it. In this way, he blames both sides for the recent heavy-handed push towards this. He says: “The law boosted private fortunes and gutted public services. If property owners won, public school kids lost.”

How does Matthew Desmond believe we can solve poverty?

Desmond is hopeful however, as he believes people are beginning to fight for their rights. “Poverty will be abolished in America only when a mass movement demands it so. And today, such a movement stirs.”

He refers to the Poor People’s Campaign, who has helped elevate the voices of low-income Americans around the country. The voices have challenged “the lie of scarcity in the midst of abundance” and mobilised for things like educational equity and a reinvestment in public housing.

Desmond says: “Americans organizing against exploitation are the spiritual descendants of the best of the American labor movement and the modern-day realization of [Martin Luther] King’s multiracial antipoverty crusade”.

He believes it is time for better-paid citizens to put themselves back in the narrative. We need to recognise that the depth and expanse of poverty in any nation reflects our failure to look out for one another. Poverty must ultimately be met by community. All this suffering and want is apparently related to human actions and therefore we can undo it. Overall, Desmond’s book is about hope and not helplessness, and the need to avoid falling into despondency to be able to make these critical changes.

In the meantime, check out the episode on political responsibility with Fear of Black Consciousness author Professor Lewis R. Gordon.

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