Poverty, By America by Matthew Desmond


Review by Brian Tanguay

What Bryan Stevenson (author of Just Mercy and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative) is to racial inequality in the criminal justice system in America, Matthew Desmond is to poverty. Both are activists, writers, and profoundly moral individuals who wage quiet crusades against the most entrenched beliefs and interests in our culture; Stevenson against a legal system that punishes black people with greater severity and frequency than white people; and Desmond against an economic system that produces debilitating income and wealth inequality. 

Punishment and poverty do more than walk hand in hand: they serve as a mirror of society, posing uncomfortable questions about who we are, how we collectively regard millions of fellow citizens, and what responsibility we owe each other. 

Desmond’s book Evicted won the Pulitzer Prize in 2017. A heart-wrenching account of an under-appreciated crisis, Desmond put names and circumstances to people whose lives collapsed when they lost their housing. The main takeaway from Evicted is the idea that a home provides the foundation for a humane life: employment, education, community, mental and physical health, everything hinges on stable housing. Without a home, as Desmond says, everything else falls apart. This was emphatically clear during the Covid pandemic when the federal government was forced into action to prevent millions of people from losing their housing. But the fact is that 3.6 million eviction notices are tacked on doors in an average year in America.  

In Poverty, By America, Desmond seeks to answer a fundamental question: Why is there so much poverty in the richest country on the planet? What are the root causes, the social dynamics and administrative structures? The statistics are sobering. Consider that if America’s poor formed a country, it would have “a bigger population than Australia or Venezuela.” Some 38 million people living in America cannot afford basic necessities, and more than 100 million get by on $55,000 a year or less, stuck, as Desmond notes, in the space between poverty and security. More than 2 million Americans don’t have running water or a flushing toilet at home. Children are particularly harmed by poverty, and in America, one child in eight experiences this entirely preventable predicament. 

But again, why? Desmond proposes a radical answer: “To understand the causes of poverty, we must look beyond the poor. Those of us living lives of privilege and plenty must examine ourselves.” One by one Desmond dispels the standard assumptions about poverty. Even after decades of austerity policies the United States still spends a significant amount of money on anti-poverty programs, but the sad reality is that resources are often siphoned off and re-directed by state and local governments before reaching the poor. Desmond cites a 2020 audit conducted by the Mississippi Department of Human Services which found that money intended for the state’s most needy families was used to hire an evangelical worship singer to perform at rallies and church concerts. Hawaii and Tennessee hoarded funds allocated under the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. 

Despite all the overheated political rhetoric about the lazy and undeserving poor, the fact is that poor people are terrible at being welfare dependent. Desmond explains why and mounts a case that many will see as counter-intuitive and perhaps be inclined to deny: “The American government gives the most help to those who need it least.” The largest public subsidies are not given to poor people trying to pull themselves out of poverty, but instead go to well-off families to insure that they remain that way. As Desmond puts it, we prioritize the subsidization of affluence over the alleviation of poverty, and in ways that don’t cause the affluent to question if they merit the help. In fact, most don’t even realize the extent to which they are beneficiaries of deliberate government policy. 

But wouldn’t it be too expensive to alleviate poverty? Wouldn’t the federal deficit explode? Desmond argues that the United States could effectively end poverty in the entire country without increasing the deficit if it simply cracked down on corporations and wealthy individuals who routinely cheat on their taxes. Because tax avoidance is tolerated, facilitated year after year by an industry of attorneys and accountants and tax experts, we’ve created a self-perpetuating cycle that leads to private opulence and public squalor.  

There’s a profound moral question at the heart of this book, one that is rarely posed or given more than passing attention in public debate. The question has a long lineage, running through the work of Jacob Riis, Jane Addams, Walker Evans, Upton Sinclair, Dorothea Lange, Michael Harrington and Dr. Martin Luther King. It’s a question that makes many of us squirm and fidget and turn away with a shrug, as if we bear no responsibility for the way things are. 

“What happens to a country when fortunes diverge so sharply, when millions of poor people live alongside millions of rich ones?”

Do we have the moral imagination to conceive of a society where the wealth and comfort of some isn’t dependent on the poverty and deprivation of others? Where exploitation is the exception rather than the rule? Desmond argues for the abolition of poverty, predicting that it would make us more materially secure and psychologically healthy, as well as more free. As he frames it, “A nation invested in ending poverty is a nation that is truly, obsessively committed to freedom.”