On the shelf
Poverty, for America
By Matthew Desmond
Corona: 304 pages, $28
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When Matthew Desmond published his first book, “evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City”, in 2016, he set out to immerse himself in the daily lives of people facing eviction. Along with a website, justshelter.orgHis research has opened readers’ eyes to how many Americans are chronically on the brink of losing their homes.
“Evicted” won a Pulitzer Prize, became a bestseller and was named one of the 10 Best Nonfiction Books of the Decade by The New York Times. But Desmond’s new follow-up is even more ambitious. “Poverty, for America”, which is published this week, addresses the social, systemic, structural and institutional problems that perpetuate poverty in general. It poses a clear challenge to readers, pushing us to face the uncomfortable question of how we are all involved. But it also proposes solutions: invest in more anti-poverty programs; end the exploitation of low-income workers; and accepting the idea that everyone can prosper. At the same time, Desmond is also launching a new website, endpovertyusa.orgwhich aims to connect people with more than 4,000 service providers, anti-poverty organizations and legal aid.
Desmond spoke to The Times by phone about his new book, and the ways we can move the needle on poverty, for an interview that has been edited for length and clarity.
What was different in your writing and reporting process for this book compared to “Evicted”?
I was reading (“There There”) by Tommy Orange, and I came across this sentence where he says, “These kids are jumping off burning buildings and falling to their deaths, and we think the problem is that they’re jumping.” That’s a perfect encapsulation of the poverty debate in America. I want to write a book about fire, about who lit it, who warmed their hands on it, and I think that meant writing a different style of book. I really believe in the power of narrative, the power of giving testimony, but I think for this book, and the question that I was trying to ask, I wanted to move the aperture of the camera.
What was the biggest misconception you had about poverty before writing this book?
One of the things that struck me was how completely unbalanced our welfare state is, and I’ve been on the housing issue for a number of years. One thing I always used to mention was the difference between the amount of money we spend on the mortgage interest deduction versus direct housing assistance for families that need it most. Last year, I think something like $53 billion was invested in each of the affordable housing programs that we have. But the country spent about $193 billion on homeowners tax subsidies, and most of that money goes to families with six-figure incomes. This idea that we spend so much more subsidizing wealth than alleviating poverty really blew my mind.
Would you say it is more difficult to ask for help or get help in the United States?
Both are tough. One of the crazy things I learned is how much low-income people are leaving on the table in social programs that are designed to help. The “why” is not just about the stigma. It doesn’t even seem to be primarily about the stigma. It appears that we have made these programs unnecessarily complicated and difficult to apply for.
But it’s also hard to ask for help. When I look at other social movements, I am jealous of the pride people take in the identities around which the movements have been based. There are Black Lives Matter signs. There are gay rights flags. But much of poverty in America is still so incredibly stigmatized that many people who are below the (poverty) line don’t want to accept that as their identity.
What are some ways in which you discovered that you are implicated in the poverty system?
One way I am involved is that I am a homeowner. My family takes a mortgage interest deduction. Have said publicly, and I tell you, again, I don’t want this thing. Does it stimulate home ownership? No, there is no evidence that it does. It just makes houses like the ones I own worth more. I would love to see more of us taking advantage of tax breaks to really fight them.
It has made us think about our consumption options, where we buy, where we buy, what companies we support. And that requires a lot of homework. Think about buying a little slower, more deliberately, making sure we’re not supporting corporations that have a history of union busting and then joining anti-poverty movements and volunteering and donating to them. I love this question because I think it’s the move this book is trying to get us all to consider. I think we are all connected to this.
How do we get people to have better conversations about poverty?
It’s interesting for me to think about this idea of: Do people believe the stories we’ve told ourselves about the poor for years, or are those stories just convenient ways around the problem? It is a book about poverty, but it is not really a book about the poor. This is a book about the decisions many of us make in our daily lives, and certainly the decisions our government, and our corporations, have made to allow and perpetuate all this poverty on this earth. It is an ambitious book. I want to end poverty. I don’t want to reduce it, I want to abolish it. I don’t want to treat it, I want to cure it. I think ambition is something that is sorely lacking in the poverty debate.
One of the obstacles to addressing poverty is the discomfort that many people have around them. How do we navigate that?
I think that ought it bothers us much more than it does. I think we should be ashamed of that. We get in our nice cars, we drive down the freeway, we drive past the tent camps, we enlarge our houses, we defund public housing and we defund public infrastructure. And that is why poverty diminishes us all. It drags us all down. The presence of the tents reminds us that the country has not fulfilled its promise and that we are involved in that. We went out to eat. Are the people who work here adequately paid, are they taken care of? We spend the night in a hotel. We don’t know if the people who change our sheets are protected, if they have a living wage. I believe that an America that ends poverty is an America that deals with those problems.
What scares you the most after writing this book?
I’m afraid that people will read it and say, “Oh man, that’s something,” and they’ll go on with their lives. That’s what really scares me. I’m afraid it’s something else that causes a sigh. I would like it to be something that provokes “No, enough”, something that provokes us to move.