Poverty, by America

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Poverty, by America, the new book from Pulitzer Prize-winning Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond (Evicted), focuses on the root causes of Americans’ economic suffering. Mixing statistics and tales from real people’s lives, Desmond makes a convincing argument that poverty is a sinkhole too powerful for anyone to pull themselves out by their bootstraps alone. 

Early in the book, Desmond establishes that poverty is about not just money but “a relentless piling on of problems,” with housing insecurity, eviction and the instability of low-wage gig and temp work at its core. The rising cost of living in American cities and the decline of career work with benefits are also contributing factors, as are our country’s aggressive carceral and criminal justice systems. In a chapter on welfare, Desmond points out that while the amount of aid available to poor people has increased since the 1980s, many of the people who qualify never take advantage of it. This, coupled with the astronomical costs of healthcare, wreaks havoc on every demographic, but immigrants and single or unmarried parents are often hit the hardest. Desmond debunks the logic used to blame these groups for relying on public assistance. 

One of Desmond’s fundamental assertions is that America has little incentive to reduce its level of poverty because those in power profit from the labor and rent money of those living more precariously. For example, employers’ gradual victory over unions is a major reason employees are now unable to escape workplace exploitation, from low wages and no benefits to noncompete clauses and workplace surveillance. Payday loans, overdraft fees and racially discriminatory interest rates are other ways American institutions financially benefit from civilians’ poverty. This all combines with the costly privatization of more and more public goods and services, like when California’s Proposition 13 capped property taxes for homeowners and consequently gutted funding for public education in the state.

Desmond devotes a fair section of this slim volume to proposed solutions, repeatedly stating that those living well will need to sacrifice some affluence to alleviate others’ suffering. However, he balks at the phrase “redistribution of wealth,” saying it “distracts and triggers.” Instead, his practical solutions seem tailored to those who are willing to sacrifice in moderation—for example, by supporting businesses with unions, paying their full taxes and pressuring upper classes to do the same. Few of his solutions seem likely to form the political pressure cooker needed to regulate predatory banking, end exclusionary zoning and pry tax dollars from executives’ claws.

While Poverty, by America may not be a how-to for the revolution that many fed-up Americans are calling for, it’s a solid primer for those living in relative comfort about how the suffocating tendrils of poverty work, and who they benefit.

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