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The Audacious Book Club: Poverty, by America
Our April selection by Matthew Desmond
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Evicted, sociologist and MacArthur Grant recipient Matthew Desmond followed eight struggling families in Milwaukee as they tried to find and keep a home. The book, published in 2016 and widely hailed as a modern masterpiece, reminds readers of how important home is both as a concept and as a physical location and how impossible it is to build or maintain a healthy, stable life when a person does not have a place to live. But even though Evicted was a triumph, it didn’t offer an answer for one of Desmond’s persisting questions: why the United States has more people in poverty than other wealthy countries.
Desmond’s excellent new book, Poverty, by America, begins with that very question. By its conclusion, it offers a discomfiting explanation: wealthy Americans create, perpetuate, and benefit from poverty and have no intention of changing that status quo.
Instead of the detailed ethnographic studies of Evicted, Poverty, by America examines extensive data and examples of the kinds of tax breaks, policies, laws, and private amenities that offer far more benefit to the wealthy than the programs and subsidies available provide to the poor. Desmond examines everything from high-interest rate mortgages to bank overdraft fees to illustrate how poverty in this country isn’t a moral failing or an individualized status inhabited by people without money, but a social condition created by our systemic subsidization of affluence, our creation of exclusive communities, and our exploitation of the poor.
Desmond opens his book with a quote from Tolstoy: “We imagine that their sufferings are one thing and our life another.” He returns to Tolstoy in the middle of his book, discussing the writer’s return to Moscow in 1881 and his shock over the city’s poverty. “The problem, he ultimately decided, was himself and his fellow affluents, who lived idle lives,” writes Desmond. He uses Tolstoy’s words as the impetus to ruminate on what it would take to solve this problem. His conclusions are what he calls “poverty abolition,” a movement aligned with other abolitionist movements, and one that calls for both adequate taxation of the rich and empowerment of and investment in the poor.
I loved Evicted so read this eagerly and was not disappointed. Desmond has the ability to write about difficult topics with real empathy and he always gives the sense that he is actively putting in the necessary work to understand the subjects about which he writes. His research is thorough, exhaustive really, as he unpacks not only the root causes of poverty but why it remains a systemic issue. In the last couple chapters, he starts to offer solutions, some tried and some theoretical, about how to eradicate poverty. What is most intriguing and also a bit haunting, is that with enough commitment from enough of us, we really could eradicate poverty. This is a powerful polemic, one that has expanded and deepened my understanding of American poverty. Desmond approaches the subject with a refreshing candidness and directs his ire toward all the right places.
Poverty, by America is a difficult, stark, and urgent book, and I’m looking forward to discussing it with all of you throughout the month of April. Look for our first discussion thread next week, with much more to follow.