Washington Post Video: Matthew Desmond on POVERTY, BY AMERICA

On March 30th, 2023, The Washington Post deputy business editor, Damian Paletta, sat down with Matthew Desmond to discuss POVERTY, BY AMERICA and why such hardship persists in the richest country in the world.

Give a listen to their conversation below and please join us on July 25th at 3 pm ET for a virtual discussion, hosted by Cathy Stewart. You can register here.


  • Introduction & Welcome [0:00]
  • Evicted [1:45]
  • Author’s motivation for the Book [3:12]
  • Personal Experience [4:20]
  • Drugs and Poverty [6:08]
  • War on Poverty [10:09]
  • Lessons from the 60s [11:27]
  • The Labor Market and Poverty [13:53]
  • An Urgency to Action [15:58]
  • The Welfare State [18:11]
  • Education [20:48]
  • Ending Poverty [24:54]
  • How to Break Through [27:18]

Selected Excerpts from the Conversation

Matthew Desmond:

“This book tries to answer two big questions: why is there so much poverty in America and what can we do to eliminate it. And it argues that many of us, those of us that are secure, housed, lucky, we contribute to the problem. You know, we exploit the poor, we segregate the poor and we support a nation that, frankly, Gives the most to families that need it the least. Some lives are made small so others may grow. So we don’t just need deeper investments in fighting poverty, we need different policies, we need policies that disrupt poverty, attack it at the root.”

Damien Paletta:

“What made you decide, you know, based on Evicted, to go from there to this. Talk to us about your journey as a sociologist and a writer from that experience to this book. 


“When I was researching evicted I saw a kind of poverty that was mean and cruel and violent, you know. I met grandmas that were living without heat in the winter, just spending their time under blankets and hoping the space heater didn’t go out. I saw kids being evicted every day, you know, going into eviction court. And just seeing tons of kids running around and cast into homelessness, and it provoked in me a question which is why? Why so much poverty in this incredibly rich nation? And I think to answer that question you need a different kind of book. A book that bears witness, like my last book is a book that shows the human cost of all this poverty in this country. But this is a different book, this is a different book that looks at how we tolerate so much deprivation among so much wealth.”


“ … You are very upfront about your own experiences as a child, you know, even a a college student with poverty, and how you must have been. I mean obviously no child is drawn to poverty, but as a college student you just were interested in the voices of those people, of the poor around campus, you know. Can you just kind of walk me through a bit of that and how that has not only shaped you, grew you to be, but also how you decided to pursue sociology in this kind of calling?


“So I grew up in a little town in northern Arizona. Money was always tight, our gas got turned off sometimes and we lost our home when I was in college, and that was a confusing time for me, honestly. But one thing I was also seeing in college was just money. Just so many of my peers were driving very fancy cars. I was driving an old truck with a junkyard engine that we installed ourselves, and it really confused me and motivated me to understand this massive, vast inequality in this country. And one thing I did was just start spending time with homeless people around my campus, not serving them in a charitable capacity, just listening to them, talking to them, befriending them, and that helped me I think, in my own youthful way, kind of try to reconcile that tension or that confusion that I was seeing everyday. I think that impulse is really important for those of use that are writing and working on anti-poverty measures. I think we need to be accountable to the people that are closest to the problem and hear their stories, and listen to their experiences.”


“… Talk a little bit about how you have a sense of urgency in this book, you know, an urgency for readers to feel like they need to be part of the solution. They can’t just sit by and watch us continue to stall out for the next 10 years, next 20 years. Talk to us a little bit about your decision to kind of go at that complacency as a writer.”


“ I love that word you use, urgency, because this is a morally urgent problem. Poverty isn’t just about not having enough money, its about death, its bout violence, its about tooth rot, its about the nauseating fear of eviction, it’s about hunger, it’s about putting your life in the hands of a public defender. It is so bad you know, its this tangle of agonies and humiliations and the citizens of the richest country in the world certainly can and should put it into it. And many of us who do enjoy a sense of economic security, we are connected to the problem and so we’re connected to the solution …”


“…How do you break through to people that they have to look at the decisions they make, the unconscious decisions that they’re making every day, and look at how that affects poverty in this country?


“ I think a lot of us want to have this conversation. We can feel it, we can feel it in our lives how we’re connected to each other and how we’re complicit often in inequality.  I think this can start on a very personal day-to-day basis…If one or two of us have that conversation that’s not a big difference, but what if we started having that conversation by the hundreds, the thousands, and the ten thousands. I think that’s one way to change the common sense of the country and start putting political pressure, not only upwards but on each of us.”

July 25th at 3pm ET

Join our host, Cathy Stewart, for a Virtual Discussion with author Matthew Desmond


Founder of the Politics for the People free educational series and book club for independent voters. Chair of the New York County Independence Party.

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