Poverty, By America is a gut-wrenching exploration of what it’s like to live on next to nothing in America and how that reality persists in the richest nation on Earth. Before diving into analysis, author Matthew Desmond defines poverty in terms of how poor people experience it: “ Poverty is… pain, … instability, … constant fear, … loss of liberty, … embarrassing, … and diminished life and personhood.” He identifies some of the barriers that prevent these people from obtaining assistance governments have actually promised, but quickly pivots from blaming the social welfare bureaucracy to highlighting root causes, such as systemic exploitation of workers and predatory discrimination in housing and credit markets. What makes this book so important, though, is that responsibility for this state of affairs is attributed not to easy marks like politicians and wealthy rent-seekers, but to all of us. We’re at fault, he suggests, for allowing this to develop and persist because we exhibit or tolerate contempt for the poor.
The power of Desmond’s case lies in reaching beyond those easily motivated by the tug at heartstrings in Chapter 1. This happens in Chapter 5 How We Rely on Welfare, which highlights the hypocrisy of most welfare dollars going to people above the poverty line in the form of tax breaks: “Those who benefit most from government largesse… lend their support to politicians who promise to cut government spending, knowing full well that it won’t be their benefits that get the ax.” The reason we are unwilling to admit our own dependency, he suspects, is that “middle- and upper-class Americans believe they – and not the poor – are entitled to government help.” Too many of us take our privileges for granted and assume that if someone is struggling, it’s their own fault and they are not deserving of public assistance. This is a soul sickness that should concern all Americans.
Desmond did not endorse specific income support programs, but he did provide excellent guidelines for abolishing poverty: uniting those of us struggling with economic insecurity and making significant investments by tax reforms focused on fairness. While he avoided partisan arguments, he clearly recognizes that politicians’ obsession with promoting their preferred policies has divided us and prevented solution of this massive problem.
In conclusion, he returns to the theme that this problem belongs to all of us. “To live and strive in America is to participate in a series of morally fraught systems.” His challenge to become proactive “poverty abolitionists” reminds me of Ibram Kendi’s “anti-racist” appeal. Not everyone will jump on this bandwagon, but anyone interested enough to have read this book with an open mind will likely be less inclined to judge the poor and more willing to accept some responsibility for eliminating poverty – a problem that belongs to us all.
Steve Richardson is a founding member of the Virginia Independent Voters Association. Steve was a member of the Eyes on 2020 National Cabinet.
July 25th at 3pm ET
Join our host, Cathy Stewart, for a Virtual Discussion with author Matthew Desmond
Virginia Poverty Fact Sheet
In conjunction with the release of Poverty, By America, Matthew Desmond also developed a fact sheet with information on poverty indicators for each of the 50 states.
We will be sharing the fact sheet for the state of each Reader’s Forum author. Below is the fact sheet for Virginia.