Reader’s Forum – Doug Balder on POVERTY, BY AMERICA

Painting By Doug Balder

Painting helps me see in new ways. There is beauty in public housing– the people who live there, the families, homes, and communities they are building. 

This large building which houses hundreds of public housing residents is one of a thousand similar buildings in New York City. The scale of public housing is immense. The number of its residents exceeds the population of Boston or Atlanta. 

Today, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) is privatizing public housing. What will the impact be on these families and all they have created?   

Medium: Oil paint on canvas. Size: 42” vertical x 72” wide.

In Poverty, By America, Matthew Desmond raises many challenging questions about the paradox we call  America. Desmond examines the relationship of the integration of our diverse country and the  institutional and public resistance to that integration. We have laws in place for integration while their  enforcement is often absent and there is cultural resistance. In addition to supporting the small and not  so small gestures, actions, and activities we ordinary people can take, do the tools exist that we can  employ and new ones that we can forge that will close this paradox? Desmond shows us the details  behind this presenting problem. 

To me, this is fundamental to the economic system we have created – capitalism or at least United States capitalism – different from European capitalism – that has its own history. And we must change everything.  

Desmond has studied housing as one of the most important institutions that keeps the poor, poor. As  an architect, I have worked with developers, and municipal codes that at times require them to build  affordable housing as a concession for greater height or density for luxury housing in competitive urban  markets. The number of affordable units are minimal and the developers’ agents who curate the renters  for those subsidized units seek the most upwardly mobile people. Developers will often appeal to cities’  urban planning departments to reduce the number of required affordable units during construction  claiming financial hardship. The lobbyists for the developer community often assist in writing those  favorable housing and zoning codes with elected officials. Desmond covers this sham thoroughly here  and in previous writings. 

Switch gears a bit and look at public housing. In New York City, possibly as many as 750,000 people live  in public housing. The NYC Housing Authority (NYCHA) is seeking to privatize its portfolio of 173,000  apartments. Where this has been done – Chicago, St. Louis, and Los Angeles – has left residents out of  the conversion plans, forcing them out of their housing community through eviction, being priced out, or abandoned when their homes were demolished. NYCHA residents are opposed to privatization. NYC  elected officials have been supportive of privatization or silent. Desmond points to these residents being the expendable collateral in the relationship between the affluent/middle class and the poor. 

All to say the existing institutional rules and regulations favor those who wrote them. Desmond, to his  credit, does not propose grandiose solutions or top-down approaches. He does suggest that we  become poverty abolitionists and that the integration of our country’s diverse people would go a long  way to changing the conversation, culture, and wealth in our country. 

A question I pondered while reading Desmond’s excellent book is how do we re-design and build  integrated political, cultural, educational, and social institutions when the existing ones maintain the  status-quo? Poverty, By America shows that wealth requires scarcity/poverty to exist. It is a perceptive  observation and critique of the economic reality. He describes the ever growing cannibalizing of our  population to achieve greater wealth for fewer and fewer people.  

He raises the democracy question, that the picture he paints is “not what a democracy looks like”. Desmond challenges the popular conception of polarization – the red and blue America – and redefines  the meaning of polarization: we the people are polarized from our elected officials. 

What are we to do? What are the tools we need to change this? Many in the P4P book club have worked  on this for decades and have created and built some tools: human development and democracy tools.  Both seek to integrate poor and affluent and change the culture of politics. They are non-partisan and  build intimacy between affluent and poor by creating conversation that enriches all. 

Desmond adds a rich understanding of what poverty is and how it is produced, and his voice points us  towards building community in as many ways as we can imagine and, indeed, change everything. That’s  what Desmond feels is needed from us all.

Douglas Balder is an architect, a national organizer with Open Primaries, and board member of the All Stars Project.

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.

5 thoughts on “Reader’s Forum – Doug Balder on POVERTY, BY AMERICA

  1. Thank you, Doug, for your thoughtful and passionate commentary on “Poverty, By America.” Does Mr. Desmond show “that wealth requires scarcity/poverty to exist”? Yes, I think he does (though I’d prefer to say “capitalism” and not “wealth”). He *shows* it without *saying* it. (In fact, I think he actually says the opposite, in arguing that we can abolish poverty without changing things too much.)

    Much better to SHOW it again, rather than SAY it again, because people have been saying it again ever since Marx showed it 156 years ago, and it hasn’t gotten us very far.

    And this “contradiction” in Poverty, By America, makes me value and respect Mr. Desmond and his book all the more, because it make us feel acutely how difficult it is for the not-poor, even those with the best and most passionate will, to challenge what we’re used to.

  2. Wrote a review of Desmond’s fine book which appeared in this week’s The Progressive Populist.

    Unfortunately didn’t have space to pursue the line of reasoning about our economy that Desmond touched on when he referred to Heather McGhee’s counter argument in “The Sum of Us”. Is our economy really zero-sum or not?

    That would seem to be a critical issue. Do we need poor people to make rich ones–or not?

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