Poverty By America, by Matthew Desmond, Reviewed by Mark D. Walker

My interest in the impact of poverty was heightened when I joined the Peace Corps and began working in countries worldwide to alleviate suffering. And after thirty years, when I spent more time in the U.S., like the author, I was haunted by how the wealthiest nation in the world had so many people living in poverty. One in every nine people in America is officially poor, and one in eight children—why do we tolerate so much suffering amid so much wealth?

According to Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond, there are many reasons, but the big one is that the rest of us benefit from it. This author brings a unique perspective by not focusing on the “poor,” but on the rest of us and the economic and social systems that keep them poor.

Like a Peace Corps volunteer, his perspective was on seeing poverty up close and personal. His awareness of poverty started as a child in the Route 66 town of Winslow, Arizona.  His father was a pastor at the First Christian Church, and as a graduate school student at the University of Wisconsin, he focused on the housing crisis. He moved to Milwaukee, living in a mobile home and then a rooming house where he befriended families who had been evicted.

Matthews’ extensive research reveals the mind-boggling scope of poverty in the U.S. – 38 million can’t get the basics, 39 million don’t have medical insurance, and one in three families with two children makes $55,000 or less. They face a fear of eviction, police brutality, and run-down neighborhoods where death comes early. The U.S. allows a much higher proportion of its children—over 5 million—to endure deep poverty than any of its peer nations.

And yet, according to the author,  the U.S. spends almost as much combatting poverty as other industrialized societies, second only to France. But how we try to help the poor explains why poverty persists.

To begin with, the most extensive welfare program in the country focuses on the wealthy and middle class in this country. Much of that goes to the well-off—such as the home mortgage deduction, one of many tax breaks accruing to the wealthiest America–$1.8 trillion dollars.

And even when we spend $100 billion on pets in the U.S., government spending on public works is declining. And if you combine all the tax breaks we get with social insurance programs like food stamps, the top 20% of Americans get about $35,000 from the government, while the bottom 20% get about $25,000—a 40% difference.

Segregation is essential in creating poverty as it “poisons our minds and souls. When affluents live, work, play, and worship alongside fellow affluents, they can grow insular, quite literally forgetting the poor.”

Another factor is tolerating unrelenting exploitation in the labor, housing, and financial markets.  The author estimates that 61 million dollars are charged to low-income families for overdraft fees, check cashing fees, and payday loan interest.

Some states don’t request the federal funds available to help people experiencing poverty. In Arizona, welfare dollars paid for abstinence-only sex education. In Mississippi, they hired an evangelical worship singer to perform at rallies and church concerns and to pay former NFL quarterback Brett Favre $1.1 million for speeches he never gave…

Matthew looks at solutions—the major one is simply that the wealthy pay their taxes. Corporate taxes are the lowest in 18 years. The head of the IRS testified that tax evasion by corporations and wealthy families costs the government about $41 trillion annually. So if the most affluent families just paid what they owed and stopped evading taxes by offshore accounting, if the top 15 paid what they owed, we’d have an additional $175 million per year.

Matthew also notes that the Federal government’s response to the national health disaster brought on by COVID had an impact on poverty, especially children. It expanded the Child Tax Credit to poor, working-class, and middle-class families, which guaranteed income to households with kids. Those gains cut childhood poverty by a third, and yet they were not renewed after the pandemic.

The author contends that becoming a Poverty Abolitionist is a personal and political project. He urges those who want to participate in this project to divest from poverty in consumer choices (always looking for the lowest price), investment decisions, and jobs.

In the Epilogue, he says that we must support a government striving to end scarcity by rebalancing the nation’s safety net and expanding policies that empower low-income people. “We detest all forms of exploitation, whether it is carried out by corporations, property owners, or financial institutions, even if—especially if—it benefits us.

We oppose racism, segregation, and opportunity hoarding in our communities and stand for shared prosperity. Poverty abolitionists are solutionist doers, prioritizing plan over critique, tangible wins over rhetorical ones, usefulness over purity—and we must organize.”

Mathew ends his book with, “We don’t need to outsmart this problem. We need to out-hate it.”

A data-driven manifesto that turns a critical eye on those who inflict and perpetuate unlivable conditions on others.”The Boston Globe

“This is the kind of awareness we desperately need to start to change this broken, cruel system.”LitHub.

Product details

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Crown (March 21, 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 304 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0593239911
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0593239919
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 2 ounces
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 7 x 1.04 x 8.53 inches
  • Best Sellers Rank: #313 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

The Author

Matthew Desmond is a social scientist and urban ethnographer. He is the Maurice P. During Professor of Sociology and the Director of the Eviction Lab at Princeton University. He is also a Contributing Writer for The New York Times Magazine.

Desmond is the author of over fifty academic studies and several books, including “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Carnegie Medal, and PEN / John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction.

“Evicted” was listed as one of the Best Books of 2016 by The New York Times, New Yorker, Washington Post, National Public Radio, and several other outlets. It has been named one of the Best 50 Nonfiction Books of the Last 100 Years and was included in the 100 Best Social Policy Books of All Time.

Desmond’s research and reporting focus on American poverty and public policy. He is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award, and is an elected member of the American Philosophical Society. He has been listed among the Politico 50 as one of “fifty people across the country who are most influencing the national political debate.”

The Reviewer

Walker was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala, spending over forty years helping disadvantaged people in the developing world. His memoir, Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond, his first book, was followed by My Saddest Pleasures: 50 Years on the Road.

He’s a contributing writer for The Authors Show, Revue Magazine, Literary Traveler, and the Wanderlust Journal. His “The Million Mile Walker Review: What We’re Reading and Why” is part of the Arizona Authors Association Newsletter. One of his 28 articles was awarded a “Bronze” by the Solas Literary Award for Best Travel Writing. He founded Million Mile Walker LLC in 2016. His wife and three children were born in Guatemala. He can be found at www.MillionMileWalker.com

Posted in All, Book Reviews: Non-fiction and tagged , , , , .