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Book Review: ‘Poverty, by America,’ by Matthew Desmond

POVERTY, BY AMERICA, by Matthew Desmond

Over the past decade or two, it has become fashionable to attribute major social ills to underlying “systemic” and “structural” causes. There seem to be several drivers of this tendency: the growing prominence of economists in public debates; the rise of the explanatory bloggers turned Substackers, who like to demonstrate their cool erudition by elevating intellectual arguments over moral ones; and the post-Ferguson racial awakening, with its emphasis on the deeply ingrained inequities that underlie present-day disparities.

The search for systemic and structural factors has much to recommend it in its attention to context and history. But it pushes to the side a crucial element: personal agency. If we can explain away so many problems as a result of larger forces — whether capitalism or racism or globalization or technology or countless others — where does that leave individual and corporate accountability? If everything is systemic, how can any of us be held to blame?

The sociologist Matthew Desmond stands in stark opposition to this prevailing trend. What made his previous book, “Evicted,” such a powerful depiction of low-income housing in American cities was, in great part, his decision to show how tenants in Milwaukee were struggling not only as a result of larger forces but as a result of specific acts of exploitation by those a rung or two up the economic ladder — the landlords, trailer park owners and payday lenders who were profiting from others’ desperation. In Desmond’s Milwaukee, there were good guys and bad guys and gradations in between, which lent “Evicted,” originally an academic dissertation, a compelling novelistic drive.

The insistence on personal agency is even more explicit in Desmond’s new book. “Poverty, by America” is a compact jeremiad on the persistence of extreme want in a nation of extraordinary wealth, a distillation into argument form of the message embedded within the narrative of “Evicted.” And the central claim of that argument is that the endurance of poverty in the United States is the product not only of larger shifts such as deindustrialization and family dissolution, but of choices and actions by more fortunate Americans. Poverty persists partly because many of us have, with varying degrees of self-awareness, decided that we benefit from its perpetuation. “It’s a useful exercise, evaluating the merits of different explanations for poverty, like those having to do with immigration or the family,” Desmond writes. “But I’ve found that doing so always leads me back to the taproot, the central feature from which all other rootlets spring, which in our case is the simple truth that poverty is an injury, a taking. Tens of millions of Americans do not end up poor by a mistake of history or personal conduct. Poverty persists because some wish and will it to.”

This taking assumes many forms. There are the most obvious types of exploitation, such as employers paying undocumented workers less than minimum wage or denying them overtime; prisons charging inmates exorbitant fees to make phone calls; or banks assessing heavy overdraft fees. There is the winner-take-all nature of the tax code, under which, to cite only one notorious provision, private-equity partners are entitled to have most of their compensation for managing others’ investments taxed at the lower capital-gains rate, rather than as ordinary labor. There is the housing market, in which landlords are able to charge surprisingly high rents even in inexpensive cities to low-income tenants who feel they have few alternatives. “Poverty isn’t simply the condition of not having enough money,” Desmond writes. “It’s the condition of not having enough choice and being taken advantage of because of that.”

Desmond’s ideological allies on the left will nod along with many of these points. Where things get more interesting is when he considers the ways that upper-middle-class Americans, many of them proud progressives, are complicit in the taking. Affluent families benefit from tax breaks on their mortgages and college savings plans, leaving less revenue for programs that serve those in greater need. Consumers seek out convenience and low prices with little regard for the labor abuses that make them possible.

Most notably, homeowners in choice neighborhoods and suburbs defend exclusionary zoning that bars affordable housing, keeping low-income families at a safe distance from their streets and schools. This forecloses the upward mobility that comes with economic and racial integration and perpetuates the harms that accompany concentrated poverty. “Democrats are more likely than Republicans to champion public housing in the abstract, but among homeowners, they are no more likely to welcome new housing developments in their own backyards,” Desmond writes. In fact, he notes, one study found that conservative renters were more inclined to support a proposed 120-unit apartment building in their neighborhood than liberal homeowners. “Perhaps we are not so polarized after all,” he writes. “Maybe above a certain income level, we are all segregationists.”

What’s to be done? The usual left-of-center case for reducing poverty is to expand the safety net, and Desmond is on board with that, detailing how many billions could be found for that purpose if the wealthiest Americans paid their fair share in taxes. But he offers some cautionary nuance on this front. The U.S. safety net is, he argues, more generous than many on the left give it credit for: Between the earned-income tax credit, Medicaid, Pell grants, housing vouchers and a host of other programs, “there is no evidence that the United States has become stingier with time. The opposite is true.”

The problem, Desmond concludes, is that we make it hard for many low-income Americans to access this support, and, above all, that so much of it is lost to the economic exploitation that is his chief target. And to address this exploitation, he calls for nothing less than an “abolitionist” crusade against poverty: a moral awakening that combats the scourge in ways big and small, through legislation, legal action and union organizing; through our decisions about what we buy, where we live and where we send our kids to school. “Becoming a poverty abolitionist,” he writes, “entails conducting an audit of our lives, personalizing poverty by examining all the ways we are connected to the problem — and to the solution.”

Why should Americans who benefit from the status quo be open to such a reckoning? Because, Desmond argues, we are in a broader sense all being immiserated by poverty. “It’s there in the morning paper, on our commute to work, in our public parks, dragging us down, making even those quite secure in their money feel diminished and depressed,” he writes. “Poverty infringes on American prosperity, making it a barricaded, stingy, frightened kind of affluence.” Some of us even experience an “emotional violence” from “knowing that our abundance causes others’ misery”: “It’s there in that residue of shame and malaise coating our insular lives; that loss of joy, the emptiness; our boring satiation, our guilt and nausea.”

Desmond’s case might have been strengthened by a more considered structuring and tone; at moments, the book can feel somewhat dashed off, lacking the deeply rooted heft of “Evicted.” His discussion of reduced life expectancy in struggling communities downplays the role of deadly violence, and he gives overly short shrift to programs that have tried to move low-income families to the suburbs and have demonstrated some success at boosting future income. The book would also have benefited from a direct confrontation with the claim, advanced by the New York Times reporter Jason DeParle and others, that social programs like the earned-income tax credit (which Desmond describes as “solutions to poverty but also stanchions of it”) have actually helped to significantly reduce child poverty.

But these are minor quibbles — a ragged edge is to be expected from a book that amounts to more manifesto than treatise. Desmond is well aware that his righteousness about our shared responsibility for poverty will cause discomfort: “People shift in their chairs, and some respond by trying to quiet you the way mothers try to shush small children in public when they point out something that everyone sees but pretends not to.” His purpose here is to draw attention to what’s plain in front of us — damn the etiquette, and damn the grand abstractions. As he quotes George Orwell: “We could do with a little less talk of ‘capitalist’ and ‘proletarian’ and a little more about the robbers and robbed.”

Alec MacGillis is a reporter at ProPublica and the author of “Fulfillment: America in the Shadow of Amazon.”

POVERTY, BY AMERICA | By Matthew Desmond | 284 pp. | Crown | $28

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