Book Review: Forcing An End To Poverty

A new book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Matthew Desmond seeks to shatter the numbness surrounding wealth inequality in the United States.


We must untangle ourselves from a system that feeds on poverty, Matthew Desmond writes in his new book, Poverty, by America. Desmond calls on the citizens of the richest nation on earth to become “poverty abolitionists” and refuse to live as “unwitting enemies of the poor.”

Desmond is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, the novel-like story of a handful of Milwaukee families who repeatedly lose their homes. His new book is a short manifesto interspersed with compelling anecdotes and infused with passionate clarity.

In the prologue, Desmond briefly sketches his own story—how his family fell on hard times and lost his childhood home; how he worked his way through college; how he hung out with homeless people while observing the dazzling affluence of his classmates. Figuring out what was wrong with that picture has been the driving motivation of his life as a sociologist, journalist, the founder of Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, and an intimate and sensitive chronicler of inequality in American life.

With reams of research data, he demolishes the upside-down, conventional worldview that has led researchers and policymakers to spend decades trying to locate the causes of poverty among the poor themselves. These analyses gave rise to personal finance classes and marriage counseling for the poor, with predictably unimpressive results.

The big idea in this book is elegantly simple: What drives poverty in America is not the behavior of the poor; it’s the collusion of the wealthy and the middle class. Exploited workers generate vast profits for large corporations and low prices for consumers. Myriad bad actors, including payday lenders and slumlords, but also commercial banks and the residents of exclusive neighborhoods, work together to keep poor people trapped.

As a result, Desmond writes, U.S. cities look more and more like cities in India. We still think of ourselves as citizens of a casteless society where everyone has a chance to get ahead, as we roll past homeless people wrapped in sleeping bags in our climate-controlled, stereo-equipped SUVs. Deep down, this is making even the affluent uneasy, Desmond asserts. “Poverty infringes on American prosperity,” he writes, “making it a barricaded, stingy, frightened kind of affluence.”

A better society is within our reach. Desmond calculates the total cost of erasing poverty in the United States at $175 billion per year, which, he posits, our nation could come up with just by cracking down on tax cheats among the highest earners and corporations.

What we lack is political will. Desmond is impatient with cynicism and despair. The Great Society, he notes—the last massive, and massively effective, federal anti-poverty effort—passed a divided Congress in a fractious political environment just as dysfunctional as our own. Ordinary citizens can mobilize and force change, he insists. Nor are the political divisions that make this seem impossible as sturdy as they appear. He describes a group of MAGA Republicans at a “Stop the Steal” rally who, when confronted with a group of One Fair Wage protesters, happily joined the demonstration for a higher minimum wage.

More evidence that change is possible: During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Biden Administration’s eviction moratorium, together with pandemic aid to displaced workers and families with children, cut child poverty in half. But only temporarily. Desmond decries the lack of media attention to those accomplishments, demonstrating to politicians that even if they act to make dramatic, game-changing improvements in poverty rates, no one really cares.

It’s this numbness that Desmond hopes to shatter with his book.

Along with supporting a more powerful labor movement, he asks people to boycott exploitative employers, embrace desegregation and mixed-income housing, defend public transportation, and stop retreating behind higher and higher walls.

“Integration means we all have skin in the game,” he writes. “It not only disrupts poverty; on a spiritual level, over time it can foster empathy and solidarity.”