On the first pages of Princeton University sociologist Matthew Desmond’s new book “American Poverty”,» he writes that books about poverty are often about poor people. But they do not answer one important question.
“…Such books help us understand the nature of poverty. They are vital. But they do not – and in fact cannot – answer the most fundamental question, which is: why? Why all this American poverty?”
To “understand the causes of poverty,” he writes, “we must look beyond the poor.”
Desmond’s 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City“, explored the lives of some families who faced financial and housing insecurity after the 2008 financial crisis. In “America’s Poverty,” out Tuesday, he looks for answers to who and what causes poverty.
The answers are complex, multi-layered, and pervasive. But part of the answer may surprise some: poverty exists because those without the lowest incomes benefit from it. Desmond offers a blueprint for what can be done to end poverty, asking the reader to consider “poverty abolitionism” as a way forward.
NJ Spotlight News’ Taylor Jung spoke with Desmond about his book, its findings (including New Jersey) and how his own childhood in poverty helped shape him and his thinking.
Below is an abridged and edited version of the conversation:
New Jersey News: One of the things that really impressed me about your book is that you leave no stone unturned when it comes to arguing the causes of poverty. You also explore some of your findings as well as possible solutions, from policy to individual action. What went into your research and how did your personal history inform what you wrote?
Matthew Desmond: I think my personal story explained this because growing up I got a taste of what poverty can do to a family. We lost my childhood home to foreclosure and we went through a period of incredible instability and essentially poverty. The reason I dwell on that word is that another big part of my experience was living in a mobile home park in Milwaukee and in an apartment building and spending time with families at risk of eviction (as part of research for his books “Evicted”). And what I saw these families go through was nothing like what I went through. I saw a level of poverty that was much more vicious and sad than the one I grew up with. I think I see poverty as an abomination and a real misery. And I think keeping that experience alive really motivates and informs my research.
Matthew Desmond talks about his own experience of poverty
And in the research process, it’s kind of a snapshot of everything I’ve learned so far about why there’s so much poverty in the United States, and really trying to make a case for how to end it… I’ve been trying to write a new book about poverty.
There is a line that I came across in Tommy Orange’s novel (“There and There”). He writes: “These children are jumping out of burning buildings, falling to their deaths. And we think that the problem is that they jump.” When I read that, I thought, man, that’s a perfect encapsulation of the American debate about poverty. So this is a book about why there is so much poverty in this line of dollars and how to finally end it. But this is a book about a fire, about who made it and who warms their hands by it.
NJSN: Your book talks about the many factors that influence socioeconomic status. And you’re talking about us also contributing to or buying into this mindset, which may not be enough.
Desmond: Yeah, I think I’m trying to argue against this separation of individual level and structural explanations and solutions. I think the example of climate change is very telling, because I think many of us understand that to really deal with climate change, we’re going to need geoengineering, we’re going to need new policies, we’re going to need new corporate priorities. But we also have skin in the game, right? We can think about what we eat and what we drive and how we (live). And I’d like us to make those connections with the poverty debate as well.
The book really tries to make the point that there is so much poverty in America because so many of us benefit from it. And some lives are small so others can grow. Of course, you can’t solve climate change by drying your laundry. And we are not going to solve the problem of poverty by making small adjustments in our personal lives. But I think if we really take this project of ending poverty as a personal and political issue, I think it can make a big difference.
NJSN: How do you think New Jersey is doing with some of these decisions?
Desmond: I think there is sometimes a tendency to view certain states as having better or worse poverty indicators. And that makes sense, given the deep pockets of extreme poverty in some parts of the country. But New Jersey also has its problems – the extremely high cost of housing here, I find very challenging. And it’s also very encouraging that New Jersey is taking real steps to build affordable housing statewide thanks to our Mount Laurel Doctrine, because we have a state (Supreme) Court law mandating that investment. And it’s really encouraging that, thanks to enforcement of the law, largely through the Fair Housing Center, affordable housing is available in virtually every suburban area of the state. And what happened to the value of our property? They were still very high. And what happened to our school system? Well, it’s one of the best in the country.
New Jersey, “model for integration,” but a long way to go
And so I think New Jersey really provides a model for economic inclusion — it’s certainly not finished … (but) really provides a great model and plan in the same way that Massachusetts provided a model for the Affordable Care Act.
NJSN: Why, when you propose some of these solutions, are they contested?
Desmond: I think part of the answer is that we seem to have lost moral ambition for the country. When the War on Poverty started and (Lyndon Johnson) declared an unconditional war on poverty in the State of the Union, he didn’t play. They set a deadline: 1976 is when we are going to end poverty. It was ambitious.
They didn’t get there, but they did a lot. And I think we’ve become, in a sense, too easily satisfied and too desperate. My biggest fear with a book is that people will read it and learn a lot, but they’ll put it down and sigh. They will not see themselves as part of this movement. And I think we need to restore a sense of moral imperative to our national ambitions when it comes to addressing these issues.
Hope for the Eradication of Poverty in the United States
I really think the country is ready for a new story about itself when it comes to poverty. The data show that most Americans today—conservatives and liberals alike—believe poverty is the result of unfair circumstances, not a moral failing. So it seems like a big change from where we were. But I think now we often have to face our own moral failings for those of us who are safe and fortunate, about how we often contribute to the unjust circumstances that make poor people poor.
So I think there is still a long way to go. I think we are in a moment, as (Italian philosopher Antonio) Gramsci said, where the old is dying, but the new has not yet been reborn. I really think we’re in this pregnant moment that has a lot of potential and a lot of hope moving forward.
Editor’s note: Matthew Desmond will discuss his book, America’s Poverty, on Thursday, March 23 at 6:00 pm with scholar and activist Kianga Yamachta-Taylor at Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton. Additional information is available available online.