Poverty, by America
By Matthew Desmond. Crown. 2023. 304 pages
Published to much acclaim in March, Matthew Desmond’s Poverty, by America focuses on one of the most distinctive aspects of American life: abnormally severe poverty existing alongside abundant wealth.
This sociologist has previously written about aspects of poverty such as the housing crisis which is afflicting poorer Americans.
Poverty, by America is broader in its focus, and consciously echoes Michael Harrington’s ground-breaking 1962 work, The Other America, which captured public attention and inspired much of the action later undertaken as part of President Johnson’s “War on Poverty.”
Though income inequality exists all across the developed world, the human stories he reports emphasise a harsher edge to American poverty.
More than 3.6 million eviction notices are provided to occupants each year in the US, with “eviction movers” being a well-known feature of life.
Absent the stricter employment legislation in place in Western Europe, job security is increasingly hard to find in an environment where permanent unionised positions have been replaced by temporary contracts, and Desmond adds that half of all new positions are eliminated within a year.
America’s social safety net is also more porous and harder to access, meaning that billions of dollars are spent annually on litigation by people seeking to claim benefits. In 2019, almost 400,000 payments were made to parties representing people who had applied for disability.
This book is not called “Poverty in America,” however, as Desmond’s central thesis is that the actions taken by wealthier Americans inflict major harm on the poor.
The payment of low wages allows corporations to increase dividends to shareholders (a category which includes most Americans, who either own stock or have retirement funds), and efforts to change this situation such as Walmart’s decision to raise wages in 2015 can come at a cost in terms of lost market value.
More affluent people can also profit from the range of possibilities offered by the rise of companies like Uber and Amazon, while avoiding ever having to experience the work conditions and wages of those in temporary or precarious employment.
“Fast and cheap – that’s how we prefer to consume in America,” Desmond writes. “But somebody has to pay for it, and that is the rag-and-bone American worker. Poverty wages allow rock-bottom prices. Relentless supervision and control facilitate fast service. The working class and working poor – and, now, even the working homeless – bear the costs of our appetites and amusements.”
Though firmly of the Left, Desmond resists the temptation to lay the blame for this problem at the door of any one political party, instead suggesting that the economic choices of those in the more advantaged classes lie at the heart of the injustices he sees across American society.
Calling for higher taxes and highlighting the degree to which existing tax breaks and benefits are skewed towards those who need help the least, he assails the tendency of some to close their eyes to poverty while shutting themselves off from it within economically segregated communities.
While he describes the significant racial disparities in income, Desmond retains his focus on the core divide between the haves and the have nots, while urging that there be a greater focus on economic inequality, for instance, by calling on businesses that hang Black Lives Matter signs and trans flags to also publicise their starting wages.
Most people are implicated in all of this, and therefore an all-encompassing societal solution is necessary.
“Don’t we benefit when we see our savings go up and up, even when those returns require a kind of human sacrifice? Consumers benefit from worker exploitation, too,” he writes. “We can now, with a few clicks, summon rides and groceries and Chinese takeout and a handyman, all at cut rates. We have become masters in this new servant economy, where an anonymised and underpaid workforce does the bidding of the affluent.”.
Desmond puts forward a range of proposals which he believes could end poverty in America, beginning with income and corporation tax rises aimed at bringing America’s tax revenue in line with Western democracies.
This revenue, he suggests, could then be used to rebalance the social safety net, with an emphasis on universal income support programmes which avoid distinctions between those who qualify for assistance and those who narrowly fall outside the current limits.
Elsewhere, he backs more government spending on public housing, more restrictions on predatory lending practices and reforms to labour laws which would make it easier for collective bargaining to take place across entire economic sectors.
While it is impossible to question the sincerity of his concern for the poor, some of Desmond’s analysis appears shallow.
Surveying the evidence as to whether minimum wage increases create unemployment, he pronounces that any employment effect is “inconsequential.”
If that is true – that raising the price of labour does not lessen demand for labour – one wonders why he does not support far more dramatic minimum wage hikes.
Regarding the decline of labour unions, the author reiterates the conventional left-wing explanation about hostile government action by highlighting President Reagan’s decision to fire striking air traffic controllers in 1981.
The work of Robert Putnam and others has made clear that the weakening of unions forms part of a broader pattern of enhanced atomisation and community decline, where individuals are less likely to join unions, churches or other social institutions.
One interesting parallel between the work of Desmond and that of his crusading forerunner Michael Harrington is the religious background to their activism.
In Harrington’s case, his original inspiration was made clear in his own words, when he wrote that it was “through Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement that I first came into contact with the terrible reality of involuntary poverty and the magnificent ideal of voluntary poverty.”
By the time he published The Other America, the religious faith of this former editor of the Catholic Worker had been replaced by a growing commitment to socialism, but the lasting imprint of Catholicism remained obvious.
Decades later, Christian social activism would play a crucial role in Matthew Desmond’s life, when his family moved to a downtrodden community in Arizona in which his father had been appointed as a pastor.
A more comprehensive analysis of contemporary American poverty would have involved more serious reflection about the degree to which secularisation – and the accompanying tragedy of family breakdown – has hampered efforts to eradicate poverty in an increasingly prosperous country.
Writing in the early 1960s, Harrington observed that among the poorest in society, “marriage was somewhat irregular,” while adding that it “was not uncommon to meet two or three sets of half brothers and half sisters living under the same roof.”
Even as a lapsed Catholic, Harrington perceptively noted another change already setting in when he described how the social function of churches was increasingly “a phenomenon of the middle class” rather than something which impacted heavily on those at the bottom rung of society.
Decades of social science research by Charles Murray, Putnam and others have made clear how significant this change has been.
Yet Desmond is clearly sceptical, focusing attention on economic rather than social factors and dismissively that the “bourgeois model of the two-parent family is made possible by the same stuff that made the bourgeoisie: money.”
His social liberalism is even more pronounced elsewhere, when he bemoans the existence of pro-life laws in many American states while arguing that “when reproductive choice is constricted, women and their children are often cast into poverty.”
Later on, and without any sense of irony, he laments the fact that poverty means there are “many ‘lost Einsteins’ who would have made enormous contributions had they been allowed to reach their full potential.”
Poverty, by America is nonetheless a thought-provoking book which addresses economic trends and public policy issues far beyond America’s borders.
Regardless of its shortcomings, Desmond deserves much credit for telling harsh truths about the lives of the least fortunate members of society, and more importantly, for asking the awkward questions about the complicity of the comfortable.