Why Do We Have Any Poverty When It’s Such a Solvable Problem? – Current Affairs

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Matthew Desmond’s bestselling book Poverty, By America poses a straightforward question: Why is there any poverty at all in such a wealthy country as the United States? Surely we could solve the problem of poverty if we were committed to doing so. Desmond points a finger at those who profit from poverty and argues that there is no justification for our inaction. Desmond, a leading sociologist whose work has won the Pulitzer Prize and the MacArthur Fellowship, tries to understand what makes poverty so persistent and what it would take to “abolish” it forever. Today he joins to give a brief explanation of his ideas.

Nathan J. Robinson 

I hear a lot, especially from some people who are now trying to get the president reelected, that this economy is doing great. I just saw an economics blog with the headline, “If this is a bad economy, please tell me what a good economy would look like.” Unemployment and inflation are down, Bidenomics is working. But one of the reasons people appreciate your work is that you will never allow us to shut our eyes to the situation of the least fortunate. So, can you tell us what the situation is like in the other America?

Matthew Desmond 

I think if you look at the economy by standard measures—unemployment, inflation, those kinds of things—I think there is a case that the economy is doing okay by those standard measures, but that leaves behind tens of millions of Americans who are still trapped in poverty. America is really weird when it comes to other rich democracies. We are an advanced, incredibly wealthy country with extreme levels of poverty. By some measures, five million Americans get by on $4 a day or less. Thirty-eight million of us live below the official poverty line—that’s more than the population of the country of Australia. We have a lot of economic hardship and insecurity in this land of dollars.

Robinson 

The standard conservative line in this country is that we may have people who are technically poor on paper, but the poor aren’t actually poor because John D. Rockefeller never had a cell phone. I think this is a common talking point. Poor people in this country have fridges and air conditioning, and what have you. You have a pretty forceful response to that in your writing.

Desmond 

Yes. You can’t eat a cell phone. You can’t trade a TV for a living wage. You can’t trade sneakers for health insurance. Michael Harrington put it pretty effectively in his book, The Other America, published almost six years ago, where he said, it’s easier in America to be well-clothed than it is to be well-housed and well-fed, and that’s still true today. Poor Americans live at the epicenter of global capitalism in America, and they have access to cheap goods and services like the rest of us do, but that doesn’t mean they’ve received or achieved anything close to financial security. We should just be honest about that.

Robinson 

Who are the poor in America today? Can you give us a better sense of what kinds of people fall into poverty in this country?

Desmond 

A lot of kids; we have over a million public school children today that are starting school this fall that are officially homeless. Elderly Americans are poor and increasingly poor in recent years. And of course, the poverty line traces the old American story of racism: Black and Latinx families have higher rates of poverty than others do in America. But most poor people in America are white, just because of sheer numbers. This affects rural and urban people at about similar rates; about half of the folks that are poor in America live in rural communities. And so, this is a phenomenon that’s found across the country and affects many different kinds of groups. Many folks are poor and working too, which we have to confront. In recent years I’ve been doing more reporting on the working homeless, this group of folks that can’t afford a home but are still putting in 30–50 hours a week. That does not sound like an economy that’s working to me.

Robinson 

What about this other common conservative talking point of the success sequence: to get out of poverty in this country, all you need to do is graduate high school, get married, and have a full-time job?

Desmond 

I wish it were that easy. I truly, truly do. I wish that recipe was so simple, but what we tell our kids, which is good parenting advice, isn’t necessarily good social theory. So, if you dig into the success sequence, you realize a few things: more people are poor that play by the rules than those that broke all of them. So, you can check off those three boxes and still find yourself poor. You also find that plenty of folks who played and achieve the success sequence, but who are Black or nonwhite, are still languishing in poverty at much higher rates. The thing that’s doing a lot of that work in that that calculation isn’t marriage, it’s the job, and that makes a lot of sense. Getting a full-time job, often, is a road out of poverty. But asking someone who’s experienced poverty from a young age, who’s experienced trauma after trauma, violence and psychological warfare, eviction and incarceration, to just get a full-time job is sometimes like asking that person just to have a different life.

Robinson 

And you mentioned, of course, there are a lot of children in poverty, and telling them to get a full-time job really is not much of a solution.

Desmond 

That’s right. I look at evictions and housing security in a lot of my research, and children are one of the main groups getting evicted in our country today. I published a study a few years ago that showed that if you’re a kid, your chances of getting evicted are triple actually, all else equal. So when we’re thinking about the face of poverty, we should clearly think of the visible faces that we often see in homeless encampments or slumped asleep on our way to work, but we should also think about these invisible faces, and they’re usually young.

Robinson 

I’ve mentioned a couple of my least favorite talking points on poverty. Are there any things that you find particularly frustrating in our discourse in this country about poverty?

Desmond 

Yes, this defeatism. This idea that we have to live with it, that this is a byproduct of capitalism, that there’s a giant chunk of us that are always going to be poor and that the poor will always be with us. Forgive me, but it’s such an un-American idea. It’s such a boring, defeatist idea. And it’s certainly not an idea that other capitalist, advanced societies have embraced. We have not just higher rates of poverty than other places, but our child poverty rate, for example, is double what it is in Germany and South Korea, and there’s a lot of us on the left and the right that are just tolerant of that. I think our poverty rate should be zero. I want to abolish poverty, I don’t want to reduce it. I want to end it. That lack of moral ambition today really gets under my skin.

Robinson 

This is one of the things I like about you. As a sociologist, I feel like many academics are a little afraid to point a finger or use moralistic language. But you do point a finger in this book, and you say that numerous people benefit from poverty and exploit poor people. Much of the rest of us also tolerate this, and we could fix it, but we don’t. And that’s something that is morally unacceptable.


Desmond 

Right. I think there’s this line from John Galbraith that I quoted in the book, and he says, “Complexity is a refuge of the powerful.” That’s a really troubling line for an academic. We like to complicate things and qualify an edge. But I think, enough of these abstractions. We have so much poverty, not in spite of our wealth, but because of it. Let’s talk really concretely about this: many of us benefit from all this poverty. We consume the cheap goods and services the working poor produce. We’re invested in the stock market; don’t we benefit when our returns go up and up, even when that comes at the cost of someone’s wages going down? Many of us defend this ludicrously unbalanced welfare state that America has, the fact that we give the most to families that have plenty already, especially in tax breaks, and then repeat this lie that this rich country can’t afford to do more. And many of us continue to be segregationist, embracing exclusive communities hoarding opportunities behind these walls, and creating not only pockets of concentrated wealth, but pockets of concentrated poverty, the side effect of these decisions. So, a lot of us are connected to the solutions and the problem at the same time.

Robinson 

Now, you’ve said there that in some ways, we shouldn’t overcomplicate simple problems, but in another way, your analysis in this book does issue simple explanations, and it certainly issues the personal responsibility explanation. It also challenges the explanation of this as just a product of neoliberalism: we gutted the welfare state, and as a result, poverty persisted. You’ve mentioned there are other factors, and in particular, you say we have to look at the way that poor people are exploited in this country.

Desmond 

Right. This is a big question. Forgive me for talking a little bit more on this question, but I think it’s really important. There’s a paradox that spending on poverty programs has increased a lot over the last 40 years, but by plenty of measures, poverty has been very persistent. And that’s weird because those programs, like food stamps and housing assistance, work. There’s a ton of evidence showing that they pull folks out of poverty. And yet, we have this persistence of poverty. So, what’s going on? What’s going on is the thing you put your finger on: we have failed to confront the unrelenting exploitation of the poor in the labor market, in the housing market, and in the financial market. So, if you think back to when Johnson launched the war on poverty in 1964, ten years later, poverty was cut in half—big advances in economic prosperity for our country. But the thing is, the war on poverty was fought during a time when one in three workers belonged to a union, wages were climbing, and jobs were good. Today, unions are weak and wages are pretty stagnant, especially for folks without a college education. And so, these poverty programs are lifesavers, but the exploitation of the labor market and other markets have turned them into something like dialysis: they make poverty less painful, but they don’t make it disappear. So, the implication of this, I feel, is pretty profound. It means we don’t just need to turn the faucet on more. We don’t just need deeper investments, we need different ones. We need to start cutting poverty at the root.

Robinson 

I’m always baffled when I see these statistics, like how California has spent billions of dollars and however much per homeless person and has not succeeded in addressing homelessness. You point out this paradox of all this spending. Where does the money go? You’ve pointed to a couple of things there, but how does a state like California spend so much on homelessness without solving homelessness?

Desmond 

One of the reasons is they’re not solving the root cause of homelessness, which is the lack of housing in that state. It’s expensive to get someone who’s reached a rock bottom place and living on the street into a place of stability. That’s why upstream interventions like eviction diversion, or making sure people don’t end up on the street homeless, are really much more cost-effective. And when we’re talking about intervening and fighting for the end of poverty, we have to start thinking about attacking its root causes. That doesn’t just mean triage, which a lot of these statistics come from, it also means designing a new kind of society. But speaking specifically about welfare aid, a lot of the numbers you see on paper don’t translate into a dollar in someone’s pocket, or a benefit for family. So, if you look at welfare dollars, or money we spend on this program called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families [TANF], this is cash welfare. It’s a block grant, which means the federal government gives states money and says they’ve got some discretion on how to spend it, and then, states don’t use that discretion. Some states fund Christian summer camps or abstinence only programs with those welfare funds. For every dollar budgeted for a family, only 22 cents is up in their pocket in terms of direct aid. So, I’d be a little skeptical or weary of looking at budgetary impacts just by looking at budgets on paper.


Robinson 

There’s a criticism of the excerpt that you published in the New York Times Magazine written by Matt Yglesias, a kind of wonky democratic blogger, and he essentially suggested that your explanations of the exploitation by landlords and the decline of unionization are themselves bringing in factors that we don’t need. He wrote, “The idea that the welfare state has totally failed is a lie is I’m used to hearing from Paul Ryan, not something I’d expect to hear from someone like Desmond.” He suggests that, in fact, we know that the social safety net works, and the main problem here has very little to do with changes in unionization or exploitation. The main problem is that compared to other countries, the United States has a stingy welfare state, and if we were willing to have a robust welfare state like many other countries, we would solve poverty very quickly. That’s what I understand him to be saying. How would you respond to that?

Desmond 

On the one hand, it sounds like someone who read a little bit of the book, but not the full thing. Certainly, someone who didn’t read it closely. Because the book clearly argues for a bigger welfare state. There’s a whole chapter devoted to deepening anti-poverty spending based on fair tax implementation. And this statistic that I can’t shake is from a study that shows that if the top 1% of Americans just paid the taxes they owed, we could raise an additional $175 billion a year, which would basically be enough to pull everyone above the official poverty line. So, there’s clearly an alignment I have with Matt Yglesias on this point. But we also have to face the blunt truth that by numerous measures, poverty has stagnated over the last 50 years, and even by some measures, poverty [has gotten worse]. 

[We need] to do more, not just turning on the faucet more, but also really rethinking how the fundamentals of American society are breaking down for low-income families today.

Robinson 

At the end of your book, you write that we need to lift the floor by rebalancing our social safety net, but we also need to empower the poor by reining in exploitation and invest in broad prosperity by turning away from segregation. That’s how we end poverty in America. And you write that we need to start by being poverty abolitionists who are committed to this. To conclude, could you talk about what the path towards solving this incredibly, maddeningly solvable problem is?


Desmond 

It is maddeningly solvable. The book says we need to do three things. First, we need to deepen our investments in anti-poverty spending—we talked about that already. We saw during COVID that doing that has massive effects. The child tax credit, for example, which is basically a subsidy to parents with kids, reduced child poverty by 46% in six months during COVID. So, we know how to do this, and we need to do more. The second thing we need to do is address exploitation, which means we need to empower workers, expand housing choice for families at the bottom of the housing market so they don’t have to just choose the best bad option, and end this unrelenting financial exploitation of the poor, which pulls about $61 million in fines and fees out of their pockets every single day. And then, finally, we need to end our evil embrace of segregation. We need to stretch and reach for broad prosperity in our own communities. Now, that might sound like a wonky thing that’s Congress’s business, but the book makes a really clear point that this is our business, too. And to get there, to build a political will to move the needle like that, I think we need to embrace this idea of becoming poverty abolitionists, which means we recognize that poverty isn’t something we should tolerate, but something that we should abhor. We hold on to the conviction that profiting from someone else’s pain corrupts all of us and corrupts our society. This means shopping and investing differently, talking about our taxes differently, supporting a government that’s determined to fight poverty by fair tax implementation, and showing up at those zoning board meetings and fighting for integration ourselves. This is a call to make poverty personal, to take a little bit of that on us. And I think the great balance here has been shown with the environmentalist movement. Yes, we need big policies, congressional action, and international cooperation, but what are you eating? What are you driving? Do you need to take that trip? And I think those little personal decisions matter for these larger political moves too. That’s how we put upward pressure on folks, and we should do that with respect to economic justice too.

Robinson 

It seems to me like there’s a huge danger of what you discussed earlier, this resignation. Here in New Orleans, just less than a mile away under the highway, there’s an ever-growing tent city. But, we solved homelessness briefly during the pandemic by putting people in hotels and got the homelessness rate down from thousands of people to dozens, and then we unsolved the problem

Desmond 

Yes, it’s really sad.

Robinson 

And it’s still considered intractable. It doesn’t seem very intractable, it seems like a failure. It seems like a failure that we could address if we saw this as our fault.

Desmond 

Yes. Bigger, more permanent changes to societies have been made by far less emergencies, both through tyrannical and authoritarian regimes and democratic regimes. And so, the idea that what we did during COVID was just temporary and impermanent, it certainly didn’t have to be. And something that I’m still wrestling with is how we let that slip. Because on the one hand, the answer is kind of easy. There was a pandemic, it was only for that, and there were political barriers. But on the other hand, there’s something very searching and deep about how the American public basically ushered in a new country for a year, and then just let it slip.

Transcript edited by Patrick Farnsworth.

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