© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Sociologist Matthew Desmond on America’s poverty problem

Portrait of a white man with gray hair and dark t-shirt.
Barron Bixler
Princeton University sociologist Matthew Desmond explores why poverty persists in America — and how to end it — in his new book, "Poverty, By America."

Why does poverty persist in America, the richest country in the world?

In his new book, Poverty, By America, Princeton University sociologist Matthew Desmond offers a clear and urgent answer: Because those who are better off benefit from it. Not just the wealthiest Americans, but those who are housed, college-educated and secure.

The ways are many — from tax breaks and investments to embracing segregation and consuming cheap goods produced by the working poor. “We benefit when our savings go up, even if that requires a kind of human sacrifice,” says Desmond, who attended graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and won the Pulitzer Prize for his 2016 book Evicted, an intimate look at housing and poverty in Milwaukee.

Penguin Random House

This exploitation amounts to what Desmond calls spiritual poverty: “There is a poverty that’s about material scarcity,” he says. “But there is a spiritual poverty that accompanies affluence in America. There’s an emotional violence to it.”

Desmond offers a wide range of policy and spending solutions to end poverty in America. “I do not want to reduce poverty; I want to abolish it,” he says. If the top 1% merely paid the taxes they owed that would generate an additional $175 billion each year toward anti-poverty spending. When so many experience poverty as a dearth of options, empowering the poor through work, housing and banking options would expand their choices, he says.

More broadly, however, Desmond urges people to take up poverty abolition, much the way one might live out values to battle climate change or dismantle racism. That could look like scrutinizing investment portfolios, showing up at zoning board meetings to support affordable housing developments or rejecting mortgage interest deductions, which far outstrip spending on direct housing assistance to the poor.

Ultimately, the author is optimistic that the U.S. can achieve these measures. “A movement is stirring,” he says, among labor and housing activists across the country. Desmond also points to the first 1960s-era anti-poverty and civil rights legislation, born of a moment — and Congress — as divided as today’s.

Throughout his book, Desmond uses the language of “we” and “us” — a mode that highlights not only readers’ connection to America’s poverty problem, but also its solutions. “This isn’t an argument that is designed to spread guilt,” he says. “It’s an argument designed to spur action and inspire us to reach for something better.”

To learn more about Desmond’s call to abolish poverty, visit endpovertyusa.org.

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
Related Content