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Poverty, by America


Matthew Desmond, the sociologist whose book Evicted is along with $2.00 A Day one of the best recent ethnographies about contemporary American poverty, has a new book that features what ought to be a complacency-disturbing argument:

The insistence on personal agency is even more explicit in Desmond’s new book. “Poverty, by America” is a compact jeremiad on the persistence of extreme want in a nation of extraordinary wealth, a distillation into argument form of the message embedded within the narrative of “Evicted.” And the central claim of that argument is that the endurance of poverty in the United States is the product not only of larger shifts such as deindustrialization and family dissolution, but of choices and actions by more fortunate Americans. Poverty persists partly because many of us have, with varying degrees of self-awareness, decided that we benefit from its perpetuation. “It’s a useful exercise, evaluating the merits of different explanations for poverty, like those having to do with immigration or the family,” Desmond writes. “But I’ve found that doing so always leads me back to the taproot, the central feature from which all other rootlets spring, which in our case is the simple truth that poverty is an injury, a taking. Tens of millions of Americans do not end up poor by a mistake of history or personal conduct. Poverty persists because some wish and will it to.”

This taking assumes many forms. There are the most obvious types of exploitation, such as employers paying undocumented workers less than minimum wage or denying them overtime; prisons charging inmates exorbitant fees to make phone calls; or banks assessing heavy overdraft fees. There is the winner-take-all nature of the tax code, under which, to cite only one notorious provision, private-equity partners are entitled to have most of their compensation for managing others’ investments taxed at the lower capital-gains rate, rather than as ordinary labor. There is the housing market, in which landlords are able to charge surprisingly high rents even in inexpensive cities to low-income tenants who feel they have few alternatives. “Poverty isn’t simply the condition of not having enough money,” Desmond writes. “It’s the condition of not having enough choice and being taken advantage of because of that.”

Desmond’s ideological allies on the left will nod along with many of these points. Where things get more interesting is when he considers the ways that upper-middle-class Americans, many of them proud progressives, are complicit in the taking. Affluent families benefit from tax breaks on their mortgages and college savings plans, leaving less revenue for programs that serve those in greater need. Consumers seek out convenience and low prices with little regard for the labor abuses that make them possible.

Most notably, homeowners in choice neighborhoods and suburbs defend exclusionary zoning that bars affordable housing, keeping low-income families at a safe distance from their streets and schools. This forecloses the upward mobility that comes with economic and racial integration and perpetuates the harms that accompany concentrated poverty. “Democrats are more likely than Republicans to champion public housing in the abstract, but among homeowners, they are no more likely to welcome new housing developments in their own backyards,” Desmond writes. In fact, he notes, one study found that conservative renters were more inclined to support a proposed 120-unit apartment building in their neighborhood than liberal homeowners. “Perhaps we are not so polarized after all,” he writes. “Maybe above a certain income level, we are all segregationists.”

This sounds like it ought to be required reading here in beautiful Boulder, where many a progressive would, if we could but administer truth serum of some sort, admit that they didn’t pay $1.7 million for tastefully updated 1700-square foot mid-century modern ranch in order to live anywhere in the vicinity of poor people.

Relatedly, one question that Evicted raised in my mind is why, when you consider the most basic of economic needs — food, shelter, education, medical care — shelter is the only one that contemporary Americans have decided should feature no positive obligation at all on the part of the government to provide. Even someone with no money can make — admittedly limited and inadequate — demands on the public for food, (SNAP), medical care (Medicaid; mandatory emergency room admission), and education (free primary and secondary schools). But no analogous rights exist in regard to shelter, in a country where the law in its majestic equality continues to declare that the rich as well as the poor retain the right to sleep under bridges.

Anyway, I’m eager to read Desmond’s latest.

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