The problem, Desmond concludes, is that we make it hard for many low-income Americans to access this support, and, above all, that so much of it is lost to the economic exploitation that is his chief target. And to address this exploitation, he calls for nothing less than an “abolitionist” crusade against poverty: a moral awakening that combats the scourge in ways big and small, through legislation, legal action and union organizing; through our decisions about what we buy, where we live and where we send our kids to school. “Becoming a poverty abolitionist,” he writes, “entails conducting an audit of our lives, personalizing poverty by examining all the ways we are connected to the problem — and to the solution.”
Why should Americans who benefit from the status quo be open to such a reckoning? Because, Desmond argues, we are in a broader sense all being immiserated by poverty. “It’s there in the morning paper, on our commute to work, in our public parks, dragging us down, making even those quite secure in their money feel diminished and depressed,” he writes. “Poverty infringes on American prosperity, making it a barricaded, stingy, frightened kind of affluence.” Some of us even experience an “emotional violence” from “knowing that our abundance causes others’ misery”: “It’s there in that residue of shame and malaise coating our insular lives; that loss of joy, the emptiness; our boring satiation, our guilt and nausea.”
Desmond’s case might have been strengthened by a more considered structuring and tone; at moments, the book can feel somewhat dashed off, lacking the deeply rooted heft of “Evicted.” His discussion of reduced life expectancy in struggling communities downplays the role of deadly violence, and he gives overly short shrift to programs that have tried to move low-income families to the suburbs and have demonstrated some success at boosting future income. The book would also have benefited from a direct confrontation with the claim, advanced by the New York Times reporter Jason DeParle and others, that social programs like the earned-income tax credit (which Desmond describes as “solutions to poverty but also stanchions of it”) have actually helped to significantly reduce child poverty.
But these are minor quibbles — a ragged edge is to be expected from a book that amounts to more manifesto than treatise. Desmond is well aware that his righteousness about our shared responsibility for poverty will cause discomfort: “People shift in their chairs, and some respond by trying to quiet you the way mothers try to shush small children in public when they point out something that everyone sees but pretends not to.” His purpose here is to draw attention to what’s plain in front of us — damn the etiquette, and damn the grand abstractions. As he quotes George Orwell: “We could do with a little less talk of ‘capitalist’ and ‘proletarian’ and a little more about the robbers and robbed.”
Alec MacGillis is a reporter at ProPublica and the author of “Fulfillment: America in the Shadow of Amazon.”
POVERTY, BY AMERICA | By Matthew Desmond | 284 pp. | Crown | $28