How to Be a Poverty Abolitionist: On Matthew Desmond’s “Poverty, by America”
By Paul W. GleasonMarch 21, 2023
Poverty, by America by Matthew Desmond
He has his work cut out for him. In his new book Poverty, by America (2023), Desmond reports that more than one in nine US citizens (42.5 million people) live under the poverty line. Hiding behind the dry statistics is an abundance of suffering that can be hard to comprehend. Poverty means hunger, homelessness, addiction, untreated ailments and mental illnesses, months spent without heat or water or electricity, plus humiliations large and small at the hands of everyone from police officers and landlords to social workers and government officials. As if the physical hardships and insults weren’t enough, Desmond writes, “poverty is the feeling that your government is against you, not for you; that your country was designed to serve other people and that you are fated to be managed and processed.”
In his first book, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016), Desmond followed eight families around Milwaukee as they tried, and mostly failed, to keep a roof over their heads. His tone was measured, but what he saw clearly made him furious. In Poverty, by America, he wants to know why. Why is there so much poverty in the richest country on earth, who is responsible, and what can be done about it? He rounds up some of the usual suspects, such as Republicans and bankers. At the same time, he reserves a lot of blame for his peers, the kind of people who are likely to buy his book (or read a review about it). If poverty is to be abolished, they will have to change too, along with the rest of the American economy.
When the US poverty rate was first measured in 1959, it stood at 22.4 percent. In the next 15 years, it fell to just over 11 percent, drawn down by a combination of the burgeoning postwar economy and Great Society initiatives like the 1964 Food Stamp Act. Then progress ground to a halt. Since 1970, the US poverty rate has fluctuated between 10 and 15 percent, despite increased spending on anti-poverty and social services programs like Medicare and Medicaid.
How is that possible? For one thing, as Desmond discovers, a “fair amount of government aid earmarked for the poor never reaches them.” Most of the increased funding has gone to Medicare and Medicaid, meaning from the federal government to the healthcare industry. Of course, medical care improves people’s well-being enormously, and it may keep people from slipping into poverty, but it seldom lifts them out of it. Other federal money, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), is disbursed in the form of block grants, which the various states can then use as they please. Some states pay for job training. Some pay for abstinence-only education or, in the case of Mississippi, for frauds like “a ministry run by former professional wrestler Ted DiBiase—the Million Dollar Man and the author of the memoir Every Man Has His Price—for speeches and wrestling events,” Desmond writes. For his ministry’s services, DiBiase charged the state $2.1 million.
When the money finally reaches its intended recipients, almost all of it goes to pay the bills. As befits the author of Evicted, Desmond is especially astute about how housing costs produce and perpetuate poverty. He finds that “[r]ent has more than doubled over the past two decades, rising much faster than renters’ incomes.” Because so few landlords will rent to low-income applicants, especially Black applicants, those who do get away with shoddy maintenance and higher prices than one would expect. According to Desmond’s research, “apartments in poor neighborhoods generated roughly $100 a month in profit, while those in rich neighborhoods generated only $50 a month.” Slumlords can demand a higher percentage of their tenants’ income because their tenants have nowhere else to go.
Even earning more money may not be a ticket out of poverty. In a 2019 study, the Philadelphia Federal Reserve found that after the city raised the minimum wage, landlords raised the rents. “This happened after the COVID-19 rescue packages, too,” writes Desmond, “but commentators preferred discussing the matter using the bloodless language of inflation.”
Who is responsible for this state of affairs? One culprit is obvious. Since the neoliberal revolution of the late 1970s tipped the balance of the American political economy away from labor and toward capital, “the bottom 90 percent of income earners,” writes Desmond, “saw annual earnings gains of only 24 percent, while the wages of the top 1 percent of earners more than doubled.” Because their food, housing, and education costs have all risen much faster than their incomes, the poor remain poor.
But Desmond doesn’t just blame Wall Street bankers and the merchant right. His main culprit is closer to home. Here’s the real reason “why we accept the current state of affairs: We like it.” By “we,” Desmond means not just the one percent but the upper-middle and even middle classes too, anyone who benefits from the low wages of service workers, or from high corporate profits boosting their 401(k)s, or from the mortgage interest rate deduction and carefully zoned school districts. Barbara and John Ehrenreich would have called them the “professional-managerial class.” They are the kinds of people with all the right signs on their lawns and in their apartment windows, and probably all the right abolitionist political beliefs. Relatively few of them are poor. They are Desmond’s peers and students, and probably his readers too.
American society is set up to benefit successful professionals almost as much as it benefits corporate executives. Desmond estimates that Americans in the top 20 percent of the income bracket receive $35,363 in government subsidies each year, compared to $25,733 a year for the bottom 20 percent. “Help from the government is a zero-sum affair,” he explains. “The biggest government subsidies are not directed at families trying to climb out of poverty but instead go to ensuring that well-off families stay well-off.”
Many in the top 20 percent are fiercely protective of these benefits. As an example, Desmond points to President Obama’s proposal to eliminate the 529 college savings plan, which he dropped the next day when “Democrats from affluent parts of the county immediately mobilized against” it. Contrast the fate of the college savings plan with the pandemic-era Child Tax Credit expansion, which Desmond says “cut child poverty by more than half.” The latter expired in December 2021 without anything close to the same level of resistance. A month later, an additional 3.7 million children fell below the poverty line.
Or take the current issues of student loan forgiveness and the expiration of pandemic-related SNAP benefits (today’s version of food stamps). The former primarily benefits college-educated professionals with median household incomes of $76,000, while the latter will directly harm 30 million Americans at or below 200 percent of the poverty line. Which of these issues has been in the news more often? And why might that be?
In effect, becoming a poverty abolitionist would mean caring more about SNAP and the Child Tax Credit expansion than one’s own 401(k), 529 account, or student loans. Desmond has plenty of anti-poverty proposals. He suggests everything from more effective taxes on corporations and the wealthy to companies listing their anti-poverty policies the way they currently list anti-racist ones, which would allow poverty abolitionists to “shop and invest based on their commitments to human dignity and material well-being.” He estimates that ending poverty in the United States would cost an additional $177 billion beyond what the government spends on welfare already. “One hundred and seventy-seven billion dollars is less than 1 percent of our GDP,” Desmond writes, sounding exasperated. “Americans throw away more than that amount in food every year.”
The elephant in the room, though, is capitalism. Desmond is at pains to insist that abolishing poverty can be done without anything too radical. “These are calls for a capitalism that serves people,” he insists, while laying out his proposals.
Maybe this is sensible. After the defeats of the two Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns, however, a major shift in the American political economy looks depressingly unlikely. The Federal Reserve and all the respectable economists seem hell-bent on manufacturing a recession and raising unemployment, which will send poor people scampering to survive. Better taxation and redistribution may be all that anyone can hope for. At the same time, Desmond knows better than anyone how easily rapacious landlords and payday lenders can divert money intended for the poor into their own pockets. Will redistributing more money, even $177 billion, really be enough?
A more ambitious option would be decommodification. In his classic works on social democracy, the Danish sociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen defines decommodification as removing certain goods from the market and distributing them universally, to the point where (as he puts it in his 1990 book The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism) “individuals, or families, can uphold a socially acceptable standard of living independently of market participation.” For instance, the first form of commodity in a capitalist system is labor. We sell our labor, which allows us to buy our bread. Social security, disability insurance, and unemployment benefits, then, are all forms of labor decommodification, in the sense that they enable US citizens to survive without selling their labor.
Housing is another commodity, so it could be partially decommodified too. Desmond rightly chides his fellow professionals for exclusionary zoning laws, but decommodification would go an extra step by offering universal programs, not neighborhood-by-neighborhood reforms. The postwar Nordic countries offer several potential models, which Esping-Andersen has helpfully compared in his 1985 book Politics Against Markets: The Social Democratic Road to Power. The most successful was the Norwegian model, in which the government subsidized mortgage rates and rents on a sliding scale, according to income. The goal was to keep housing costs at or below 20 percent of household earnings. Because the Norwegian crown could consistently offer lower-than-market rates during the 1950s and ’60s, “almost all housing was built with state loans.” The subsidy allowed for both single-family home ownership and co-ops and had further adaptations for urban, rural, and suburban environments. An updated American model might be somewhat different, of course, but the postwar Scandinavian experience proves that substantial decommodification can lead to widespread housing security.
And what about another necessity, food? In a sobering section, Desmond strings together quotes from politicians and economists, from the 18th century to today, who are quite honest about the benefits of denying people their suppers. Because the poor have no pride or ambition, wrote Joseph Townsend in 1786, “in general it is only hunger which can spur and goad them on to labor.” More recently, Senator Roger Marshall of Kansas lamented that extra pandemic unemployment money was “paying [people] more to stay home than go to work.” Whether he was right or not, Senator Marshall was making an important admission: our current system only works if certain people are threatened with starvation.
It doesn’t have to be this way. At the beginning of the pandemic, Congress made all school breakfasts and lunches free, and it wouldn’t be too hard, from a policy point of view, to increase SNAP benefits rather than cutting them. The USDA, already so enmeshed in the nation’s food system, could dramatically expand its support for the nation’s food banks, thereby ensuring that Americans can always get an abundance of fresh, healthy, and delicious food, regardless of their incomes. Hunger is a class weapon, but it could be taken away.
Decommodification wouldn’t just give people more food and housing security. It would let them enter economic life on more equitable terms. “When work approaches free choice rather than necessity,” writes Esping-Andersen in Three Worlds, “de-commodification may amount to de-proletarianization.”
Poverty is about food, shelter, and clothing, but what Desmond says (and what Townsend knew too) is that, ultimately, “this is largely about power.” An important reason to decommodify basic necessities, then, is that it would give people the power to withdraw their labor without facing catastrophe. It would tilt power in American society in favor of the downtrodden, away from the capital-holding and professional classes. It would meet Desmond’s basic demand: “We need to empower the poor.”
Paul W. Gleason’s essays and reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Point, and many other publications. He also writes the substack Unfamiliar Letters about his old scholarly interests: American religion, literature, and higher education.
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