Poverty, by America

by Matthew Desmond

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Last Updated on May 9, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 864

In the prologue of Poverty, by America, Matthew Desmond explains that the purpose of the book is to explore why extreme poverty exists and persists in a nation as wealthy and productive as the United States of America. With this established, he then wants his readers to take action and become what he calls “poverty abolitionists.” In chapter one, he discusses the various official measures that enact poverty and deep poverty but says that these do not capture the essence of the problem. People who suffer from poverty are more severely affected by a host of other problems, from illness to incarceration. Poor neighborhoods reinforce the effects of individual poverty, and people from racial minorities are disproportionately likely to be poor.

In chapter two, Desmond asks why America has not made more progress in tackling poverty when development in other areas, such as medicine and technology, has been so fast over the last few decades. He examines popular explanations for this lack of progress, including neoliberal economics, wasteful federal programs, and immigration. However, he argues that none of these phenomena explain the persistence of poverty and concludes that poverty has not diminished principally because some people do not want it to. 

In chapter three, he expands on this point by saying that more than half of Americans—the 53% who have investments in the stock market—benefit from the exploitation of the working poor. Although the very rich benefit most of all, the middle class acquiesces in this exploitation because it increases their savings and their choice as consumers. Desmond explains that America had an equitable distribution of income in history during the period from the 1950s to the 1970s, which, coincidentally, was when the unions were strongest. When the unions weakened during the Reagan administration, it became easier for companies to underpay and exploit their workers.

Chapter four examines how the poor are exploited in their role as consumers, often being charged more than the rich and the middle class for worse goods and services. This is particularly true in the rental sector, as landlords make higher profits from poor tenants than they do from rich ones. The poor are also often denied access to banking and must depend on expensive check-cashing outlets and payday loan companies, which charge high fees. Chapter five is dedicated to examining how government aid is distributed. Desmond argues that the idea of welfare payments creating a culture of dependency among the poor is part of “the propaganda of capitalism” and has no basis in fact. Poor people do not claim all or even half the benefits for which they are eligible. Meanwhile, tax breaks and student loans save hundreds of billions of dollars for affluent Americans, who benefit from government aid to a much greater extent than the poor.

Chapter six is based on the “private opulence and public squalor” that characterizes American society. Wealthy people, most of whom are white, do not use public services and are content to let them deteriorate. Even the public services they do use are provided in upscale communities from which the poor are excluded. Desmond rejects the idea that inclusiveness benefits the affluent and says that sharing opportunity will simply have to involve those who are currently privileged accepting less wealth to make society more equitable. 

In chapter seven, Desmond estimates that it would cost approximately $177 billion to bring everyone in America above the poverty line. This is a small amount by the standards of the national government and could easily be raised without increasing taxes if the wealthy were forced to pay the tax they already owe. However, Desmond concludes the chapter by saying that the U.S. government must not only spend more money but also must spend it differently and in a way that empowers the poor.

“Empower the Poor” is the title of chapter eight. Desmond says that people who have no choices can easily be exploited, so the poor must therefore have the agency to make decisions about their employment, housing, and banking if they are to be independent agents rather than servants or sources of profit for the rich. Women must also have control over their reproductive rights and healthcare, as these rights also intersect with female access to education and economic power. Moreover, Americans who are serious about abolishing poverty should buy only from companies that do not exploit workers or evade taxes. If enough Americans make this a priority, corporations will be compelled to change their behavior.

Chapter nine contains a call to end segregation between rich and poor, which, as Desmond points out, resembles and intersects with racial segregation. He introduces the idea of “scarcity diversion,” a political tactic in which the rich hoard resources and then claim that there are no resources left to tackle poverty or other social ills. America is not a society defined by scarcity but instead by a wealth of talent that is wasted because far too many people are too poor to make use of it. The epilogue calls on readers to take practical steps to end poverty and act as allies to the poor, comparing this fight to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

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