Matthew Desmond makes a compelling case for how to eliminate poverty in America. But is there public and political will to make it happen?
Matthew Desmond, Poverty, by America. New York: Crown Books (2023)
Matthew Desmond’s Poverty, By America, is a wake-up and clarion call. While there is no defensible reason poverty should exist in this country, the stark reality is that we enable its persistence. Poverty has been normalized—the way it is—and changing that situation is a tall order. But as Desmond lays out in his well-documented account, it can be done. Will it?
For that to happen, people like you and me must look hard at our circumstances and admit to an uncomfortable truth associated with answers to our life circumstances: where we live, who constitutes our social networks, what we do for a living, what we own and how we spend discretionary money, the organizations we affiliate with, and more. Those attributes split the line between those who have and those who don’t. Consequently, affluence and poverty stand in America side-by-side, often only a few neighborhoods or miles apart.
Two other reasons stand out regarding why poverty is a difficult fix. Poverty is neither an existential crisis, as is global climate change, nor is it unique to America’s national circumstance. But as deplorable as poverty is, we can eliminate it, Desmond argues—if we choose to make it so. Yet, that hasn’t happened.
We talk a lot these days about the need for political will (e.g., gun control legislation), and there is no question that political will is often lacking. But when it comes to poverty, I believe it’s also important to talk about public will … and the lack thereof.
Whether we care to admit it (and we don’t), poverty serves a social purpose. It always has. It’s the end-state of “making it,” specifically about those who do and don’t. That dynamic generates a social bifurcation—those who experience the American Dream and others who live a nightmare. Coexistence is the outcome of a firmly embedded sociocultural dilemma. How many people can there be in the “I made it” category before there are too many people, and when caste reference points, such as privilege and elite, get diminished? Being “more than” others, different “from them,” living elsewhere, and displaying differences publicly are embedded in our psyche and stratified culture.
It’s easy to blame those on the political Right who aren’t shy about speaking out about why the current system should remain intact. Theirs is a well-known routine of what, how, and why: What they did to achieve success, how others need to follow that same path, and why people deserve to suffer the consequences if they don’t.
But there’s more to the picture. Those on the Left are in the mix, too—otherwise caring people committed to improving the world, with many engaged in community/political affairs. That’s because many on the Left have their feet planted in two worlds, committed to social change while benefitting from the trappings that say, “We’ve made it!”
Consider this. How many people do you know who openly challenge the prevailing narrative of success? A few, possibly, but whatever the number, I’ll bet it pales compared to those who buy into the narrative, follow it, and preach it to their children. Let’s face it. Personal identities and social standing are largely based on occupational success and personal wealth, not commonwealth values.
It is possible to name a Left-oriented sociopolitical dynamic in that regard that has picked up steam over the past three decades. Called Progressive Neoliberalism, I hear it when an otherwise Liberal/Progressive discussion of social issues shifts to the importance of accountability, personal/social responsibility, government overreach, and being careful about “how we spend public money.” It’s a curious blend of support for social issues/movements/causes combined with dedication to Conservative economics, which Nancy Fraser and others believe is a worldview that grew during The Clinton Years.
And there’s more to the critique. Should it come to pass, poverty eradication would be a social transformation, changing things dramatically in this country, not only in the personal lives of millions but also in how community-scapes look. That kind of change should be no surprise because transformations always exchange old ways for new ones. For example, the Electric Vehicle (EV) Revolution is transforming automobile production, sales, and service, including who and how many employees are employed to do what task.
Eliminating poverty would greatly impact an approach that has been in vogue for centuries, namely, successful people ‘giving back” by helping those in need. But here’s the thing: that is a charity motif. Charity doesn’t restructure society into a world with more have’s; it offers relief to those living in less than satisfactory circumstances. Surgery is bypassed for applying band-aids, which would seem less favored—at least in theory—but that’s not the case. It has become the standard way to address poverty as citizens. It is publicly heralded (e.g., each Monday, my metro newspaper features local philanthropists) with tax incentives attached.
The result? America’s Poverty-Serving Industry includes 1.3 million nonprofit organizations and constitutes a $1 trillion annual enterprise, mostly overseen by boards with business types and otherwise monied members. That industry has grown exponentially over the last forty-plus years, stimulated during the Reagan Revolution (tax cuts), The Thousand Points of Light (shifting many social responsibilities from the public to the nonprofit sector)—both launched from the Right—and, later, Progressive Neoliberalism from the Left. The outcome? It is an undeniable hegemonic force.
Consider what would happen if poverty abolitionists were successful in eradicating poverty. Just like what is happening in the auto industry today, the Poverty-Serving Industry would be significantly disrupted. While there’s little doubt that the change would be painful to those invested in the status quo, the larger question is this: What kind of country do we want?
Matthew Desmond contends and documents that an America without poverty is achievable, but that outcome is only possible with a fundamental shakeup. I agree. It’s time in this country to express widescale public outrage about poverty—call it moral panic, if you will—that translates into a grassroots movement with meaningful political reach.
Poverty should not exist in the richest country in the world. But for eradication to become a reality, more of us will need to identify poverty eradication as a passion and personal commitment, even when so many other matters require grassroots and political attention. It would also require a long and hard fight because of the impediments and culturally embedded forces a foot in this country.
Is it worth it? I believe it is, and Matthew Desmond tells us why: “Even in the darkest moments, we should allow ourselves to imagine, to marvel over, a new social contract because doing so expresses both discontent with and the impermanence of the current one.” p. 134.