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Sociologist Matthew Desmond on why poverty persists in America 

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NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 28: People wait in line to receive food at a food bank on April 28, 2020 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Food banks around the nation have witnessed a surge in clients as millions of Americans have either lost jobs or seen a decline in income due to the continued closure of businesses and economic life because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 28: People wait in line to receive food at a food bank on April 28, 2020 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Food banks around the nation have witnessed a surge in clients as millions of Americans have either lost jobs or seen a decline in income due to the continued closure of businesses and economic life because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

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Why does America – the richest country in the world – have so much poverty?

Matthew Desmond says its because so many of us benefit from it.

“If you really look at the full nature of the welfare state, you learn just how utterly lopsided it is and how we've chosen this subsidization of affluence over the alleviation of poverty.”

Desmond’s new book “Poverty, By America” is aimed, not at the poor, but at the rest of America, urging us all to become 'poverty abolitionists.'

"Empowering the poor and expanding their choice is a fundamental requirement for ending poverty in America.”

Today, On Point: Matthew Desmond on why America has so much poverty and how we can choose to end it.

Guests

Matthew Desmond, principal investigator, Eviction Lab. Maurice P. During professor of sociology at Princeton University. Author of many books, including the new book released this week called “Poverty, by America." (@just_shelter)

Interview Highlights

How big is the poverty problem in America?

Matthew Desmond: "Embarrassingly, shamefully big. Just using the official poverty measure. But one in nine people that live in America are below the poverty line. That's 38 million of us. So if everyone who is below the poverty line in America formed their own country, that country would be bigger than Australia. But there's plenty of economic hardship above the poverty line, too. One in three people in America live in a household bringing in $55,000 or less. Many aren't officially, quote-unquote, poor, but what do you call it? You know, raising two kids in Boston and $55,000. So there's an extreme spread of economic hardship all across this country."

Around $27,000 at the beginning of 2022 would be considered poor. Is there a more useful way to define poverty?

"Yes. Well, I mean, it depends. You know, poverty measurement is really contested, and scholars don't agree on what measure is the best. But in 2011, there was a group of academics that put forth a different kind of poverty line. It was called the Supplemental Poverty Measure. And what it did is it counted certain kinds of aid like housing assistance and food stamps that the official poverty measure doesn't. And it also paid attention to living expenses and health care expenses.

"And when that line was introduced, the United States officially gained 3 million more poor people, actually, because gains in poverty that we saw when we counted government spending were more than offset by rising costs of living. Another way to measure hardship is just to simply measure hardship and kind of look at what's happening to things that we know affect very low income families. So if you look at evictions, they're up 22% since 2000.

"The number of families who visited food pantries is up almost 19%. Since that time. The number of homeless kids in our public schools are up 74%. Since the Great Recession, the number of families receiving food stamps but reporting no cash income has almost quadrupled since the 1990s. So just measuring these kind of grim indicators of poverty paints a very troubling picture of the state of America today."

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You argue that poverty in America is not in spite of our wealth, but because of our wealth. Can you explain that?

"I read this line by the novelist Tommy Orange, where he writes, Kids are jumping out of the windows, of burning buildings, falling to their deaths. And we think that the problem is that they're jumping. And when I read that line, I was like, Man, that sounds like the American poverty debate. For years and years when we talked about poverty, we focused on the poor themselves. But we should have been focusing on the fire. You know who lit it? Who's warming their hands by it?

"And so let's make that kind of abstract idea really concrete. How do many of us — and by us, I mean not just the very, very richest Americans, but many of us who enjoy a level of economic security in America. How do we contribute to poverty? Well, we contribute to exploitation in the labor markets and in the housing market. We like cheap goods and services that the working poor produce. We like when our savings go up, our investments go up, even when those gains require a kind of human sacrifice. The price of poor, poorly paid workers.

"We protect certain tax breaks like the mortgage interest deduction or tax breaks for wealth transfers or even college savings. And it starves anti-poverty investments. And if you look at the data, maybe we'll get into this little later. You see that the country does a lot more to protect fortunes than it does to fight poverty."

On U.S. anti-poverty programs, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and housing vouchers

"We need short term and long-term solutions. So things like the earned income tax credit, which is basically a payment for workers, mainly working parents who fall below a certain income level. And then there's housing vouchers, which gives renters a ticket to live anywhere they want in the private market and pay 30% of their income on rent instead of 60, 70, 80%. Those two programs absolutely are poverty reduction. They're effective. They're lifesavers.

"But we also need to stretch and reach for something more permanent. Those programs stop the bleeding, but they don't affect the cause of the disease. And so what would that be like? Well, in the labor market, we need to also reach for programs that empower workers, things like making unionizing easy, organize entire sectors of the economy and not just going one warehouse to another. And then the housing market. It means things like investing deeper in public housing or giving low-income families unwraps into homeownership, expanding their choice so they don't have to accept a bad option because it's the only option available to them."

Book Excerpt

From the book POVERTY, BY AMERICA by Matthew Desmond. Copyright © 2023 by Matthew Desmond. Published by Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

This program aired on March 23, 2023.

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