Become a Poverty Abolitionist – Poverty, by America by Matthew Desmond – Here are my Six Lessons and Takeaways

Poverty, By AmericaWhy is there so much poverty in America? I wrote this book because I needed an answer to that question.

America’s poverty is not for lack of resources. We lack something else.

Which makes this a book about poverty that is not just about the poor. Instead, it’s a book about how the other other half lives, about how some lives are made small so that others may grow. …But it will also require that each of us, in our own way, become poverty abolitionists, unwinding ourselves from our neighbors’ deprivation and refusing to live as unwitting enemies of the poor.   

I lay out why there is so much poverty in America and make a case for how to eliminate it.

Countries that make the deepest investments in their people, particularly through universal programs that benefit all citizens, have the lowest rates of poverty, including among households headed by single mothers.

Poverty is an injury, a taking. Tens of millions of Americans do not end up poor by a mistake of history or personal conduct. Poverty persists because some wish and will it to.

Countries that make the deepest investments in their people, particularly through universal programs that benefit all citizens, have the lowest rates of poverty… 

There is so much poverty in this land not in spite of our wealth but because of it. Which is to say, it’s not about them. It’s about us. “It is really so simple,” Tolstoy wrote. “If I want to aid the poor, that is, to help the poor not to be poor, I ought not to make them poor.” 

Becoming a poverty abolitionist, then, entails conducting an audit of our lives, personalizing poverty by examining all the ways we are connected to the problem—and to the solution.

Integration means we all have skin in the game. It not only disrupts poverty; on a spiritual level, over time it can foster empathy and solidarity.

Lift the floor by rebalancing our social safety net; empower the poor by reining in exploitation; and invest in broad prosperity by turning away from segregation. That’s how we end poverty in America. 

I’m calling for a return to a time when America made bigger investments in the general welfare. I’m calling for more poor aid and less rich aid.

Matthew Desmond, Poverty, By America


What is the point? — America, the richest country on earth, has too many people living in poverty. Too many! We “cause” it; we nurture it; we tolerate it; we don’t end it.  We should end it, and…we can end it! 

We are so blessed to live in the richest country on earth.  Our GDP is miles ahead of any other country. We have so much…so, so much…

And yet, so many of our people live in poverty.  So, so many.  Too many.

Matthew Desmond has a new book, Poverty, By America, where he calls us all to tackle this, and end it…once and for all.  He won the Pulitzer Prize for his earlier book, Evicted.  (Here is my blog post on that book).  His new book is a good book; a sobering book; a convicting book.

I presented my synopsis of this book at the May Urban Engagement Book Club, sponsored by CitySquare. We had a small group in person, and a larger group on Zoom.  After the synopsis, we had a lively, helpful, revealing discussion.

I highly, highly recommend this book.

As always, I began my synopsis with What is the point of the book?  Here is my take on the point for this book:  America, the richest country on earth, has too many people living in poverty. Too many! We “cause” it; we nurture it; we tolerate it; we don’t end it.  We should end it, and…we can end it!

And I ask Why is this book worth our time? – Why this book matters!  Here are my three reason for this book:

#1 – This book is a current, up-to-date look at the reality — the numbers — of poverty in America.

#2 – This book dispels and refutes many of the myths about what causes poverty, and what keeps poor people in America poor.

#3 – This book is a call to end poverty…because, we can; and we should.

I always include key Quotes and Excerpts from the book – the “best of” Randy’s highlighted Passages.  For this book, I included more than usual.  (This was my longest synopsis handout ever, I think…).  Here are quite a few of the best of the best from this book:

This is who we are: the richest country on earth, with more poverty than any other advanced democracy. If America’s poor founded a country, that country would have a bigger population than Australia or Venezuela. Almost one in nine Americans—including one in eight children—live in poverty. There are more than 38 million people living in the United States who cannot afford basic necessities, and more than 108 million getting by on $55,000 a year or less, many stuck in that space between poverty and security. 

For Crystal and people in similar situations, poverty is about money, of course, but it is also a relentless piling on of problems. Poverty is pain, physical pain. It is in the backaches of home health aides and certified nursing assistants, who bend their bodies to hoist the old and sick out of beds and off toilets; it is in the feet and knees of cashiers made to stand while taking our orders and ringing up our items; it is in the skin rashes and migraines of maids who clean our office buildings, homes, and hotel rooms with products containing ammonia and triclosan. 

Jobs that used to come with some guarantees, even union membership, have been transformed into gigs.  …The manufacturing sector—still widely mistaken as the fount of good, sturdy, hard-hat jobs—now employs more than a million temp workers.

Long-term employment has declined steadily in the private sector, particularly for men… …Income volatility, the extent to which paychecks grow or shrink over short periods of time, has doubled since 1970. 

As a lived reality, there is plenty of poverty above the poverty line. 

In the years following the end of guaranteed cash welfare, the United States has witnessed a shocking rise in extreme poverty, one that tracks with other grim indicators.                          

The overwhelming majority of America’s current and former prisoners are very poor. By the time they reach their mid-thirties, almost seven in ten Black men who didn’t finish high school will have spent a portion of their life in a cage.   

The political scientist Vesla Weaver has shown that those stopped (but not arrested) by the police are less likely to vote. The criminal-legal system, Weaver has written, “trains people for a distinctive and lesser kind of citizenship.”   

When politicians propose antipoverty legislation, they say it will help “the middle class.”   

Have you ever sat in a hospital waiting room, watching the clock and praying for good news? You are there, locked on the present emergency, next to which all other concerns and responsibilities feel (and are) trivial. That experience is something like living in poverty.   

Poverty is often material scarcity piled on chronic pain piled on incarceration piled on depression piled on addiction—on and on it goes.  …Poverty isn’t a line. It’s a tight knot of social maladies. It is connected to every social problem we care about—crime, health, education, housing—and its persistence in American life means that millions of families are denied safety and security and dignity in one of the richest nations in the history of the world. 

In fact, as the cost of items like cell phones and washing machines has fallen, the cost of the most necessary of life’s necessities, such as healthcare and rent, has increased.   

Part of the answer, I learned, lies in the fact that a fair amount of government aid earmarked for the poor never reaches them. To understand why, consider welfare.  …when President Bill Clinton reformed welfare in 1996, replacing the old model with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), he transformed the program into a block grant that gives states considerable leeway in deciding how to distribute the money.   

And then there’s Mississippi. A 389-page audit released in 2020 found that money overseen by the Mississippi Department of Human Services (DHS) and intended for the state’s poorest families was used to hire an evangelical worship singer who performed at rallies and church concerts; to purchase a Nissan Armada, Chevrolet Silverado, and Ford F-250 for the head of a local nonprofit and two of her family members; and even to pay the former NFL quarterback Brett Favre $ 1.1 million for speeches he never gave. (Favre later returned the money.)   

Welfare funds also went to 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. DiBiase’s price was $ 2.1 million. Brett DiBiase, the Million Dollar Man’s son, was serving as deputy administrator for Mississippi’s Department of Human Services at the time. He and five others have been indicted on fraud and embezzlement charges. 

No state had a child poverty rate higher than Mississippi’s, at roughly 28 percent, which is also the child poverty rate of Costa Rica.   

…But I can’t get over the fact that each year, over a billion dollars of Social Security funds are spent not on getting people disability but on getting people lawyers so that they can get disability.  

Our foreign-born population has soared over the past half century. In 1960, one in twenty people in America was born in another country. Today, one in eight is. The United States now has more immigrants than any other nation on earth.  …Almost half of America’s foreign-born population now lives in just three states: California, Texas, and Florida. …Between 1970 and 2019, the share of the immigrant population increased by nearly 18 percent in California, 14 percent in Texas, and 13 percent in Florida. But over that same period, California’s poverty rate increased only marginally (by 0.7 percent), while poverty fell in both Texas and Florida: by 5 and almost 4 percent, respectively. The states that have taken in the most immigrants over the past half century have not grown poorer. In the case of Texas and Florida, they have grown more prosperous.

The best research we have on this question finds that the long-term impact of immigration on wages is quite small, and its impact on employment is even smaller.  

The politicians who wring their hands about “the border crisis” know full well that the undocumented population peaked over fifteen years ago, in 2007.   

(Americans don’t exactly queue up for immigrant jobs). 

Over a typical lifetime, an immigrant will give more to the U.S. government in taxes than he or she will receive in federal welfare benefits. 

There was a time in America when most poor children grew up in a home with both of their biological parents. …most poor children are born to single mothers. Roughly one in three families headed by a single mother is poor, compared to just one in seventeen married families.  …This disparity has led some to conclude that single parenthood is a major cause of poverty in America. But then, why isn’t it a major cause in Ireland or Italy or Sweden? …A study of eighteen rich democracies found that single mothers outside the United States were not poorer than the general population. …Countries that make the deepest investments in their people, particularly through universal programs that benefit all citizens, have the lowest rates of poverty, including among households headed by single mothers. 

In the history of the nation, there has only been one other state-sponsored initiative more antifamily than mass incarceration, and that was slavery. 

Hungry people want bread. The rich convene a panel of experts. Complexity is the refuge of the powerful. 

…Julio didn’t have to be paid poverty wages for his job to exist. If he manned the grill at a McDonald’s in Denmark, his paycheck would have been double what it was in Emeryville.

…increasing the minimum wage has negligible effects on employment. …The bulk of the evidence suggests that the employment effect of raising the minimum wage is inconsequential.  

Almost all private sector employees (94 percent) are without a union, though roughly half of nonunion workers say they would organize if given the chance. They rarely are.  …Between 2016 and 2017, the National Labor Relations Board charged 42 percent of employers with violating federal law during union campaigns. In nearly a third of cases, this involved illegally firing workers for organizing. 

A 2021 study found that middle-class Black homeowners (with incomes between $75,000 and $100,000) carried higher interest rates on their mortgages than white homeowners… with incomes at or below $30,000. 

The message has been received. Half the country appears to believe that social benefits from the government make people lazy. …First, Americans tend to believe (wrongly) that most welfare recipients are Black. This is true for both liberals and conservatives. Second, many Americans still believe Blacks have a low work ethic. …Anti-Black racism hardens Americans’ antagonism toward social benefits.

Wealth traps breed poverty traps. The concentration of affluence breeds more affluence, and the concentration of poverty, more poverty. To be poor is miserable, but to be poor and surrounded by poverty on all sides is a much deeper cut.  

Even in the darkest moments, we should allow ourselves to imagine, to marvel over, a new social contract, because doing so expresses both our discontent with, and the impermanence of, the current one. …“We need to ask not whether it is realistic or practical or viable but whether it is imaginable,” wrote Brueggemann. “We need to ask if our consciousness and imagination have been so assaulted and co-opted” by the established order “that we have been robbed of the courage or power to think an alternative thought.” 

Just as global warming is not only caused by large industrial polluters and multinational logging companies but also by the cars we choose to drive and the energy we choose to buy, poverty in America is not simply the result of actions taken by Congress and corporate boards but the millions of decisions we make each day when going about our business.  

Alexis de Tocqueville found that nineteenth-century Americans were only casual observers of politics until the town proposed to run a road through their property. Then they started showing up at public forums.

“Any real change,” writes James Baldwin, “implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or thought one knew; to what one possessed or dreamed that one possessed.”  

Ending poverty would not solve all our problems. But since poverty is a catalyst and cause of an untold number of social ills, finally cutting the cancer out would lead to enormous improvements in many aspects of life. 

Whose fight is this? If you are homeless or unemployed, a person with disabilities on a fixed income, if you have been exploited and excluded, incarcerated or evicted, this is your fight. If you are an undocumented immigrant, giving this country your sweat, your very body, but receiving few rights in return, or a worker shortchanged and kicked around by your company, this is your fight. If you are one of the tens of millions of Americans scraping, pinching, living paycheck to paycheck, floating somewhere between poverty and security, this is your fight. If you are a young person fed up not only with impossibly expensive cities and $100,000 college degrees but also with polite excuses and insipid justifications for why things are the way they are, this is your fight. If you have found security and prosperity and wish the same for your neighbors, if you demand a dignified life for all people in America, if you love fairness and justice and want no part in exploitation for personal gain, if all the hardship in your country violates your sense of decency, this is your fight, too.  

The end of poverty is something to stand for, to march for, to sacrifice for. Because poverty is the dream killer, the capability destroyer, the great waster of human potential.  

Friedrich Hayek, decidedly not a socialist, remarked that “nothing makes conditions more unbearable than the knowledge that no effort of ours can change them.” (R.M., Dante — “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here”).  

“The most unethical of all means is the non-use of any.”

From Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath:  There’s nothing I can do,” the tractor driver replied, explaining that there were dozens of men ready to replace him—and besides, he had orders from his boss, who had orders from the bank, which “gets orders from the East,” and on it went. 

After I share these key excerpts/highlighted passages from the book, I then include what I consider the most important points and principles from the book.  Here is much of what I included in this synopsis. (Note:  italics indicate that it comes directly from the book).

  • What do we mean, “the poor?”
  • In 2022, the poverty line was drawn at $13,590 a year for a single person and $27,750 a year for a family of four.
  • In America’s meatpacking plants, two amputations occur each week. …Pickers in Amazon warehouses have access to vending machines dispensing free Advil and Tylenol. 
  • Roughly one in four children living in poverty have untreated cavities.
  • Thirty million Americans remain completely uninsured a decade after the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
  • Most renting families below the poverty line now spend at least half of their income on housing.
  • Poverty is the constant fear that it will get even worse.
  • The United States allows a much higher proportion of its children—over 5 million of them—to endure deep poverty than any of its peer nations.
  • Using this threshold, the Nobel laureate Angus Deaton reported in 2018 that 5.3 million Americans were “absolutely poor by global standards,” getting by on $4 a day or less.
  • The number of homeless children, as reported by the nation’s public schools, rose from 794,617 in 2007 to 1.3 million in 2018.
  • The United States doesn’t just tuck its poor under overpasses and into mobile home parks far removed from central business districts. It disappears them into jails and prisons, effectively erasing them: The incarcerated are simply not counted in most national surveys, resulting in a falsely rosy statistical picture of American progress. …Poverty measures exclude everyone in prison and jail—not to mention those housed in psych wards, halfway houses, and homeless shelters—which means there are millions more poor Americans than official statistics let on.
  • Poverty is the feeling that your government is against you, not for you.
  • Poverty is embarrassing, shame inducing. …You avoid public places—parks, beaches, shopping districts, sporting arenas—knowing they weren’t built for you.
  • But…but…there is still a racial gap…
  • Still, poverty is no equalizer. It can be intensified by racial disadvantages or eased by racial privileges. …Black poverty, Hispanic poverty, Native American poverty, Asian American poverty, and white poverty are all different.
  • Black and Hispanic Americans are twice as likely to be poor, compared to white Americans, owing not only to the country’s racial legacies but also to present-day discrimination.
  • Black jobseekers are just as likely to face discrimination in the labor market today as they were thirty years ago. There has been no progress in a generation.
  • Poor white families tend to live in communities with lower poverty levels than poor Black and Hispanic families. That means most poor white children attend better-resourced schools, live in safer communities, experience lower rates of police violence, and sleep in more dignified homes than their poor Black and Hispanic peers.
  • Poverty not only resides in people; it lives in neighborhoods, too,
  • This is a big reason why the life expectancy of poor Black men in America is similar to that of men in Pakistan and Mongolia.
  • Today, the wealth gap between Black and white families is as large as it was in the 1960s. …Our legacy of systematically denying Black people access to the nation’s land and riches has been passed from generation to generation.
  • In 2019, the median white household had a net worth of $188,200, compared with $24,100 for the median Black household.
  • The average white household headed by someone with a high school diploma has more wealth than the average Black household headed by someone with a college degree.
  • It’s not that simple:
  • people are commonly told that they can avoid poverty in America by following three simple steps: graduate from high school, obtain a full-time job, and wait until they get married to have children. A report published by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, labeled the three steps “the success sequence.” …(BUT!)… …Black Americans who had stuck to the success sequence were less likely to escape poverty than white Americans who did the same. You also learn that the step in the sequence responsible for nearly all the “success” is not marriage but securing a full-time job. 
  • The stark, harsh reality: People benefit from poverty in all kinds of ways.
  • As a theory of poverty, exploitation elicits a muddled response, causing us to think of course and but, no in the same instant.
  • Stephen Sondheim once wrote, “The history of the world, my sweet—is who gets eaten and who gets to eat.” 
  • And…don’t forget, or ignore, the motivation related to hierarchy…
  • Clans, families, tribes, and nation-states collide, and one side is annihilated or enslaved or colonized or dispossessed to enrich the other. …One side ascends to a higher place on the backs of the vanquished. 
  • The decline of unions has not been…good…
  • Honest work delivered a solid paycheck, and a big reason why had to do with union power. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, nearly a third of all U.S. workers carried union cards.
  • In 1970 alone, 2.4 million union members participated in work stoppages, wildcat strikes, and tense standoffs with company heads. Their efforts paid off. Worker pay climbed, CEO compensation was reined in, and the country experienced the most economically equitable period in modern history.
  • But unions were often a white man’s refuge. …In the 1930s, many unions outwardly discriminated against Black workers or segregated them into Jim Crow local chapters. 
  • A major problem is…
  • “It is illegal on 75 percent of the residential land in many American cities to build anything other than a detached single-family home.”
  • If you erect a community of expensive, beautiful homes and prop up the value of those homes by making it illegal to build more housing, which turns your home into a resource so scarce that potential buyers do things like write pleading letters or make cash offers above the asking price or bid sight unseen — behavior that has become commonplace in liberal cities like Austin, Seattle, and Cambridge — then you pretty much want to keep things as they are.

And…

  • One study found that growing up in a severely disadvantaged neighborhood is equivalent to missing a year of school when it comes to verbal ability. Another found that achievement gaps between rich and poor children form and harden before kindergarten.
  • Resources are available for the poor, but not received/obtained…
  • The bulk of the evidence indicates that low-income Americans are not taking full advantage of government programs for a much more banal reason: We’ve made it hard and confusing.
  • One intervention tripled the rate of elderly people enrolled in food stamps by providing information about the program and offering sign-up assistance.
  • Segregation really is bad…harmful…
  • The economist Rucker Johnson did just that, finding that Black children who were enrolled in integrated schools performed better in the classroom, graduated at higher rates, and were more likely to go to college than their peers who experienced a segregated education.
  • This presented researchers with a chance to determine whether poor students fared better in low-poverty schools or in high-poverty schools with more resources. The results were striking. Students from poor families who attended low-poverty schools significantly outperformed those who attended high-poverty schools with “state-of-the-art educational interventions.” … Even when we expand the budgets of poor schools beyond those of rich ones, it does not make those schools anything close to equal. …I feel a little stupid making the case that a child’s environment matters.

———-

{From The AtlanticThe War on Poverty Is Over. Rich People Won (Annie Lowrey interviews Matthew Desmond): You see a homeless person in Los Angeles; an American says, What did that person do? You see a homeless person in France; a French person says, What did the state do? How did the state fail them? …It’s interesting to read the histories of segregation in the 1950s or 1930s. The segregationists used the same exact arguments that we do today. They talk about property values, schools, and crime.} 

———-

And, I conclude my synopses with my own Lessons and Takeaways.  Here are my six Lessons and Takeaways from this book:

#1 – Maybe we could spend more time thinking about the reality of poverty in America. You know; read about it regularly. It is a problem worthy of our continuous attention.

#2 – Though we need great nonprofits serving the poor, helping the poor, this is a government-needed, all hands on deck issue.

#3 – Our decisions to remain separate and apart – including the decision to remain so segregated by race – helps perpetuate the poverty prevalent around us and among us.

#4 – We can all do some things, take actual steps, to make this less of a problem.  And, we should.

#5 – Maybe we should focus on the needs of the poor; not the needs of the not-poor.

#6 – Back to #1 – the issue of poverty needs far, far more of our focus. If we don’t start here, and keep at it, there will be no change for the better.

I deeply believe this:  if we spent more of our thinking and pondering and learning time on the issue of poverty, we might take on the challenge more energetically. But, we are so very busy, thinking and learning and pondering about other concerns.

So, here’s my challenge:  spend the rest of this year with more of your time on the poverty issue.  Because, the poverty issue is not an “issue.”  It is a reality; it is about the real lives of our fellow human beings. It deserves our attention; they deserve our attention, and then our very best efforts.

We have work to do!

——————

I do not normally put my recordings and synopsis handouts from the Urban Engagement Book Club up on our web site. That site is for my synopses from the First Friday Book Synopsis, which focuses on business books.  But this book actually made the New York Times list of best-selling business books.  So I think I will make this available.  Thus, the synopsis, with the audio recording and handout, will be available soon.  Click here for our newest additions.  (Note:  this is a longer synopsis/longer recording that our usual First Friday Book Synopsis synopses).

One thought on “Become a Poverty Abolitionist – Poverty, by America by Matthew Desmond – Here are my Six Lessons and Takeaways

  1. Stephen Espinosa

    Thank you for this blog entry. You have laid out so much in condensed form and I will share it.
    I am working with a group of friends in what’s called a Chalice Circle, through our Unitarian Universalist congregation here in Naples, Fl. I discovered Matthew Desmond’s writings through a program called Soul Matters.
    I would like us to create some kind of project where we all can become Poverty Abolitionists. Not to just talk about it, but to actually DO something to eliminate poverty.
    We can start with this book.
    Thank you, again!
    Steve

    Reply

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