Poverty, By America

Matthew Desmond
Crown/Random House

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…Our gross domestic product is larger than the combined economies of Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, India, France and Italy. America’s poverty is not for lack of resources. We lack something else.

from Poverty, By America

Poverty, American-style and supersized

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

So begins Matthew Desmond’s new exploration into poverty, American-style. A sociology professor at Princeton University, Desmond wrote Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016), which won the Pulitzer Prize. But, unlike Evicted, this book isn’t about “poor people” so much as why people are poor in the richest country in the world.

In attempting to understand “my country and its confounding, unblushing inequality,” Desmond examines systemic poverty—the housing, employment, educational, banking, and welfare systems that keep families poor. He contrasts American-style poverty with that in other industrialized nations, showing alternatives that are healthier, for families but also healthier for the national economy.

Not surprising, a major factor is the prevalence of “bad jobs,” those offering low pay, no benefits, and that are subsidized through the federal government’s welfare programs, such as supplemental food nutrition, health care, and the Earned Income Tax Credit (“If he manned the grill at a McDonald’s in Denmark, his paycheck would have been double what it is” here.)

He highlights the exploitation of the poor through predatory pay-day lending practices, or by changing illegal red-lining policies into legal “exclusionary zoning laws” (“We went from banning certain kinds of people from our communities to banning the kinds of housing in which those people lived.”)

He challenges and debunks long held myths with actual data from a range of different studies: for example, that immigrants drag down wages and displace native workers (“Americans don’t exactly queue up for immigrant jobs”), or that raising the minimum wage increases unemployment. Nearly a third of the book (80 pages) are notes supporting his arguments.

He shows how the “welfare system” benefits wealthy and middle-income families far more than the poor. (“In 2020, the federal government spent more than $193 billion on homeowner subsidies, a figure that far exceeded the amount spent on direct housing assistance for low-income families ($53 billion.)”) Both are government subsidies, but only one is considered “welfare.” And don’t get him started on corporate welfare!

America’s poverty is not insolvable. There are answers. One example: If the IRS was empowered to go after the wealthy tax cheaters and large US corporations who register outside of the country, there would be sufficient funding to provide adequate housing, education, health care, nutrition, and child care for all our citizens.

The grim news is that America’s high rate of poverty has largely been by choice; the good news is that we as a society can make different choices that will benefit all members of our society.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (October 15, 2023.) Reprinted with permission.