Food stamp applicants at local welfare office in Austin, Texas (Bob Daemmrich/Alamy Stock Photo)

In his book Poverty, By America, sociologist Matthew Desmond argues that poverty exists because we “wish and will it to,” subsidizing affluence while purposely denying safety and security to millions of impoverished families. He recently spoke with Commonweal editor Dominic Preziosi about the persistence of poverty in this nation, the way that corporations undercut labor and the wealthy hoard resources, and the steps we can take to not only alleviate poverty but abolish it. The following interview is a condensed version of their conversation on the Commonweal Podcast. For the full version, listen below:

Dominic Preziosi: You say that simply by using a term like “the poverty line,” we obscure the real malignancy of poverty in this country. Poverty isn’t a line, you write, “but a tight knot of social maladies.” What are those maladies and how are they intertwined?

Matthew Desmond: If you look at poverty just as a poverty line, just as an income level, you are struck by the fact that we have a lot of poverty: 30 million of us live below the official poverty line. That’s more than the population of Australia. But that’s just the surface. If you spend time with folks who suffer poverty, or if you yourself have experienced it, poverty is not being able to afford to go to a doctor, it’s telling your kids that they have to eat “wish” sandwiches for dinner, it’s facing eviction, it’s depression, it’s being exposed to unhealthy and unsafe housing and to violence. It’s this really tight knot of social humiliations. And it means that millions of us are denied safety and security in the richest country in the history of the world.

DP: You go on to note that a half-century after Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty, we’ve made little to no progress in reducing it. “Fifty years of nothing,” you say, even though anti-poverty spending has actually increased over time and has continued to grow even through the Trump administration. So why isn’t all this spending helping us make more progress?

MD: It’s a paradox. Between Ronald Reagan’s first term and Donald Trump’s first term, spending on the thirteen biggest means-tested programs—like food stamps and housing assistance—has increased by about 237 percent per person, adjusting for inflation. Over that time, according to many different measures, including measures that take into account government spending and transfers, poverty has been pretty persistent. Fifty years ago, the supplemental poverty measure was about 15 percent; forty years later it was about 15 percent. It dipped lower right up to COVID, and then it plunged during COVID because of the historic, colossal intervention the government made. And now we’re creeping back up—so we know that those government programs work. There’s a ton of evidence that things like the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income workers or housing assistance pull millions of families above the poverty line, but poverty still persists. Why? In a nutshell, it’s because the fundamentals of American society, especially the job market and the housing market, are breaking down for a lot of Americans today. Unions don’t have a lot of power, and wages are stagnant. For a man without a high-school or college degree, his wages are less today than they would have been fifty years ago. So that means we have to spend more to stay in the same place. It means we need different policies, policies that cut poverty at the root.

DP: What would some of those policies be?

MD: We need to do three things. First, we need to deepen our investment in anti-poverty. We can fund the investments with fair tax implementation. Recent studies show that if the top 1 percent just paid the taxes they owe—not paid more taxes or a higher tax rate, but stopped evading taxes so successfully—then we as a nation could raise an additional $175 billion a year. That’s almost enough to pull everyone above the official poverty line.

We can do this. But we also need to change our game, especially when it comes to exploitation. We need to address exploitation in the labor market, which means we need to give workers power. We need to address it in the housing market, which means we need to expand housing opportunities for families below the poverty line. We need to think about different ways of getting folks access to safe affordable housing, including expanding homeownership opportunities for working-class and low-income families. And we need to end the unrelenting exploitation of poor families in the financial industry—overdraft fees and payday-loan fees are piled on the backs of the poor, costing them $61 million every single day just to access a bit of money and a bit of credit.

The third move we need to make: we have to end our embrace of segregation. We need to strive to be a neighborhood of open, inclusive communities, not communities that hoard opportunity behind walls made of things like zoning laws. We need to tear down those walls and replace exclusionary zoning laws that say it’s illegal to build any kind of affordable housing with inclusionary ones that say we all need to do our part.

DP: We put a large burden on poor people, you say, by forcing them to pay more for a variety of things. Can you identify some of the ways that’s done?

Matthew Desmond (Barron Bixler)

MD: One way is the normal banking system. We often think of payday-loan companies and check-cashing stores as the predatory parts of the financial system. But normal banks—the banks that you and I, and probably everyone reading this, use—are the bigger culprit. Every year, $11 billion in overdraft fees are charged to bank customers; most of those fees, over 80 percent, are charged to just 9 percent of bank customers. Who are those 9 percent? They’re poor folks made to pay for their poverty. It’s not uncommon to overdraw your account by $20, and end up paying $100 or $150 in overdraft fees. Who does that benefit? I bank at a conventional bank; I get free checking. But it’s not free. It’s subsidized by all those overdraft fees piled on the backs of the poor.

This isn’t just a private-market phenomenon. You could think of cities that balance budgets by ticketing and re-ticketing poor, predominately Black families for small violations. Some states charge inmates for their time in prison, so when they get out they have a huge bill that they have to work off; they have to pay for their own prosecution. The financial exploitation of the poor, by government agencies and by corporations, has come to be seen as normal, as “just how it is in America,” instead of very strange and even violent.

DP: Your book identifies and clarifies a lot of common misperceptions. One of those is how people view immigration. Those opposed to immigration will say that new arrivals from other countries depress wages for everyone else while taking jobs from native-born workers and plunging them into poverty. But you say the reality is different.

MD: It’s understandable that some folks point to immigration when it comes to explaining the economic woes of a country where rates of immigration have significantly increased over the past sixty years. We might ask, “Has poverty also gone up a lot over that time?” But the answer is no; poverty has basically stayed the same. Three states—California, Texas, and Florida—hold about half of all our immigrant population today. In two of those states, Texas and Florida, poverty has actually decreased over the last several decades, and California has basically stayed the same. So, even the states that have experienced the biggest surge of immigration have not experienced the biggest surge in poverty. We might ask, “Okay, but is it the case that there’s competition for jobs, and immigrants are to be blamed for wage stagnation?” Wage stagnation is a real thing, but immigrants are not to blame for that. Immigrants seem to be competing mostly with other immigrants in the economy. If you’re an older immigrant, or someone who’s been here for a while, you might need to worry about the newer immigrants. But if you’re a native-born worker, you’re competing against other forces, and usually not against immigrant pressures. A third concern is that immigrants might place undue weight on the welfare state. But the best research we have shows that the average immigrant family actually pays more in federal taxes than they receive in federal benefits. If we step back and look at the full shape of the welfare state, and how it really benefits folks that have plenty already, it’s laughable to point to immigrants as an anchor weight on our welfare state.

DP: You write that “poverty exists because some wish and will it to,” and that one way we will it to is by undercutting workers. How does that affect poverty?

MD: It’s really hard to overestimate the power that unions had in providing an economy that shared its bounty. Unions weren’t perfect. They made a lot of mistakes; they were racist, often barring Black and Latino workers from their ranks. And in that way, they shot themselves in the foot and prevented the country from experiencing the big, powerful, multiracial labor movement that we could have had. But our most equitable time in modern history was in the 1970s, when unions had the most power. They lost their traditional organizing base as the economy shifted away from industrialization, and continued to dig their own grave with self-defeating racism. But unions were also ruthlessly attacked by corporations and politicians aligned with those corporations. About a third of the country was unionized in the seventies, which wasn’t just good for those union workers—it was also good for folks that were in the same market, competing with unionized firms. If I was an employer, and my shop wasn’t unionized, I knew I’d still have to keep wages high, or else my workers would just leave for a shop that was. Today, only about one in ten workers has a union card. And most of those are public-sector folks: cops, firefighters, nurses, teachers. That really is a driving force for why wages have been stagnant—especially for those without a college degree—and why a lot of work has turned more insecure and gig-like over the years. This is not about education. It’s not about a skills mismatch. This is about power, and the fact that workers have lost it.

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DP: Do you see any way that organized labor can be built back up at this moment?

MD: One idea that I really like is an idea that you see in Europe called sectoral bargaining. It’s a way to make collective bargaining easier. Right now, you have to organize one Amazon warehouse or one Starbucks location at a time, which is just inefficient. There’s no way we can organize the American workforce like that. Sectoral bargaining says, “What if everyone in a certain sector took a vote—all the nurses, all the warehouse workers—and if half of them voted yes, that would trigger a process in which the secretary of labor would gather a panel made up of workers and bosses, and they would have to negotiate terms that cover the entire industry?” This has played out in Europe to successful effect. It’s a way we could organize entire sectors of the economy at once, so we don’t have to depend on the success of this or that local place, or be thwarted by certain states that have anti-union worker regulations.

The financial exploitation of the poor, by government agencies and by corporations, has come to be seen as normal, as “just how it is in America,” instead of very strange and even violent.

DP: In your book you talk about the concept of “private opulence versus public squalor.” What do you mean by this?

MD: It’s an old phrase that goes back to Roman historians, but I encountered it in John Kenneth Galbraith’s famous book The Affluent Society. Galbraith made the point that if you have a country where a lot of rich people live alongside a lot of poor people, as the rich get richer, they withdraw from public spaces. They don’t need to use the public park, they’ve got the country club; they don’t need to swim in the public pool, they have their own pools. As that accelerates through policies like tax breaks, what is shared and public becomes crummy, shabby, and exclusively used by poor folks, who have to use the services that no one likes. And that hurts everyone—not just folks who are under the heel of economic desperation, but also folks who are quite secure in their money. You can’t really live a full, free life if the public sphere is disinvested from. It’s the difference between riding a train in Switzerland or other parts of Europe, and riding a bus in some parts of America: you can tell who invests in and uses public goods. This is an incredibly pernicious part of American society. It’s something that should give us all pause, including those of us who do have enough money to afford country clubs and private pools, because it’s just another example of how poverty in our midst drags everyone down.

DP: You raise another dynamic at play that may be related: the scarcity diversion. What does this mean in the context of poverty?

MD: You hear about “the scarcity diversion” all the time. You hear it when someone says, “Well, in a world of scarce resources, what do you want to do?” You hear it when our elected leaders say, “We just can’t afford to cut child poverty, we can’t afford to give everyone in this country access to a dentist.” And that’s just a lie. We could afford it if the richest among us took less from the government. We could afford it if the country invested more in educational opportunities than it did in guarding fortunes. The scarcity diversion strikes us as something that serious people say. We have to come up with a language that says, “Look, you’re lying.” We could afford to do more, we just choose not to. The opposite of the scarcity diversion is abundance. The country has a lot. There’s a lot to go around. And wouldn’t we be a safer, healthier, freer, more vibrant country if we embraced that mindset? That’s a policy decision and a personal decision. For me, the end goal is the abolition of poverty. I think our poverty rate should be zero. That doesn’t mean we’re all equal or that everything’s perfect. But it means that no one in this land of riches should fall below a certain level of income and a certain level of happiness and well-being.

DP: We’re gearing up for national elections in 2024. Candidates talk about inflation, taxes, and interest rates. What’s your assessment at this point of how our politicians are taking up the issue of poverty?

MD: Not great. And I think that poor Americans deserve more than either party has delivered for them over the past fifty years. One party, the Republican Party, seems to have nothing to say to the poor. If I were a Republican voter, I would like to know the plan to decrease poverty in America. Americans want an answer to that question from Republicans and Democrats. In Congress, it’s a little different. Democrats, much more than Republicans, do wish to enact and champion policies to reduce poverty. But they often shy away from the word “poverty.” They prefer talking about “the middle class” or “economic opportunity.” I understand the politics behind that. But I don’t think you can fix problems you don’t name.

DP: What can the average American do to fight for the abolition of poverty?

MD: Here are five things they can do. First, they can flex their influence wherever they are. We’ve all got a bit of influence. You might sit on a school board, or you might be an elder at your church. I teach at a university, for example. So I should be asking, how much are my landscapers getting paid? Are we taking care of our adjunct faculty? Are we supporting our first-generation college students? We can flex our influence where we are.

Second, we can vote with our wallets. We can shop and support companies that are doing right by their workers. And we can withdraw support from those exploitative, union-busting companies. This includes our investment decisions. We used to talk about sin stocks in America, remember that? “I’m going to get out of oil, I don’t want my money supporting weapons.” But what about your money that’s supporting union-busting and poverty wages?

Third, let’s talk about our taxes differently. Come tax time, basically everyone complains about taxes. Let’s challenge that. We have an eviction crisis, and we have over a million public-school kids who are homeless—yet for my home, I’m getting a mortgage-interest deduction. I’m getting government money because I’m a homeowner, but I don’t need this. So I’m going to write my congressperson and tell her to take this away. Or I’m going to donate my deduction to my local eviction-defense fund.

Number four, let’s get our butts down to those zoning-board meetings. Let’s stand up and raise a voice and fight for broad, inclusive communities. Segregationists are working hard to uphold those walls. If we want those walls to come down, we need to put in the work.

Finally, we can join an anti-poverty organization. There are a lot of them working around the country at the local or national levels. If you’re interested in getting plugged in, we launched a website called End Poverty USA that connects families to services in their community that they need and deserve. If we want this country to get serious about ending poverty, the anti-poverty movement has to grow, and for it to grow, we need to get involved.

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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Published in the October 2023 issue: View Contents
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