On the most recent episode of The Next Big Idea, host Rufus Griscom sat down with Matthew Desmond—Princeton sociologist, MacArthur “genius grant” recipient, and Pulitzer Prize–winning author—to discuss his new book, Poverty, by America. In their conversation, Desmond explains what it’s like to be poor in America, how the wealthy benefit from inequality, and what we need to do, as individuals and at the political level, to end poverty once and for all.
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“I want to end poverty.”
Rufus Griscom: You’ve had an extraordinary journey. Your last book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, won a Pulitzer Prize. You won a MacArthur “genius grant.” You’re now a professor of sociology at Princeton, where you run the Eviction Lab. All of these accolades are nice, I’m sure, but I don’t think it’s why you wrote these books. Could you share with us your broader mission, your big-picture objectives, and how your new book, Poverty, by America, supports that mission?
Matthew Desmond: I want to end poverty. I want to be part of the movement that’s growing around the country not to treat it but to cure it, not to reduce it but to abolish it. And I say that because we can. We can, as a country, put an end to all this scarcity and deprivation in our midst.
We used to believe we could. When they launched the War on Poverty in 1964, the Johnson administration set a deadline. They were like, We’re going to do this by 1976. And we have fallen away from that kind of moral ambition and sense of urgency. I want to be part of bringing it back.
Rufus: That objective, to abolish poverty, probably sounds to a lot of people sort of pollyannaish. But your view is this is something we can do?
Matt: Unquestionably. A recent study showed that if the top 1 percent of income earners just paid the taxes they owed—not paid more taxes, just stopped evading taxes—we as a nation could raise an additional $175 billion a year. That’s almost enough to lift everyone out of poverty—every parent, every child, every grandchild. So we definitely have the resources to do this. This is not hard.
“When I moved to Milwaukee, I saw a kind of deprivation that was utterly shameful and dispiriting.”
Rufus: You grew up in Arizona. Your father was a pastor who lost his job. The bank took your family’s house. You write in the book, “Mostly I blamed Dad, but a part of me also wondered why this was our country’s answer when a family fell on hard times.” Could you tell us a little bit about what your childhood was like and when, on this journey, you realized that this question was going to be the animating force behind your work?
Matt: I grew up in a little home. I loved it. It cost $60,000, I think. And we never had a lot of money growing up. Things were always tight. Our gas got shut off sometimes. But we loved this home that we were in. And when the bank took it through foreclosure, it was embarrassing, to be honest. It was shame inducing. I helped my parents move out into this little tiny rental. And that did wiggle its way inside of me—that experience. I think it showed just what poverty does to a family, the stress and the pressure that it put my family under.
“I think seeing that kind of deprivation and scarcity and cruelty does drive me and does drive my work.”
And then I saw a kind of poverty that was of a whole other magnitude when I moved to Milwaukee for my last book. I lived in a mobile home park, and I lived in an inner city rooming house. And I saw a kind of deprivation that was utterly shameful and dispiriting. I saw grandmas living without heat, in the winter, in Wisconsin. Living under blankets. I was with the sheriff eviction squad one day, and they came upon this eviction, and it was just a house full of kids. The mom had died, and the kids had gone on living in the house. Until the sheriff arrived and they evicted the kids. They put the kids out, put all their stuff out. The landlord changed the locks. They called social services. And we were off to the next eviction.
I think seeing that kind of deprivation and scarcity and cruelty does drive me and does drive my work.
“The richest families among us are getting much more from the government than the poorest ones.”
Rufus: You say that we have a relatively large welfare system, second in size only to France. But that statistic is misleading because it includes homeowner subsidies, college savings plans, and other benefits that disproportionately flow to wealthier Americans. What’s happening with our current welfare system?
Matt: We spend so much more subsidizing affluence and guarding treasure than we do attacking poverty. A lot of us struggle with seeing a tax break as a government intervention. That’s on purpose, actually. “Taxes should hurt,” Ronald Reagan famously said. And so when tax season comes, we often focus on that pain instead of focusing on all these incredible ways the government is propping up our incomes because of tax breaks.
A tax break costs the government money just like any welfare program does. A tax break puts money in our pockets just like welfare programs do. It drives up the deficit. And so we have to think of them as a kind of government intervention.
When you look at the entire welfare state in America, the richest families among us are getting much more from the government than the poorest ones. By my calculation, every year the average family in the top 20 percent of the income distribution receives about $35,000 in assistance from the government. The bottom 20 percent of income earners receive only $25,000. That’s a 40 percent difference. For me, this is completely unacceptable, and it’s especially enraging when you roll out a proposal to deepen our investments in affordable housing or help people facing eviction or reduce the child poverty rate, and you’re met with this question: “How could we afford it?” The answer is staring us right in the face. We could afford it if many of us that have plenty already took less from the government—if we reorganized our welfare system so we weren’t spending so much on the rich.
“We’re not shopping or investing according to our economic justice values.”
Rufus: A couple days ago, I bought a sleep mask on Amazon. It was seven dollars, and it arrived the next day. How can that happen? It just seems too inexpensive, too efficient. And I think the answer is that there are people who are inadequately compensated who are part of what makes my seven dollar sleeping mask available to me in 24 hours.
Matt: Yeah, that’s exactly right. The reason I point out these connections in the book is not to make us feel guilty but to reveal the ways that we are connected to the problem and connected to the solution.
It’s often very hard to know what companies are doing right by their workers. We know what companies are green nowadays. We even know what companies are Republican or Democrat. We’re often shopping according to our politics and often we’re shopping according to our environmental values. But we’re often not shopping or investing according to our economic justice values. I would like to see us do more of that. I would like to see companies brag about doing right by their workers. I don’t want to just know if your bottle is 100 percent recycled. I want to know if a union person made it.
I was just in London and there are signs on the windows of shops that say, “This store pays a living wage.” It was really striking to me because you go out into your independent shops in America, and often you’ll see a Black Lives Matter sticker and a trans right flag. Those do a lot and are important. But you often have no idea how much the workers are making. You have no idea if they get paid sick leave at the store. And so I’d love to see more of that.
“I would like to see companies brag about doing right by their workers.”
Look, this book isn’t naive. I don’t think we can solve climate change by air drying our laundry, and I don’t think that we’re going to solve poverty by shopping differently. But I think as more and more of us do that, it builds a political will, and it could put upward pressure on our political leaders and our corporate leaders and signal that we demand something different.
“The country is ready for a new conversation about poverty.”
Rufus: A majority of Americans support a $15 federal minimum wage. A majority believe the rich aren’t paying their fair share in taxes and that the economy’s benefiting the rich and harming the poor. We have not only the wealth that’s necessary to abolish poverty but there’s more bipartisan support for many of these measures than is broadly realized.
Matt: Yeah, totally. When I was going around the country talking about my last book, Evicted, I gave this talk in Kansas City. There was an older white gentleman in the front row. Blue blazer, crossed arms. And he got to the microphone first after the talk and he said, “You know what? These people don’t deserve anything from us. All they deserve is to be sterilized.” And then he sat down.
It was a shocking statement, but looking back on that moment, one thing that’s interesting to me is how rare it was to hear a statement like that on the road. I thought when I published my last book, I would just be hearing the same old questions about welfare dependency and family—the old debate. But the country is ready for a new conversation. It really is. And the country is ready to move on. Recent studies show that most Americans—most Democrats and most Republicans—understand poverty as a result of unfair circumstances, not a moral failing. Now we need to take the next step. The next step is to consider the failure in public virtue that allows all this poverty amongst all this wealth.
“We have to start making ending poverty our problem.”
Rufus: What do you think we can do, Matt, on a personal level?
Matt: We can vote with our wallets. We can consult organizations like B Corp or Union Plus that curate lists of companies that are doing right by their workers. We can push for tax fairness. I would love to see those of us that receive the mortgage interest deduction or 529 savings plans start giving that money away and writing to Congress and saying, “Look, I don’t want this benefit. I don’t need this benefit. I want you to wind this down and redirect the savings to fighting poverty.”
When we talk about ending segregation that can often feel like, Well, what does that mean in my daily life? It means when you hear about a housing proposal in your community, invite your neighbors over and say, “I think we should do this. This is who we are. This is who I want us to be.” It means sharing research that shows that smartly designed affordable housing doesn’t have an effect on property values. And it means doing that really brave thing, which is going to that Tuesday night zoning board meeting and standing up and saying, “I support this initiative. I refuse to be a segregationist. I want to give other kids opportunities my kids have had in this school system, in this neighborhood. Build this thing.”
A lot of these policies that we talk about when we talk about ending poverty can feel very far away. But we have to start making it our problem now and not wait around for someone else to act.
Edited and condensed for clarity.
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