Matthew Desmond’s keynote inspires action

Acclaimed author urges everyone to become poverty abolitionists

Before the Pulitzer prize and the MacArthur Genius award, Matthew Desmond was a kid who grew up poor in Arizona. He remembers when the gas was shut off. He remembers when his family’s house was foreclosed upon — “before that was all the rage,” he joked.

“I think that’s where it started for me,” Desmond said. “I think these processes of seeing my family being pushed and stressed by poverty drove this question inside of me, which is why? Why is this?”

The Princeton professor and author of Poverty, By America and Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City spoke at the 2024 Poverty Summit [link to post-event page] hosted by the Shriver Center on Poverty Law. His keynote was no doubt informed by the harrowing stories of the people he met while researching his two books: a mother in Milwaukee bouncing around substandard housing and homeless shelters because of an eviction (Evicted) and a New Jersey father who lost two of his three children to the foster system because he took stimulants to get through the nightshift (Poverty, by America), to name just two.

Drawing from autobiographical details, on-the-ground reporting, and national data, he mapped out the roots of poverty in the U.S., why it persists, and what to do about it. One thing he made perfectly clear: our country is not normal. We’re the richest nation on earth, but our child poverty rate is double that of wealthy nations like South Korea, Germany, and Canada. If all 38 million Americans living below the poverty line were to form a country, that country, population-wise, would be bigger than Australia.

The federal government defines poverty by your income, or lack thereof. For Desmond, it’s much more than a number. He likens it to a “tight knot of social maladies and cuts and humiliations.”

“Poverty is debt collector harassment on top of the nauseating fear of eviction. It’s the suffocation of your talents and your dreams. It is death, come early and often,” he said.

He used the same clarity to dispel misconceptions about why we’ve failed to substantially move the needle since the War on Poverty began 60 years ago. It’s not, as many assume, because we’re spending less on poverty reduction. The opposite is true: Funding has risen by 237 percent since President Ronald Reagan’s administration. We can’t blame economic supports themselves. They work. After 10 years of Great Society programs, poverty in the U.S. was cut in half.

Welfare dependency has nothing to do with it either. When the country underwent a conservative turn in the 1980s, President Reagan pointed the finger at “welfare queens,” a not-so-subtle stereotype of single Black mothers. Desmond said the bigger problem is welfare avoidance. Every year, $140 billion allocated for benefits programs goes wasted because eligible people fail to apply to programs like Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The government makes applying for benefits onerous and confusing: a de facto punishment for people experiencing poverty.

Desmond notes it’s become harder and more expensive than ever to be poor. “When the economy delivered for the American worker, anti-poverty programs were cures. But today the job market has turned those programs into something like dialysis.”

When President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the War on Poverty, labor power was strong. Working class jobs provided pay and generous benefits that could sustain families. While it too often excluded people of color, black unionists were just beginning to make inroads when labor membership plunged into a decades-long decline. Currently, union membership is a fraction of what it once was, whereas gig work is the fastest growing sector of the economy. Gig work shifts the burden from corporations to the individual. More people than ever are working two jobs to scrape by, often at the expense of their mental and physical health and the wellbeing of their families.

The bigger story, the one we hear less about, is how the government quietly subsidizes the least needy among us. We call them tax credits, but it’s taxpayer dollars — $1.8 trillion — that go to the mortgage interest deduction, tax breaks, wealth transfers, and college savings accounts, among other giveaways. Unlike anti-poverty programs, these benefits are largely invisible. It obscures how wealthier Americans directly profit from poverty in the form of cheap goods, lower taxes, and soaring home values.

So what do we do about it? Desmond says it starts with an overhaul of how we think and talk about poverty. Desmond calls himself a poverty abolitionist. Like slavery, poverty is a national shame, a sickness that must and can be defeated.

He contends we can get there when the wealthy pay their fair share. According to Desmond, if the top 1 percent paid their taxes, we could eliminate poverty as we know it. He urged all upper-middle class liberals to stop building invisible walls that maintain economic and racial segregation. In most American cities, zoning ordinances make it incredibly difficult to build anything other than detached single families, an outrage when the country faces a massive shortage of affordable housing, another driver of poverty.

We also need better jobs. That requires a revived union movement, one that accounts for its racist past and embraces the growing multi-racial working class. It can’t be done one Amazon warehouse at a time, said Desmond. It requires unionization by sector, making it harder to shutter warehouses or Starbucks stores that vote to unionize.

In closing, Desmond urged the crowd to go forth as poverty abolitionists and make the case to anyone willing to listen that all Americans, not just anti-poverty advocates and lawyers, have a stake in the fight.

Fundamentally, Desmond’s presentation reminds us that winning the battle for racial and economic justice begins with a compelling story. Shifting the narrative changes minds. As outrage spreads, so do political movements. Eventually, movements exert pressure on elected officials. Together, we can change the rules to change people’s lives.

More Information

Fiscal policies should ensure that all communities can thrive.

Systemic inequities and the legacy of structural racism make it harder for low-income people and people of color to achieve financial stability.

Everyone should be paid decently and have basic workplace protections.

All people should have the right to a safe, stable home to build better futures for themselves and their families.

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