The power of Matthew Desmond’s storytelling

Author's keynote underscores the need for narrative power in the fight to end poverty

“How many engineers and scientists and diplomats and poets has poverty stolen from us? How many teachers and social workers has poverty just denied us?” Those were among the questions Matthew Desmond asked the audience at our 2024 Poverty Summit. Desmond is a Princeton sociologist and author of Poverty, by America and Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.

The daylong event last month highlighted the 60th anniversary of the War on Poverty, with Desmond as the keynote speaker. His remarks served as a reminder that, as advocates, we’re also storytellers and truth-tellers. The War on Poverty is a war over values, often fought with ideas and words. To accelerate progress, we need to build narrative power around racial and economic justice that galvanizes a mass movement.

At the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, where we work at the intersection of race and poverty, our strategic communications work includes battling bias and harmful stereotypes. Think of the “bootstrap” myth, which blames individuals instead of the systems that keep people mired in poverty, especially people of color.

As a communication leader and former journalist with a passionate belief in the power of language to create change, I was struck by many of the messages shared by Desmond. His presentation was a mix of powerful insights, stories, and data. Here are three top takeaways that we can apply to how we communicate.

We must build new narratives about the relationship between poverty and wealth.

America spends a lot less than other advanced democracies on equal opportunity and anti-poverty efforts because we choose to spend our money in other ways. On average, the top 20 percent of income distribution — our richest families — receive about $35,000 annually from the government. Meanwhile, the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution — our poorest families — receive about $26,000 a year. That’s a 40 percent difference.

In short, we pay more to support affluence than alleviate poverty. But you wouldn’t know this from the dominant narratives that focus on the culture of poverty instead of government subsidies to the wealthy.

“Poverty persists in America, because we give the most to those who have plenty already,” Desmond said. On top of that, we have the audacity to make up stories about poor people’s dependency on government aid and shoot down proposals to reduce their hardships because of “the cost.”

It would take about $177 billion a year to lift everyone below the official poverty line above it. A recent study shows that collecting all the federal income tax from the top 1 percent of Americans would result in $175 billion more. We could almost close the poverty gap if the richest among us just paid what they owed.

That’s the story we need to tell, again and again. That’s the message we should say the next time someone says we can’t afford to truly fight poverty in this country.

Journalists have a critical role to play in illuminating inequity and keeping us connected.

During his keynote, Desmond showed video clips of zoning board meetings that brought back memories of my time in the newsroom. For the first few years out of college, I worked as a reporter at a local newspaper, covering municipal meetings where I quickly became familiar with NIMBY — “not in my back yard.”

“Rich people create poverty in America,” Desmond said. “We build walls around our communities. These walls are made out of laws.”

Today, on most residential land, it’s illegal to build anything other than single-family housing. Segregationists are fierce, and they’ve very willing to defend their walls. They flock to municipal meetings, yelling at city council members about any attempts to create affordable homes or multi-family housing. Those of us who believe in an open and inclusive community must show up and speak out too.

And local news has an important part to play in informing citizens and giving a platform to unheard voices. The mission of journalism is to pursue the truth and hold the powerful accountable for their actions. At a time when digital disinformation is growing, reporters have an even stronger obligation to speak truth to power, shining a light on inequity and connecting us through our shared humanity.

Literary devices can help enhance the story and make complex ideas easier to understand.

As an English major, I’m very familiar with figurative language tools from allegories to zeugmas. Literary devices help writers make comparisons in their writing for the readers’ benefit. That’s why my attention was caught when Desmond talked about this line of prose from There, There by novelist Tommy Orange: “Kids are jumping out the windows of burning buildings, falling to their death. And we think the problem is that they’re jumping.”

Desmond used this to describe the American poverty debate. For more than 100 years, he said, we’ve focused on the jumpers, the poor. We’ve asked every question we can about them, their families, their work ethic, their welfare dependency, and more, when we should have focused on the fire. Who lit the fire? Who’s warming their hands by it?

With poverty, Desmond said, we have to be honest about who benefits from all this exploitation. The hard truth: America profits by keeping people poor.

That’s certainly a message we need to keep amplifying. But what Desmond also did here was paint a picture to turn the abstract idea of systems change into a more concrete concept. In the fight for racial and economic justice, we need to treat the symptoms of the problem while identifying and removing the root cause.

Our January 18 summit brought to an end our yearlong series, Civil Rights at a Crossroads: Igniting Activism for Racial and Economic Justice. We celebrated wins that changed the rules and changed people’s lives, while also exploring current issues and innovative solutions.

Despite the challenges we face today, I feel confident in our ability to build a better, more equitable future together. That’s the power of being in community with like-minded people who won’t accept the status quo. We can gain more supporters for our shared mission, one story at a time.

About the Author

Dawn Raftery
Dawn Raftery
Dawn Raftery
Vice President of Communications


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