Matthew Desmond’s previous book, Evicted, was remarkable. It was a methodical, careful, detailed, relatively restrained account of the ways that evictions of low-income tenants actually reinforce their poverty. Desmond lived in low-income housing and got to know both tenants and landlords, and the book reflects studied attention. It answered a question I’ve long wondered—why rent in the low-income areas of a community isn’t much lower than in other areas—and does so in a way that doesn’t rely on easy heroes and villains. It changed the way I think about housing.
His new book, Poverty, by America, feels like it was written by a different author. It’s an impassioned manifesto—I’d almost call it a jeremiad—in support of what he calls “poverty abolitionism.” It’s short, punchy, angry, urgent, sometimes self-indulgent and as broad as his earlier work was subtle. I’m still trying to decide if that’s disappointing or just disorienting.
To be clear, the thesis of the new book makes a great deal of sense. Desmond argues that poverty persists because it’s a side effect of policies that many people otherwise like and support. “Good” school districts presume the existence of “bad” ones; 529 plans for parents to save for their kids’ tuition fit cultural myths well and are popular among upper-middle-class voters; the forgone tax revenue would likely have done much more social good if it had been directed to the poor, or to the colleges that serve them. As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out years ago, the effective subsidy of allowing Princeton’s endowment to grow tax-free is greater than the operating subsidy for any community college in the state, but the latter is considered “public” and subject to scrutiny while the former is considered private and offered great deference.
Many of the subsidies that go to the relatively affluent don’t look like subsidies. In our political culture, direct-transfer payments count as subsidies, but tax credits or deductions don’t. Section 8 vouchers cost less than the mortgage interest tax deduction, but most people don’t think of the latter as a subsidy at all. Incumbent homeowners are often quite practiced at using zoning ordinances to keep the disfavored groups (low-income, Black, Latino) out and keep their own property values high. As William Fischel pointed out years ago in The Homevoter Hypothesis, for most middle-class families, their home is their single largest financial asset. It makes sense that they’d try to protect its value. And local officials are accountable to the voters who are there at the time; prospective future residents don’t vote there. That tends to build in a bias towards preservation of the status quo. That can even happen in ostensibly progressive cities.
Part of the reason that the previous administration’s cap on the deduction for state and local taxes came as such a shock—aside from the brazenness of using the tax code specifically to punish states that didn’t vote for that administration—was that it treated a tax deduction like a transfer payment. We don’t have a habit of doing that quite so explicitly.
Low wages offer concrete benefits to the people who pay them, and to the people who consume the goods and services at lower cost than they otherwise could. That creates a political incentive not to let wages get too high. This year we’re seeing the Federal Reserve raise interest rates at a record-setting pace in order to reduce demand by throwing more people out of work in order to reduce inflation; put differently, the Fed is creating more poverty on the low end to make people in the middle and higher ends more comfortable. How “soft” the “landing” is depends on whether you’re the one being landed on.
Desmond scores point after point in this brief volume, but in a style that I suspect will only resonate with people who already agree with him. I don’t see this book changing many minds the way Evicted did. It’s more about rallying the troops through moral outrage. And that’s where I find myself wanting more. Yes, of course, it’s indefensible that tens of millions of people in the richest country in the history of humanity live in such precarious conditions, and that the economy works in such a way that keeping tens of millions in those conditions is necessary to make everything else work. But if it were just a matter of morality, we could have settled the issue years ago. Material self-interest and shortsighted politics beat moralistic arguments reliably.
Desmond is rightly skeptical of easy “everybody wins” solutions, but there’s something to be said for coalition-building. Figuring out how to get from here to there requires more than moral suasion. If his next book combines the moral passion of this one with the specificity of his first one, it could be extraordinary. In the meantime, though, this one is a worthy reminder that fairness is a choice, and one that we have to make over and over again.