Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, written by Matthew Desmond almost a decade ago, is widely regarded as a shape-shifting force in the field of urban sociology: a must-read for academics and activists alike. In Evicted, Desmond sheds light on complex dynamics between renters and landlords, exposing the business models of landlords who target, trap, mistreat, and make money from impoverished renters. It’s a book written with fiction-like levels of character and narrative development. In the public eye, it ultimately elevated eviction as an issue affecting black women near to the status of the mass incarceration affecting black men. Yet Desmond’s newest release, Poverty, By America, has strayed quite a way both in form and force from Evicted.
The book is organized into nine chapters seeking to answer various sub-questions related to the book’s central ask: Why is there so much poverty in the United States? Desmond begins by attempting to define the problem of poverty — and spends much of the rest of the book trying to convince the upper-middle and upper classes of the nation that they, or “we” as Desmond puts it, are largely to blame for its persistence. “We” benefit from poverty primarily through the labor exploitation that gives rise to cheaper consumer goods. But this tone is also aimed at ruffling feathers. Desmond wants to connect — and create a causal relationship between — omnipresent poverty and all of the ways in which the well-to-do are subsidized. It is not, in Desmond’s telling, the government or multinational corporate monopolies that produce and reproduce poverty: rather, it owes to a myriad of interchanges, scalable from an everyday cheap product bought without care for the worker, to a tax break exclusively for homeowners. What truly entrenches poverty is the exchange between those with and those without.
In the fifth chapter, “How We Rely on Welfare,” Desmond makes a vitally important point — that the wealthy are subsidized at higher rates than the impoverished, and that the nation just doesn’t call their benefits “handouts.” He calls this “the invisible welfare state.” Desmond writes that Americans’ hardwired belief in meritocracy leads them to “conflate material success with deservingness.” He explains:
Do we really believe that the top one percent are more deserving than the rest of the country? Are we really, in 2023, going to argue that white people have far more wealth than Black people because white people have worked harder for it — or that women are paid less because they deserve less?
For Desmond, the reason is plain: “We like it.” He calls this his “rudest explanation” for the persistence of poverty. But really, aside from being rude, it mostly functions to bolster a fictive “we” which narrates the book.
“If this is the social contract we want,” Desmond writes, “then we should at least own up to it. We should at least stand up and profess, yes this is the kind of nation we want.” If this is a “gotcha” moment, then the only people suitable as readers would be a mere fraction of Americans. Unfortunately, I sense Desmond believes the “we” to be far greater: maybe 40 to 50 percent of the nation, including large segments of middle-class Americans. The “we,” then, works to conjure up a comforting faux–class solidarity between the wealthiest of the wealthy and the country’s middle classes.
I Bet You Think This Book Is About You
While Desmond’s reading is not entirely lacking in truth, the way it is conceived reflects rather than challenges neoliberal ideas of subjective choice: Desmond joins a concert of recent writers like Ibram X. Kendi, Patrisse Cullors, and Robin DiAngelo pushing various iterations of individualized guilt upon their audiences dressed up, at times, as a political-economic analysis.
Where Desmond departs from these others is his focus on class privilege and not racial privilege. This focus has drawn Desmond some criticism in recent sociological scholarship on gentrification, alleging that he does not adequately center racism in his analysis. Ironically, his focus on class privilege (which is in substance a focus on income privilege) mirrors more than it differs from the fixation with race privilege. Both submit a fundamentally anti-collectivist vision of social change — highlighting the distance between social groups while misidentifying the engine of this division as those with varying amounts of relative privilege and not those who truly profit from the present arrangement.
Desmond, to make matters worse, attempts to walk a tightrope of self-absolution and collective guilt alongside the upper classes. Not infrequently, Desmond invokes his own childhood of growing up low-income in a house that struggled to pay the bills. He does this while now acknowledging his current class privilege as a MacArthur Genius (a fellowship that grants winners $625,000, no strings attached) and public intellectual in the Ivies. In the end, his approach perpetuates a neoliberal trend of compulsive self-involvement masquerading as self-awareness.
Desmond argues that we have uncritically accepted the existence of widespread poverty in the United States as a natural development: this is substantiated by the fact that very few large social movements have centered on the eradication of poverty since Dr King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s 1967 Poor People’s Campaign.
Poverty as a book, however, reads a bit like an extended literature review of the last twenty or so years of mainstream academic research on the subject. Desmond runs through data on overinvestment in subsidizing home ownership through mortgage-interest tax deductions, the problems with the Housing Choice Voucher system, the corporate loopholes in taxation, the insufficiency of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the decline of union membership, and a half-dozen other related subgenres of research that show how capital is accumulated at the upper echelons of society and away from the lower classes.
Desmond’s primary practical aim in this book feels far from exerting influence at the policy level, and more toward catalyzing a movement of well-to-do “poverty abolitionists.” That is, one reliant on people who center the issue of eradicating poverty in their daily life via decisions as consumers, involvement in local activism and governance, and fighting for policy interventions aimed at quelling inequality.
The issue that rears its head throughout the book — the lack of attention to the nature of capitalism and its contradictions — becomes most apparent here, with the term “poverty abolitionists,” coined by Desmond. The term implies that one can be anti-poverty and pro-capitalism: otherwise, what would be the matter with pushing for a movement of anti-capitalists instead of poverty abolitionists?
Desmond’s answers to persistent poverty do include many important measures. We can surely agree that the money that the United States government spends on welfare needs to actually make it to people in need, not stagnate in bureaucratic limbo; that subsidizing upper-class homeownership should not exceed public housing vouchers; that programs should, indeed, be wide-tent in nature, as Desmond suggests.
But the book refuses to contend with, or even name, its own contradictions. Historically, capitalist development through technological advancement has, without exception, created surplus populations as well as surplus capital. The fiscal crisis of the state, as James O’Connor laid out in 1973, lies in the state’s contradictory need to facilitate capital accumulation while retaining legitimacy in the eyes of the public by supplying welfare programs. Poverty, for O’Connor, was endemic to capitalist development.
The American welfare state has never — contrary to Desmond’s vision for it — been about eradicating poverty. Rather, its primary function was and is to manufacture the social conditions necessary for capital accumulation to proceed uninterrupted. It has been about pacifying “those who suffer the ‘costs’ of economic growth,” in O’Connor’s words. To create a system whose primary goal is mass poverty eradication would necessitate the overthrow of the capitalist state — hence the need to be anti-capitalist in order to be meaningfully anti-poverty.
On the Same Side
Desmond’s core demand is, instead, that those with housing, health insurance, and relative economic security ask themselves how they, or others, profit from poverty when they drive past an encampment site, or someone asking for change at the streetlight. This is, generally, an exercise in self-alienation: How much does my life differ from those who have fallen through the cracks?
An anti-capitalist stance, rather, might call for the question: What do you have in common with that person? What could happen in your own life that could land you in their shoes? Desmond’s book wants us to fetishize the distance between the economically secure and the impoverished. Yet in their structural employment relationship, there are more similarities between a minimum-wage laborer and a professor at Princeton than there are differences. Both of them have to show up at work tomorrow if they want to keep themselves going. A solidaristic class consciousness is not achieved by an analysis of the differences between the professor and the Wal-Mart worker, but by understanding what they have in common.