Matthew Desmond opens his new book Poverty, by America with a seemingly simple question: “Why is there so much poverty in America?” Desmond, a sociologist, a MacArthur genius-grant recipient, and the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Evicted, is driven to find an answer both as a social scientist seeking a “fundamental theory” of the problem and as a “poverty abolitionist” on a moral crusade to eliminate this scourge and all its associated problems from American life.
In the pages that follow, Desmond chronicles how we collectively exploit the poor through low wages and higher prices, how we subsidize the wealthy over the poor, and how we wall ourselves off in our communities to hoard opportunities unavailable to the poor. He pairs these arguments with gripping personal stories about the people who are affected by these subtle forms of exploitation, abandonment, and exclusion. Desmond is a fantastic writer able to seamlessly weave these two strands together into an eminently readable book. But while Poverty, by America will succeed in mobilizing those already inclined to action, it will likely fail to persuade those who might otherwise be persuadable.
The book has three tragic flaws that will limit its reception. To properly answer the opening question of the book and point to solutions, Desmond needs to give the reader a clear definition of poverty, an understanding of cases in which poverty has successfully been reduced, and insight into the requirements for emulating those cases. He falls short in all three areas.
Social scientists agree that poverty is a situation in which households have insufficient resources to meet their basic needs. This uncontroversial definition belies substantive disagreements over how to measure poverty. Depending on how it is measured, we see very different trends over time and across countries.
There are income-based versus consumption-based as well as absolute versus relative measures. Reasonable people can and do disagree about which ones are better, but there is broad agreement that the Census Bureau’s Official Poverty Measure that Desmond relies on to make the case that there has been no real reduction in poverty in decades is an outdated and unreliable indicator. This measure, for example, excludes tax credits, food assistance, and housing vouchers from its definition of income so that all these crucial anti-poverty programs show no impact on poverty. As Vox’s Dylan Matthews has discussed, if Desmond used other, more generally accepted measures, such as the newer Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), we would see poverty trending downward in the same period.
Desmond rejects the SPM as flawed because it does not track with some of his other preferred indicators of hardship, but his reliance on relatively weak evidence for a claim so fundamental to the book’s thesis leaves the reader feeling underwhelmed. To complicate matters further, most of the academic literature he relies on to make claims about specific policy issues later in the book uses the same poverty measures he rejects earlier in the book.
It is common for sociologists studying poverty to focus on the “lived experience” of the poor. Desmond does this throughout the book but warns the reader about the limitations of simply “bearing witness,” or exposing ourselves to the very real problems facing the poor. “To understand the causes of poverty,” he says, “we must look beyond the poor.”
This makes intuitive sense. Even the most ardent individualists recognize the limits of personal responsibility as an explanation for poverty. Economists like to say people respond to incentives. Sociologists like to say structures constrain or enable individual behavior. Douglass North won a Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on the role of institutions — customs, traditions, rules, policies — in shaping individuals, communities, and nations.
In looking beyond the poor, though, Desmond does not wish to elide discussions of personal responsibility. In fact, his goal is to put them front and center by highlighting the human element of social structures and institutions. “Poverty persists,” he tells the reader, “because some wish and will it to.” Desmond is challenging us to look inward as consumers, as voters, and as community members, to interrogate our role in perpetuating the social structures that exploit, abandon, and exclude the poor.
It is a moral charge befitting the son of a preacher, but it is unclear how it helps us identify the sources of poverty and systematically change them. This is where Desmond veers into “Green Lanternism,” the idea that the only reason social and political change does not happen is that we lack the necessary willpower. It is an unserious claim that provides little guidance for readers interested in social change.