Getting and staying ahead by leaving others behind (review of Matthew Desmond’s Poverty, By America)

Do you really need a tax break if you can afford to spend the equivalent of a mortgage payment or a month’s rent on a two-night stay at a resort?

Probably not. But that didn’t stop me from claiming the new staycation tax credit while filing my taxes.

That decision drove home the key message in Matthew Desmond’s latest book Poverty, By America and made for some uncomfortable reading.

“Books about poverty tend to be books about the poor,” writes Desmond, a Princeton University sociology professor and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Evicted.

“These kinds of books help us understand the nature of poverty. But they do not – and in fact cannot – answer the most fundamental question, which is why? To understand the causes of poverty, we must look beyond the poor. Those of us living lives of privilege and plenty must examine ourselves. Are we – we the secure, the insured, the housed, the college educated, the protected, the lucky – connected to all these needless suffering?”

We’re not just connected – we’re beneficiaries, says Desmond. He shows how we’re getting and staying ahead by leaving others behind.  

We’re all for poverty reduction until it could potentially hurt our property values, investment portfolios, tax bills and our kids’ schools.

We say reducing poverty’s a priority but we don’t spend like it. As Desmond points out, we take pride in buying local and organic fruits and vegetables. “But we don’t ask what the farmworkers made picking them.” The same holds true for the gig workers who deliver the whole world to our front doors.

“We reward companies that run antiracism marketing campaigns without recognizing how these campaigns can distract from those companies’ abysmal labor practices, as if shortchanging workers isn’t often itself a kind of racism.”

We love no-fee banking yet don’t question our banks over the overdraft charges slapped on people who don’t have a steady paycheque to cover their bills.

And when the poor speak up and tell us they’re hungry, we convene expert panels, task forces and roundtables, says Desmond. “Complexity is the refuge of the powerful. Most social problems are complicated, of course, but a retreat into complexity is more often a reflection of our social standing than evidence of critical intelligence.”

We’ve also fallen for what Desmond calls the scarcity diversion. “Here’s the playbook. First, allow elites to hoard a resource like money or land. Second, pretend that arrangement is natural, unavoidable – or better yet, ignore it altogether. Third, attempt to address social problems caused by the resource hoarding only with the scare resources left over. So instead of making the rich pay all their taxes, for instance, design a welfare state around the paltry budget you are left with when they don’t. Fourth, fail. Fail to drive down the poverty rate. Fail to build more affordable housing. Fifth, claim this is the best you can do. Preface your comments by saying “in a world of scare resources…”. Blame government programs. Blame capitalism. Blame the other political party. Blame immigrants. Blame anyone you can except those who most deserve it. ‘Gaslighting’ is not too strong a phrase to describe such pretense.”

Desmond argues we’re blessed with more than enough abundance to eliminate poverty. Having the have-lots pay their fair and full share in taxes is a good start. “Lift the floor by rebalancing our social safety net; empower the poor by reining in exploitation; and invest in broad prosperity by turning away from segregation.”

The costs are too high to do nothing or convene yet another expert panel. “Poverty is the dream killer, the capability destroyer, the great waster of human potential,” says Desmond. “Every person, every company, every institution that has a role in perpetuating poverty also has a role in ameliorating it. The end of poverty is something to stand for, to march for, to sacrifice for. We don’t need to outsmart this problem. We need to outhate it.”

Photo by Max Bohme on Unsplash.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has written business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

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Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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