Before he was a professor at Princeton, a New York Times bestselling author or a poverty abolitionist, Matthew Desmond was a preacher’s kid in Arizona. Through that, he experienced firsthand the effects of economic hardship.
Desmond, a sociologist, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.” His newest book, “Poverty, by America,” was released earlier this year and is a direct call for poverty abolition, framed by hard statistics, policy suggestions and very human stories. Government has the ability to intervene definitively if the will is there, Desmond argues.
“You get involved in these debates about how to end poverty or reduce poverty. And one of the first criticisms that comes up is, ‘How could we afford it?’ When you look [at the data], I think we have to cultivate a language that shames that response, it calls that response ‘deceitful’ and ‘sinful’ or calls that response ‘our priorities are messed up,’” he said.
“There’s plenty of debates we could have, [but] the debate about if we can afford it or not should be over, and the answer should be unequivocal. We could afford it if we stopped guarding fortunes and started really investing in the least of us.”
Desmond spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Aleta Payne. The following is an edited transcript.
Faith & Leadership: You are a “preacher’s kid,” and you write very candidly about the financial precarity your father’s calling created for your family when you were growing up. Could you speak a bit more about that, and how that formed your interests?
Matthew Desmond: I grew up in a little town in Arizona, a little railroad town. If you got a job with the railroad, that was the best job you could get. It was a union job, and if you got seniority, you could have a solid, small-town, middle-class life. That was our biggest employer. We had a prison there; that was another big employer.
My dad ran a little church called the First Christian Church. It was a nondenominational church, but in Arizona, that’s basically a Baptist church. And we just never had a lot of money. It was tough to make a living from the offering plate, and we experienced the pressures and slights of poverty, the daily things, like just having [awareness of] money be ever present in your life. I remember knowing so much about my family’s budget growing up; I knew how much that cost, and that cost.
We experienced some of the tougher parts of poverty. We had our gas shut off several times. We lost our home when I was in college.
And I blamed my parents, like so many other people in those situations do. I think that confused me, and I think that confusion was amplified by the poverty I saw around my university but also the affluence I saw around my university.
That maybe drove this question about “why” inside me a little deeper. With my last book on eviction, it was a return to the source, in a way. I think that one of the special things, the challenges, about being a sociologist is taking those moments where you blame yourself, where you blame your parents, and you say, “Look, there’s a bigger game afoot. It’s not all on you.”
F&L: Your book put me in mind of others — Liz Theoharis’ “Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor”; “We Cry Justice,” from the Poor People’s Campaign; Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy.” They share themes with you about proximity and making sure that those who live in poverty have choices and have agency. All of you thought that was important, so there must be something there.
MD: One of the first things I would do when I was trying to understand inequality was to spend a lot of time with homeless people. Not giving them socks or anything like that, or serving them. Just sitting with them and talking with them. It was kind of my first impulse, and it was a young person’s impulse, but I think I’ve also kept that impulse, trying to understand the housing crisis.
I moved into a mobile home park. I moved into a rooming house. I think there are moments in the book where you’re meeting people that I have met along the way, below the line. That is so incredibly important for this kind of work, because it gives us a catch in our voice. It doesn’t allow dismissive, easy answers.
And I also feel like it really gives it weight to know the stakes, not only because you see how terrible certain kinds of poverty in America are, but also because you fall in love with people and you see their generosity and beauty and potential and you realize what they could have blossomed into if they weren’t born under this weight.
That proximity is critical for those things. You get a lot wrong when you’re very far away. I know there’s this old line in the university that we need distance to be objective — and I think at a university, that’s not our problem. There’s plenty of distance.
Getting close to people teaches us things. My biggest lessons have come outside the halls of the university, in a way.
F&L: There’s wisdom outside the academy.
MD: Right, expanding the boundaries of expertise. When I teach classes on poverty, our guest speakers are people that are below the line. They’re formerly incarcerated people, people that just got out, homeless folks, folks working minimum wage, undocumented folks. It’s a way to say, “Let’s learn from these statistical studies and these books, but also let’s learn from folks that are touching this problem right now.”
F&L: You also have some theology in there. You talk about sinfulness; you talk about new wineskins; you quote Walter Brueggemann and speak to congregations. That is not something we always hear from social scientists. Why the choice to include that language?
MD: I think the book required a kind of anger at some points, and that’s not a register I’m used to writing in. It was a challenge for me. But I felt that you can’t read a lot of these things coldheartedly, and it would be kind of disingenuous to write in a cold, detached, academic tone when you’re confronting lies about our society or continued embrace of segregation or the way that we’ve destroyed worker power and sold workers out. I think in reaching for that language, often, I found myself reaching into my faith tradition.
I feel like often, throughout the Scriptures, when you see God getting really angry, it’s because some disadvantaged group is getting screwed. It’s like Isaiah 61:8 — “I, the Lord, hate robbery. I hate injustice. I love justice.” This kind of righteous hate is something that I try to channel.
I ultimately see this book as a hopeful book. I see this as a book that does have a blueprint for how we can end poverty. I feel we actually have more responsibility to work that muscle, to kind of cultivate that generative muscle. There certainly is a need for the critical voice, but I think that if it’s the only register we speak in, we’re not going to have an answer to people when they say, “OK, what should we do about it?”
And we’re not going to celebrate when we see real progress. That lack of celebration actually has real consequences, I feel. Those were the two voices I was trying to cultivate, and I found in theology some language that helped me cultivate them.
F&L: Your commitment is to poverty abolition; it’s what you demand throughout the book. To even name that is hopeful.
MD: I love that during the War on Poverty, [the Johnson administration] set a deadline. Sargent Shriver, who ran the war, in his testimony for the Senate, was like, “By 1976, we are going to abolish poverty.”
We used to have these moral ambitions to end poverty in America, for real. It wasn’t just talk. They set a deadline. There’s a part of me that feels that’s the best of America, this bombastic, morally big thing. It’s hard, but so what?
I think also, spending a lot of time with advocates on the ground fighting poverty, that they are hopeful. They are not naive. They’re up against it — they’re fighting housing discrimination and workplace exploitation — but they’re also winning. And I think that in doing so, they’re asking things that are much bigger asks than we ask in policy schools. Hanging out with them has convicted me to make that ask too.
This is a commitment that is deeply, deeply informed by other abolitionist movements. And an abolitionist movement sees the problem as something that can be no longer tolerated at all, right?
We didn’t want just a little less slavery. We wanted the end of it. I think that if we view poverty with the same moral disgust and outrage, then we don’t just want a reduction and we don’t want just a fiddling on the edges. We want the end of poverty.
When you put it that way, it has the potential to galvanize, to energize. And I think it allows us to cultivate a language that we don’t have yet — an identity politics around ending poverty, which is an important part of building a political will.
F&L: Let’s talk about the role of the church and of church people who love other people. They also love missions and doing good. In terms of moving people from charity to justice, how would you translate the importance of understanding that people have to be fed in this moment but also questioning, “Why are they hungry?”
MD: Nothing replaces the state when it comes to ending poverty. There’s no substitute, and there’s no historical example — contemporary international example — that shows a huge difference in poverty reduction based on something other than serious governmental action. And “government” is usually this word for something else, some outside body. But government is just us. This is about our national priorities — our policies are moral documents.
We as a nation collect about 25% of our GDP in taxes every year. Sweden, Italy, the Netherlands, even Ireland got up to about 35% to 38% of their GDP in taxes. That’s just a deeper investment in the people. And that’s a moral commitment that really has payout. If charity would be enough, it would be enough, because we do a lot along that score in the United States.
And yet our child poverty rate is double that of other countries with a lot lower levels of religion than ours. I think missions are beautiful. I think service is beautiful, but I also think we need to cultivate real relationships of equality with people below the line, which sometimes missions don’t. And I think getting into those relationships can alter the end we’re pushing for as well.
The church played this huge role during the Affordable Care Act push, and it gave real moral voice to that movement. I would love to see the church clear its voice and marshal that in the service of poverty abolition as well.
F&L: Another line that sort of stopped me: “Maybe above a certain income level, we’re all segregationists.” I felt that one. You speak very directly about solutions. You talk about, “Here are the things we need to think about, and here are the things we need to do differently.” Can you just talk about how this shared problem demands a shared response?
MD: My favorite line of the book is not from me. It’s the sentence from Tommy Orange, the novelist, where he writes, “It’s like these kids are jumping out of the windows of burning buildings, falling to their deaths, and we think that the problem is they’re jumping.”
This is a book about the fire. It’s about us. And I think that by “us” I mean a lot of us. I don’t just mean the very rich. I mean a lot of us who can commit ourselves to poverty abolitionism. There’s certainly a lot on policies and things that we need to do at a big, structural level in the book.
We need to deepen our investments in fighting poverty; we need to fund those investments with fair tax implementation. We need to end exploitation in the labor, housing and financial markets. They call it “exploitation” in the Scriptures; we should call it “exploitation” now. We need to fight for broad, inclusive communities. That’s how we end poverty in this country.
To get there, I think a lot of us have to embrace this as a personal ethical project. It shouldn’t just be a podcast talking point or op-ed. It should be about, “How am I shopping? How am I investing?”
Remember when we used to talk about sin stocks? Can we talk about that now with respect to companies that are breaking their workers down, that are giving no parental leave, that are requesting unions that will not pay a living wage? Can we talk about that company as a sin stock? We need to take a hard look at our taxes and those of us that are benefiting from the unbalanced welfare state. We need to start a movement to correct that imbalance. We need to be willing to take less from the government and tell our elected leaders so.
And ending segregation is a policy. There are laws that need to change, but those laws aren’t going to change unless we go down to the zoning board meetings on a Tuesday night and stand up and say, “Yeah, I’d like this affordable [housing]. I want this. I can’t believe you guys are against this.”
I’m not a biblical scholar. But I think that there are plenty of moments in the Bible where, in a way, the gospel is about ending segregation, the gospel is about inclusivity. And the fact that we’re building these exclusive communities and hoarding resources has real consequences for poor folks and just cannot be justified by any moral argument, I feel.
If you go to Washington all the time, you’ve been doing this work for a while, you hear this line from the folks around here: “Well, we know what to do. We have the money. We just don’t have the political will.” This book is my answer to that challenge.
F&L: What else do you really want people to hear from you?
MD: I didn’t think the book would hit like it did. It’s been thrilling being on the road for the last several months, and it’s been interesting. I’ve been talking to a lot of audiences, and I feel that the country is so ready for a different poverty debate. I feel that it’s so primed. I feel that this desire cuts across political divisions. I feel that the old is dying.
We’ve seen through the lies and the myths, and I think it’s up to us to create a new language, a new story. A lot of us are striving toward that.
There are a couple of challenges I’m hitting on the road. One is our tendency to just blame someone else, whoever it is. It’s the other political party, the plutocrats, the billionaires — and I think the folks that have amassed power and the folks that are voting to cut food stamps deserve our criticism, and they hold a lot of this responsibility.
But I feel like we can’t absolve ourselves. The book hopefully galvanizes action. We built this website called endpovertyusa.org, and it’s designed to help connect readers to the next step.
It does two things. It’s designed to connect families to services in their communities that they need and deserve. That’s actually really hard to do, depending on where you live. We try to streamline that for the nation.
And it’s designed to connect leaders to anti-poverty organizations all around the country if they want to get involved with their time and resources, just to learn more about what’s going on wherever they live.