Book review: Contradictions between wealth and poverty subject of Desmond's latest 

Desmond won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2016 book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
Book review: Contradictions between wealth and poverty subject of Desmond's latest 

Book Review: Poverty by America Matthew Desmond

  • Poverty, by America 
  • Matthew Desmond 
  • Penguin Books, £21.99

I spent a bitterly cold Thanksgiving Day 2018 in New York City. The wind chill factor was -9C. Despite that, the city was alive with celebration. Families travelled from all over of the East Coast to view the opulence of the Macys Parade. Many more queued to join the mayhem of the Macys Sale.

Everywhere I looked families and groups of young and old celebrated the anniversary of the “original settlers” day of thanks.

Not long after dark, I spotted an elderly lady, on 33rd Street, carrying plastic bags, and moving laboriously through the shadows of the best known skyscrapers in the world. She was dressed in layers of old cloths, her face hidden inside her hood and, beneath her knee-length skirt, her legs were heavily bandaged — as protection from the biting cold.

The dichotomy between the two events could not be greater. How, on Thanksgiving of all days, could these worlds live side by side?

These contradictions between wealth and poverty are the subject of Pulitzer Prize winner, Matthew Desmond’s new book Poverty, by America.

Desmond is no stranger to the reality of poverty. His father, a pastor, made a meagre living from the collection plate of the First Christian Church a few miles outside Winslow, Arizona. His father often quipped that the railway workers of Winslow had better salaries than he did as a pastor and a scholar. Desmond adds that the railway workers had a union; his father didn’t.

Desmond won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2016 book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. In Poverty, by America he sets out to show that the depth of poverty in the USA cannot be understood solely by considering the lives of the American poor. He invites the reader to explore other significant influences on the millions of Americans who live below the poverty line in the US.

For Desmond the key question is how and why poverty has continuous levels across the US despite the fact that Federal aid has increased significantly over the same decades?

Part of the answer to this, he argues, is that vast sums of money intended to ease the poverty problem never actually reaches the intended destination each year. In 2020 almost $6bn was left unspent in poverty relief initiatives across the US. The state of Tennessee, topped the list with $790m left over at the end of the year. Mississippi, with a child poverty rate of 28%, spent part of the money on buying cars for non-profit CEOs, hiring evangelist singers, and sending employees on a paid-for fitness training camps.

Other reasons for the sustained poverty levels are more obvious. The almost criminally low minimum wage rate that exists in most states ensures that those who have to work for these low rates are forced to pay up to 70% of their income on housing rent. This forces people into short-term, high-interest pay gap loans to pay other bills.

It also raises the question of morality in commerce. For example, should businesses that claim they cannot continue to exist if the minimum wage is raised be allowed to continue? If the answer is yes, one has to ask how are these businesses any different to the old cotton plantations that thrived on slave labour?

Not surprisingly Desmond portrays the American housing crisis, or rather the lack of affordable housing, is portrayed as a major factor in the plight of the poor.

Housing is the preserve of the America’s middle and wealthy classes. Their housing is subsidised with generous mortgage reliefs to the cost of the poor. Even where affordable housing does exist, banks are reluctant to give mortgages of $100,000, not because the recipient cannot afford the repayments — mortgage repayments are considerably lower than rent repayments — but because the profits on a $400,000 loan are more desirable.

We also learn that it is more profitable to own an inner-city tenement block of apartments (because the maintenance costs are low), than it is to own a middle-class apartment block in the better side of town.

Zoning laws, once intended to expand housing for everyone, are now a common weapon in ensuring that integrated housing is not build in the middle class back yards. As the middle class get wealthier, it is doing more and more to ensure that those left behind, the poor, are removed from their lives.

Desmond also argues that the unavailability of adequate birth control plays a major role in keeping women poor. After the pill became widely available in the 1960s, women’s enrolment rates into college shot up. Now, with many of the poor excluded from Medicare programmes, and the reversal of Roe v Wade, thousands of women and children will be trapped in the poverty net.

Desmond’s primary thesis is that in the USA, “those who have amassed the most power and capital bear the most responsibility for America’s vast poverty”. The arguments in defence of this statement are reasoned, fair and convincing. It is the rich, and their institutions, who decide who will be poor. These are the same people who have the power to open up opportunities to help improve the lives of all those below the poverty line. Everyone should be entitled to proper housing, proper education, appropriate health care and union representation.

Are there lessons to be learned from Poverty, by America for the Irish reader? Yes. Ireland is a much smaller economy and the gap between rich and poor is not as vast as it is in the USA.

However, as Ireland’s population is growing towards pre-famine numbers, care must be taken by government to ensure that all our citizens have access to housing, health care, equality-based education, and a fair wage. Integrated housing and affordable housing are key tools in the drive to ensure that everyone in our future generations fulfils their potential.

As a country we must also look at our minimum wage policy to ensure that our most vulnerable will not be exploited as are been in the USA.

Poverty, by America shows us that even in the land of “equality and opportunity”, the wealth, and the power that sits side by side with it, if left unchecked, has the propensity to polarise and exclude. In doing so the United States is deprived of vast amounts of untapped talent and potential. Let us hope that such days are never seen in Ireland.

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