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Sociologist Matthew Desmond on why poverty persists in the U.S.


Why does a country as wealthy as the United States have so many living in poverty? The reasons are many - predatory financial services, stagnant wages, rising housing costs. In a new book, sociologist Matthew Desmond argues there's another reason why poverty grows so persistently here - because those who are better off benefit from it. The book is called "Poverty, By America," and Matthew Desmond joins us now. Welcome to the show.

MATTHEW DESMOND: Thank you so much for having me.

RASCOE: So how do the rest of us who are not in poverty benefit by keeping people poor?

DESMOND: We consume cheap goods and services. We invest in companies that have a record of union busting and exploitation. We protect lavish tax breaks that accrue to the wealthiest Americans, and that starves anti-poverty spending. And then we have the audacity to ask, how can we afford to drive down poverty in this country? - even though the country does a lot more to subsidize affluence?

RASCOE: There was a war on poverty that was declared some 50 years ago. That was when the national poverty rate was around 19%. Today, it's 11%. How are we, at this moment, measuring who's living in poverty?

DESMOND: Poverty measurement's very complicated. It's very contested. But one way to understand poverty is just to look at grim indicators that track with deprivation. Are evictions up or down in the last 20 years? They're up 20%. Is homeless school children up or down? It's up. Is extreme poverty up or down? The number of Americans living on incredibly small incomes, that's also up. What about the number of Americans reporting no cash income and just getting by on food stamps? That is also increased in recent years. So we could definitely get into, like, the debates about how to count the poor. But I think that the bottom line is the things that make poverty so miserable and agonizing are up, are concerning and should shame us in a nation with this many resources.

RASCOE: You know, there's also a debate on how much federal aid goes to the poor - because you do point out, like, one thing that's surprising is the amount of federal aid to the poor has not decreased. Yet, for the past several decades, the number of people living in poverty has remained stuck. You said in the book that it's helpful to think of the welfare system as one big, leaky bucket. What do you mean by that?

DESMOND: What's kind of amazing to me is how much money is allocated to the poor on paper but doesn't reach them in practice. So if you look at cash welfare, which is called the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF, for every dollar that's budgeted to that program, only about 22 cents reaches a family in, like, dollars in hand. So, like, why? Well, it's because that program is doled out by something called a block grant, which gives states a lot of discretion about how to spend their money, and they use that discretion. They use welfare funds to fund Christian summer camps, anti-abortion centers, marriage initiatives. Mississippi basically used it to, like, buy trucks, you know, and build university sports stadiums.

And it's also important to realize that a lot of low-income families don't take advantage of the aid allocated to them. And this blew me away when researching the book. I mean, a lot of times, we hear about welfare dependency. But if you look in the data, you realize that's not the problem at all. The problem is welfare avoidance - the fact that 1 in 5 elderly Americans who could benefit from food stamps don't take them. One in 5 low-income workers who could benefit from the Earned Income Tax Credit don't claim that credit.

And if you add all that up, the money that's left on the table, you realize that every year, $140 billion - billion with a B - is not getting out to families that really need it. So the American poor are, frankly, terrible at being welfare dependent. I wish they were better at it, in a way.

RASCOE: But part of what happens when you have all of these debates about the poor is that there is this idea that if you help these people - and it depends on what those people look like, whether you feel like they deserve the help - but it's also kind of zero-sum, where people feel like, oh, I'm working hard at my job, and I work so hard to pay these bills. And then that person isn't working, and then they get money. And that's not fair. So, like, how do you deal with that battle of public opinion where you have these groups, really, that are being pit against each other?

DESMOND: Yeah. It gets us into this scarcity mindset, right? And a lot of the ways that the government has designed anti-poverty policies are, frankly, divisive, right? And they've pitted low-income families against moderate-income families, you know? And I think we should reject that scarcity mindset. This isn't the best we can do. We don't have to settle for this. One quick statistic - a recent study showed that if Americans in the top 1% of the income distribution just paid the taxes they owed - not paid more taxes, or, you know, had a higher rate, just paid what they owed, stop evading what they owed, we, as a nation, would raise an additional $175 billion a year. OK, that's almost enough to lift everyone out of poverty.

RASCOE: I guess because you talk about you want to make this an issue like climate change - right? - where people will take a stand and say, OK, I'm going to take public transportation more, or I'm going to buy my goods with climate change in mind. But do you worry that even this, this anti-poverty or poverty abolitionists, could also become, in some ways, virtue signaling, but it's not really dealing with the problem? Like, do you worry that it could just become more lip service?

DESMOND: I would love to have that problem, honestly.

RASCOE: You (laughter) - you say - you're like, we're not even there yet. We're not even there.

DESMOND: Yeah. If a lot of us decided, look, I'm really investing in these companies that treat their workers right, I'm going to show up at my zoning board meeting on Tuesday night and I'm going to stand up and say, no, I want affordable housing in my community, and if I'm going to write my congressperson and say, what you're doing is too small, we have more resources, reach for something better, all this poverty around me is unacceptable - and if we did that to virtue signal, you know, I could live with that for now. My biggest fear, actually, is that people read this book, and they put it down. And they just sigh, and they feel despair instead of getting involved and taking some action.

RASCOE: Well, that's the thing, because you offer a lot of kind of small and medium solutions in this book, but how do you not fall into despair when people will go, but that's very hard? We can't even raise the debt ceiling. You're talking about dealing with poverty, and everybody's fighting over all these different things. How do you not fall into the despair of I just feel like nothing can be done?

DESMOND: So in the 1960s, Congress was a mess, totally polarized. The Southern Democrats were aligned with Republicans to block progressive reform. And in that cauldron, major pieces of civil rights legislations were passed. And the war on poverty was birthed, and the Great Society was birthed. Those programs, they reduced poverty by half. How was that possible? Well, grassroots organizers, especially the civil rights movement and the labor movements, just put unrelenting pressure on federal policymakers. They forced their hand. And I'm just so grateful that those movement leaders didn't descend into despair. I'm so grateful they didn't look at Congress and say, you know, maybe next time. They got to work, and I think we need to get to work.

RASCOE: That's Matthew Desmond. He is a sociologist at Princeton University and author of the upcoming book "Poverty, By America." Thank you so much for being with us.

DESMOND: Oh, thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.