Home » Matthew Desmond: ‘The poverty rate in America and the UK should be zero – and I think we can get there’

Matthew Desmond: ‘The poverty rate in America and the UK should be zero – and I think we can get there’

At the time of the election of Donald Trump in 2016, there was a lot of soul-searching among liberal American journalists over their failure to closely report and reflect the lives of those “left behind” citizens in the “rust-belt” states, the places that gave Trump victory. One book that came out that year, Evicted, by Matthew Desmond, a professor at Princeton, was an unforgettable example of the kind of reporting that had been neglected.

For two years, beginning in 2008, Desmond had lived among the people at the very harshest end of American society. He took up residence first in a trailer park, and then in the poorest quarter of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In befriending families unable to pay their bills, who had desperately moved from one home to another, and also the landlords who profited from them and turned them out on to the street, he presented a series of vivid, heartbreaking portraits of people drowning in a system loaded against the most vulnerable. His conclusion back then was a stark one: not only that the constant threat and reality of eviction was the number one factor in perpetuating destitution, but also that there were many people making a lot of money from keeping other people in that traumatic, impoverished state.

Speaking to me in London last week, Desmond, a soft-spoken man with an easy mix of human warmth and fact-based outrage, described the second act of Evicted. Poverty, By America is a very different book from his Pulitzer prize-winner: a clear-eyed account of all that he has learned, and how things could change. Its lessons feel urgently applicable to the UK as well as to America. “Most of my adult life has been on this beat,” he says, “teaching classes on poverty and spending a lot of time on the ground. But still I thought if someone came up to me on the street and asked me why there’s so much poverty in such a wealthy country, what would be my answer?”

To begin with, he lays out some of the facts: “If America’s poor founded a country it would have a bigger population than Australia”; “more than 1 million Americans don’t have running water or a flushing toilet at home… more than 38 million cannot afford the basic necessities”; “more than 1 million of our children are homeless, living in motels, cars, shelters”.

But this is not a book only about the scandal of that poverty; it is a book “about how some lives are made small so that others can grow”, the unspoken contract between the haves and have-nots, the evicters and the evictees. “We typically don’t talk about poverty as a condition that benefits some of us,” he writes. “There is of course the habit of blaming the poor for their own miseries,” but “the system doesn’t force us to stiff the waiter or to vote against affordable housing in our neighbourhood.” There are, he argues, three ways in which the more fortunate decide to keep the poor in poverty: we exploit them; we elect politicians who prioritise subsidising affluence over alleviating poverty; and we create prosperous and exclusive communities to entrench those inequalities.

A boy plays outside the family RV in Phoenix, Arizona after they had narrowly avoided eviction for falling behind on the rent. Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images

“When I started that work in Milwaukee,” he says, “one of the questions I had was: why would you buy a trailer park? But when I left that work, I was like: why wouldn’t you do that? I was able to get into my landlord’s own personal finances, and his bottom line was impressive. On my calculation, after expenses, he was taking home over $400,000 a year. That’s when it really, really struck me: we often talk about poverty in isolation when we should be talking about a connection, a relationship. And what would that look like? In the book I quote from the novelist Tommy Orange. He had this line: ‘Kids are jumping out the windows of burning buildings, falling to their deaths. And we think the problem is that they’re jumping.’ When I read that line, I was like: I want to try to write a book about the fire.”

Desmond is sharply aware of some of the ethical dilemmas of this work. In an epilogue to Evicted he confessed how “towards the end of my fieldwork, I wrote in my journal: ‘I feel dirty, collecting these stories and hardships like so many trophies.’” That feeling only intensified after he left the trailer park and the tenancy and returned to a more secure life. “I felt like a phoney and a traitor ready to confess to some unnamed accusation,” he writes. Did that guilt persist?

“It’s true, my depression around Evicted wasn’t when I was in Milwaukee, it was when I left,” he says. “When I got my first job in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it was just so existentially confusing. It was kind of like: what’s your role in all this? How are you implicated?”

I suppose in some ways, I suggest, that feeling was exacerbated by the success of the book, winning the prizes. Did it feel that bearing witness was not enough?

“Bearing witness is the start,” he says. “Publishing a book like Evicted is like step three out of 100, in terms of getting to real change.”

He has tried to navigate some of those other steps. He shared some of the proceeds from his book with its subjects, and he has used their experiences to drive tangible change. “There was, for example, a chapter in the book about women who are domestic violence survivors getting kicked out,” he says. “The book brought that data to the Milwaukee police department, and they changed their law; and then I started working with the American Civil Liberties Union, to use that data to start litigating cases all around the country; and that led to me working with Elizabeth Warren in the Senate, to put federal guidance back on the side of domestic violence survivors. Bearing witness gets you to the door. That’s the start. I now have a team called the Eviction Lab at Princeton. At the start of the pandemic we were campaigning the White House for a moratorium on eviction and rent relief. And we’re really proud of what came out of that.”

A county constable escorts a family out of their home after serving an eviction notice in Phoenix, Arizona.
A county constable escorts a family out of their home after serving an eviction notice in Phoenix, Arizona. Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images

In many ways, he argues, the pandemic was a real-time lesson in what might be achieved, given public pressure and political will. When he and his team first argued for a moratorium on eviction, he says that they would often get laughed out of the room by “fellow progressives” who told them a Trump administration would never accept the idea. But they kept pushing and a moratorium was made law. “A study at Duke University shows that policy alone lowered the death rate by 11%,” Desmond says. “Thousands and thousands of lives saved. And you might say: OK, did property owners not take a hit? But if you look in their industry data, it doesn’t show a big hit on the bottom line. It kind of puts the lie to this idea that we don’t know how to do this. We just did it.”

The figure Desmond holds in his head is $177bn. That’s the annual cost of taking those millions of people in America living below the poverty line – without a secure roof over their head or enough to eat or keep warm and access healthcare – and getting them above it. The figure is less than 1% of GDP. Americans throw away more than that amount of food each year. If the top 1% paid just the taxes they owe, he shows, it would close that $177bn gap at a stroke. And that would benefit everyone. An expanded safety net, rent control, secure tenancy, a rise in minimum wage, would create more stable families; it would reduce crime and addiction; it would increase opportunity and create a far more educated workforce. “How many nurses and engineers and scientists and visionaries does poverty deny us?”

He thinks it is too easy simply to lay the blame on America’s oligarchs, Musk and Bezos and the rest, though a fair tax on their wealth would obviously help. “I think we all need to put ourselves in that story a little bit,” he says. “There’s always someone richer than you. If I want Elon Musk to pay US taxes, I think I have a duty to say, look, I’m a homeowner in America, I get this tax break [on property wealth]. I think it’s unfair. I don’t think I should get it. I think we all need to put a little skin in the game.”

His book makes a powerful and rigorous case for the shared benefits of far more integrated communities, with a mandated mix of private and affordable housing, and schools that bring those populations together. To do this we need to “get rid of all the devious legal minutiae we’ve developed to keep low-income families out of high-opportunity neighbourhoods”. He points to the public opinion data that found in 2020 “an all-time high in people saying they are satisfied with their family’s financial situation (80%)” allied with “an all-time low in people saying they were very happy (14%)”.

Economic segregation does not create contentment.

“It would be false to say, look, if we integrated these communities in a really serious way, it would be butterflies and rainbows all the way. There’s going to be challenges. You’re not going to bump into people in the coffee shop that are all like you. But you also make gains. You lose that sense of scared, lonely, affluence, in which you don’t feel connected to community or to a purpose larger than yourself.”

Desmond came to some of these ideas quite early in life. He grew up in small-town Arizona; his father was a pastor, his mother took on several jobs in order to get him and his siblings to college. When he got to university, a shocking thing happened. The bank foreclosed on his parents’ home. He blamed them at the time for bad decisions – at the same time as signing up for a PhD to study poverty. Did the one event trigger the other?

“No,” he says, “that would be such a nice story, but it’s not quite my story. But I do obviously remember my parents losing our home. I was ashamed. For a long time I felt it was on them, it was their fault. But the more I studied the more I understood there are millions of people in that situation. There was something bigger going on.”

Did he share his father’s religious faith?

“For me, growing up, we understood everything through our faith. You obviously don’t have to be a religious person to connect to the moral charge of these arguments. But if you are a religious person, I think there are mandates in scripture that are deeply connected with the themes of the book. When, for example, Isaiah says in chapter 61, ‘I the Lord, hate robbery, I hate injustice’, I really resonate with that.”

Homeless and low-income people queue to register for free food outside a church in downtown Tampa, Florida
Homeless people and those with low incomes queue to register for free food outside a church in downtown Tampa, Florida. Photograph: Robin Rayne/Zuma Press/PA Images

Despair is a kind of ever-present danger in this kind of work, isn’t it, particularly in the current divisive moment – how does he guard against that in himself?

“I just find it just useless,” he says. “And also I feel that there’s quite a lot to be hopeful for. You know, if you look back to the 1960s, Congress was totally polarised. But people broke through, we got this massive civil rights legislation. How? Well, popular movements put massive pressure on lawmakers. And so I’m hopeful about the current movements. It’s pretty breathtaking to consider the resources that a country like the UK, or America really has. When you look at real, sensible, tax reform enforcement, it’s just staring us right in the face.”

He gives some examples in the book of how we have long been fed myths of scarcity to protect the wealth of the powerful, how ingrained that message is, but also how it is breaking down.

“I’ll tell you a story,” he says. “When I started going around the country talking about Evicted I went to Kansas City public library and gave a talk about Arleen, one of the main characters in the book, a truly heartbreaking story. And there was this older white gentleman in the front row who sat through it all, arms crossed the whole way. Afterwards he got to the microphone first. And he said: ‘You are wrong. These people don’t deserve anything from us. All they deserve is to be sterilised!’ It was this gutting moment – a lot of people in the room had been through eviction themselves. I thought then that I would have to be confronting this old story about work ethic, too many babies, much more often. But after that it just didn’t often come up. I think people are really ready for a new story. I think that deep down inside, most Americans don’t think you can work your way out of poverty. Most Democrats – and most Republicans – now tell pollsters that they think poverty is a result of unfair circumstances. I’m not naive. But I am hopeful.”

He recalls a lecture he gave in which he was accused of being a Marxist by a member of the audience, but he’s a reformer, not a revolutionary. “I was on your TV programme Politics Live yesterday,” he says, with a smile. “One of the Conservative panellists accused me of calling for a total upheaval and breakdown of society. But I’m not asking for that. As I say in the book, all the evidence suggests you can still get to buy designer handbags – but not, at the same time, have people be desperate for something to eat.”

And how should politicians sell that truth?

“I take a few lessons from 2016,” he says. “The Trump and Brexit rhetoric did a very good job of connecting with people’s fears. While on the other side it was, you know, ‘inflation is a big problem’. I think the progressive side needs to sell dreams, too. I think the proper poverty rate in America – or the UK – is zero. I think we can get to zero. I’d like to hear a politician stand up and say that.”

Poverty, By America is published by Allen Lane (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply