Domestic poverty and who it serves 

Matthew Desmond unties the knot of being poor in the US—and shows the rest of us that we hold the strings.

For generations, public and private efforts have sought to eradicate poverty in America. Government spending on anti-poverty measures has gone up, and the number of charitable agencies dedicated to helping poor people has grown. Yet the rate of poverty in the United States has remained largely unchanged over the last 50 years, while the wealth gap has widened considerably in that same time.

Sociologist Matthew Desmond’s new book explains why poverty persists despite—and because of—the things we do. Poverty, by America is a more expansive book than Desmond’s 2016 bestseller, Evicted, which chronicles the lives of those unable to find stable housing, those who profit at their expense, and the systems that entangle both groups. In this new book, Desmond examines the intricate web of visible and invisible forces that keep so many Americans poor. He presents poverty as “a tight knot of social maladies” and then disentangles them to show readers the different strands. 

Desmond writes from the rare perspective of an academic who experienced poverty and is still intimately close to those who are poor. This is not merely a topic of research for him. It’s personal, and this shows in his depiction of poverty as so much more than lack of money. In Desmond’s telling, poverty is pain, trauma, instability, fear, and a loss of liberty. It is living with perpetual embarrassment and shame. It is feeling like the government is against you, being surrounded by institutions that abuse you and force you to live with a diminished life and personhood, and facing constant barriers that keep you from flourishing into who you were created to be. Poverty, Desmond writes, is “material scarcity piled on chronic pain piled on incarceration piled on depression piled on addiction—on and on it goes.” The righteous anger in Desmond’s tone is impossible to miss and hard to critique. Ultimately, poverty is blasphemy against the imago Dei.