Poverty, By America by Matthew Desmond review – how the rich keep the poor down

A Pulitzer-winning sociologist argues that the United States’s gross inequality is no accident

It’s no wonder Americans have failed to eliminate poverty, sociologist Matthew Desmond maintains in his new book. He believes the better-off are fighting a class war, keeping the poor down by design. Even if he shies away from some of the consequences of his explosive claim, his arguments have the potential to push debate about wealth in America to a new level.

Having won a coveted MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 2015, Desmond is known for his absorbing previous book on eviction practices in housing, which netted him a Pulitzer prize in 2017. He starts his ambitious new study by demonstrating how enduring American poverty is. The current poverty line is represented by an income of $13,590 a year for an individual and $27,750 for a family of four. The number of Americans below it has hovered between 10% and 15% for decades, with calls and plans for reform amounting to “50 years of nothing”. The only exception was the brief period of pandemic relief, which drove poverty down “tremendously” – for children, by more than 50%. But things are now returning to form. The Democrats ended much emergency relief last autumn and cut new entitlements for the worst-off from an Inflation Reduction Act that privileged green capitalism.

Desmond shows that poverty blights rural white areas but that its hardest core is African American and urban. Having written the entry on racial capitalism for the New York Times 1619 project, Desmond is sensitive to the way poverty intersects other forms of subordination. Another sociologist, the great William Julius Wilson, argued more than three decades ago that deindustrialisation was to blame for African American impoverishment, by depriving men of good manufacturing jobs. But Desmond thinks this thesis, while accurate, misses the various ways in which “the rich keep the poor down for their own benefit”. Sociologists, Desmond charges, have shied away from “empirical studies of power and exploitation”. Politicians and well-meaning observers have wrung their hands without facing the “uncomfortable” possibility that the poor remain so because the wealthier want it that way.

The brilliance of Poverty, By America lies in Desmond’s account of how government and social policy act in ways commensurate with his class-war thesis. Its texture is provided by effective storytelling, which illustrates that poverty has become a way of life, “a relentless piling on of problems”. Living paycheck to paycheck means a precarious existence and “feverish present-mindedness” for people near the margin of daily survival.

One cause is a labour market that forces workers to help companies achieve profits while underpaying them, simply because they can. Desmond shows that the American economy has increasingly allowed business to enjoy power to coerce people into earning less for doing more. He insists he’s not a Marxist – though he writes that raising the spectre of exploitation always makes him sound like he is. Yet Desmond’s argument foregrounds precisely the extraction of surplus value that Marxists describe. The changing nature of work opportunities in America, along with the collapse of union density in the last 50 years, mean the forces of capitalism are winning. “Capitalism is inherently about workers trying to get as much, and owners trying to give as little, as possible,” Desmond observes – and poverty endures because the first group has lost many battles against the second.

And if an American ideology that harps on personal responsibility forbids direct government payments to poor people, Desmond documents how the state offers tax breaks that systematically benefit the rich (and, he might have added, corporations too). Compared with European welfare states, the US is no less generous towards its citizens – but only if they are wealthy enough. “The biggest beneficiaries of federal aid,” Desmond writes, “are affluent families.” Even when it does not privilege the privileged so glaringly, it does so in effect: the richer you are, the likelier you are to hire an accountant and get away with paying less. As a result, “a trend toward private opulence and public squalor has come to determine not simply a handful of communities, but the whole nation”. Why? Because “we like it”.

All this rings true to anyone who has lived through the neoliberal age in America. Desmond skilfully combines anecdote with the latest statistics and social science. But he is less convincing when it comes to remedies.

Desmond knows that a structural reality requires a structural solution. He goes beyond calling for greater fairness, since further hectoring is unlikely to work. He suggests empowering the poor, which means more unionisation and new rules to make housing more affordable and lending less predatory. Integrating neighbourhoods by class (which means by race) is also a worthwhile aim. But who will achieve these goals if, according to Desmond’s own story, it is in the interest of the powerful not to work towards them in the first place?

“Poverty will be abolished in America only when a mass movement demands it,” he writes. But what is missing here is a vision of how that would work through the existing parties – or, for that matter, a new one. The poorer you are, the less likely you are to vote. That is why the fate of the poor is dependent on the combination of Desmond’s agenda with an even larger one, so their demands can be associated with the interests of a broader section of the population. Rising inequality – the disparity between the super-rich and the rest – which affects a greater number of people above the poverty line than below it, is one possible vehicle for this. But it requires an electoral force willing to put it at the top of the agenda. “The poor shall never cease out of the land”, according to Deuteronomy. If this is to be proved wrong in America, it will be when a political party champions the interest of the many, not the few – and no sooner.

• Samuel Moyn is professor of law and history at Yale University.

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


Samuel Moyn

The GuardianTramp

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