American Made: Pulitzer Prize-winning Author Matthew Desmond on How Society’s Well Off Benefits from Other People’s Poverty

by Nathan Poppe

Matthew Desmond has lived through or lived alongside poverty for much of his life. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author and sociology professor has made it his latest mission to focus not only on the lives of the poor in America but also how the rest of the country persistently benefits from them. His new book Poverty, By America lays out how many lives are made small to make room for others to grow, while making the case for ending poverty sooner rather than later. Think of it as a call for a healthier country—one where a car accident or a medical bill doesn’t lead to financial hardship. Desmond has been touring the country and leading discussions around his new book, which was released in March. On the road to a tour stop in Connecticut, Desmond spoke to The Curbside Chronicle about how he’s trying to spark a new kind of discussion around poverty. “I think that it’s to all of our interests to end poverty in America,” Desmond said. “I feel like so many of us are hungry for this conversation. I think audiences are interested in engaging this book even when it challenges them or pushes them. … I’m really trying to make this both a political project and a personal one, too.”

The Curbside Chronicle: You’re no stranger to experiencing the trappings of poverty. How did it shape your upbringing?

Matthew Desmond: Growing up, there were parts of my life where I didn’t really stop and think of myself as poor, right? I knew that when my family went out to eat at Denny’s, I was asked to order the least expensive thing on the menu. We’d get our gas shut off, so it turned into a little camping adventure where mom cooked over a fire. As I got older, I saw how poverty put pressure on my parents’ marriage. Losing our home when I was in college was a sobering reminder of how poverty builds up. 

At Arizona State University, I met people who had a level of economic security that nobody in my hometown did. Even the things other students talked about were different. I didn’t know sushi was something you could eat. I remember getting a scholarship and wanting to celebrate at a sushi place. My friend and I had no idea what we were doing, and we ate a big spoonful of wasabi and got headaches.

What was it like losing your childhood home?

Desmond: Our home wasn’t a shanty. It was a small ranch home on a two-acre plot in the country, but it was ours. There were parts of it that my family all loved and felt connected to. I didn’t have a car, so I asked a friend to drive me back home to help my parents move. I remember being embarrassed. Something I’ve seen during the eviction process is how people carry the weight of that experience on their own shoulders. I think my job as a sociologist is—I’ll quote C. Wright Mills—to turn personal problems into political ones, right? To help others see this problem isn’t just on us. 

Poverty, By America points to a lot of problems. What would you say is the biggest obstacle to ending poverty in our country?

Desmond: The biggest myth about poverty today is that we have to abide by it and tolerate all this suffering, hunger and homelessness in our midst. But we don’t. I think that a big obstacle is having the political imagination and moral courage to really envision an America without poverty. The next step is translating that into action. Not only big political action but also personal action as well.

Early in your new book, you write, “If America’s poor founded a country, that country would have a bigger population than Australia or Venezuela.” When you encounter a statistic like that, how does it feel to weave that into your narrative?

Desmond: I have a lot of friends and family members below the poverty line. I feel accountable to them when I write. A lot of the people I met in Milwaukee are still very much in my life and a lot of my friends back home. I feel like I have a responsibility when writing about these issues to make you feel it and to draw you emotionally into a problem. If I can’t do that as a writer, then I’ve failed in a way. What I’m trying to do on a page—even when the evidence is statistical studies, appendices from government reports or technical, even technocratic, boring stuff—I’m still trying to look for that point that has emotional power as much as a scientific or intellectual one. I’m thinking of my audience as including people who I love living below the line. That motivates me.

Oklahoma gets mentioned multiple times in your book—once in reference to The Grapes of Wrath. Did John Steinbeck’s book have an impact on you?

Desmond: I love that scene with the farmer and the tractor. What Steinbeck does in that book is what many great writers and essayists do with this topic, which cuts through all the complexity and centers the issue on power. The clear story you hear from The Grapes of Wrath is that poverty is intentional. It’s a taking. Someone is losing a farm because someone else is gaining it. I think that Steinbeck had a lot of clarity on that issue. 

You also acknowledged Oklahoma in relation to how Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds were poured into the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative. Between 1999 and 2016, the state spent more than $70 million on counseling services and workshops to everyone in the state, poor or not. What made you want to include that particular example in your book?

Desmond: It was enraging to learn about because what we’re talking about is the poorest kids in your state. They’re not getting enough to eat. We’re talking about kids getting evicted. We’re talking about parents sleeping two to three on a single mattress when that TANF money isn’t going out the door. Looking at the way, the frankly callous way, that states are misappropriating welfare spending is outrageous. It’s not just Oklahoma, of course. It’s not just a red state issue. My book also talks about how Hawaii is sitting on so much unspent welfare funds. They could maybe give every poor kid in the state $10,000. 

This is really something that’s across the board here. I wanted to include that because it’s a specific paradox that the book is trying to grapple with. How do we square the fact that government spending on poverty programs has gone up over the last 40 years, but poverty has been so persistent? It’s a paradox because we know government programs can work. There’s a pile of evidence showing that things like food stamps and housing assistance are lifesavers. That’s something we need to grasp if we really want to end poverty in America. And one of the answers to that paradox is the realization that a dollar in the budget doesn’t mean a dollar in someone’s hand. For every dollar budgeted for TANF in 2020, only 22 cents wound up in the pockets of a family.

You noted how there are more than $30 billion of these welfare funds available annually. How big of a difference would it make if all that went directly into those pockets?

Desmond: It would make a difference. Think about what we saw during the pandemic—this giant national experiment of what happens when you make real investments in families. The expanded Child Tax Credit went out to millions and millions of families—the poorest families in America as well as a lot of middle-income and working-class families, too. It helped cut child poverty in half in six months. So, we know how it can make a big difference.

One concept that really stuck out to me while reading Poverty, By America was how economic security leads people to make better choices for themselves. Has that concept always been obvious to you?

Desmond: Not at first. I spent time with a woman named Lorraine who lived in a trailer park. One day, she blew her whole monthly allotment of food stamps on groceries for one anniversary meal. I remember when that happened. I thought to myself, “How am I gonna write about this? Are people going to use this to make arguments to disparage people?” But you know, my job is to write about things honestly. Lorraine certainly didn’t apologize for what she did. And she paid for it. She was hitting up food pantries for the rest of the month. She was living so far below the poverty line that even if she had scrimped and saved a third of her income—which would be astounding—then she could maybe buy a bicycle at the end of the year. Even that would come at the cost of going without things like heat or medicine. Lorraine helped me see that folks like her are not in poverty because of the decisions they’ve made but rather the decisions they’ve made are conditioned and steered by their poverty. 

We see this in the research on raising the minimum wage. When we raise the minimum wage, you get all these benefits. People stop smoking and cases of child neglect go down. Babies are born healthier because the stress of poverty is relieved. The debates about minimum wage are often only focused on one macro economic question, “If we raise the minimum wage will it cost us jobs?” The book addresses that, but I also want us to ask another question, “If we don’t pay more, then what do we cost people?” 

The time you spent with Julio illustrates that cost. The moment when his younger brother offered to pay for an hour of his time just to play with him was heartbreaking. It’s hard to believe he balanced two full-time jobs paying minimum wage. How did that impact him?

Desmond: Julio told me he felt like a zombie. He could barely sleep, you know, and collapsed in the aisles of the grocery store when he was 24 years old. But he also got politically involved after that. When he went to his first rally in his McDonald’s uniform, he was really scared. He thought that he might lose his job. But he saw a lot of folks that looked like him. They were fighting for bigger wages, too. 

For him, it felt like church, and he was a deeply faithful person. He told me he believed in both God and politics. Joining that movement gave him not only a real, tangible victory but also gave him an identity and a community as well.

Let’s end on the cost of making a huge dent in poverty and alleviating homelessness in America. You estimated a figure of $177 billion to really make a difference. What would you say to someone who reads that number and has sticker shock?

Desmond: The reason I put that number in the book is to show us how incredibly attainable it is. If you look at this study published a few years ago, it shows that if the top 1 percent of Americans just pay the taxes they owe—not getting taxed higher, just stop evading them—then we could basically raise that $177 billion total. 

This is a thought exercise and a challenge for us. It’s a clear example of how we need to reject the scarcity mindset of, “We can’t afford to do more to fight poverty in America.” The answer is staring us right in the face. We could afford to do more if we stopped subsidizing the affluent so much and letting corporations and rich families get away with such tax evasion and avoidance.

Courtesy of The Curbside Chronicle / International Network of Street Papers