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Poverty, by America: It’s extremely expensive to be poor in the US

Pulitzer Prize winner Matthew Desmond diagnoses a ‘trend towards private opulence and public squalor’

Poverty, by America
Author: Matthew Desmond
ISBN-13: 978-0241543221
Publisher: Allen Lane
Guideline Price: £25

It is inarguable that there is an inequality crisis on this planet. But what about inequality in the world’s richest country? And what would it look like to “tear down the walls” there, if more of the wealthy were willing to become “poverty abolitionists” – allies in the quest for a fairer world?

Matthew Desmond won the Pulitzer Prize for his 2016 book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. While that was based on ethnographic fieldwork, his new release, Poverty, by America, is more of a heavily researched plea.

It is a plea to Americans: those who might not even realise their privilege, but are – he says, undeniably – profiting off the exploitation of the poor. “Among advanced democracies, America stands out for its embrace of class extremities,” he writes. A “trend towards private opulence and public squalor” has come to define the US. And amid this, “poverty is pain, physical pain.”

In the current system, the poor are usually trapped, their relative costs higher when it comes to housing, banking, and a range of other things necessary for survival. Desmond shows us repeatedly that it’s extremely expensive to be poor in America. “Poverty isn’t simply the condition of not having enough money. It’s the condition of not having enough choice and being taken advantage of because of that,” Desmond writes.


Poverty is being fuelled by the gig economy. Liking things “fast and cheap” promotes poverty wages. “America has welcomed the rise of bad jobs at the bottom of the market – jobs offering low pay, no benefits, and few guarantees,” Desmond writes.

The American poor are often – though certainly not always – ethnic minorities. He looks at how the desegregation of education led many white people to withdraw their children from public schools. It prompted affluent people to turn towards private options in other areas, withdrawing their support from public institutions, Desmond argues. He also writes about the role of property zoning ordinance laws, and how they have created urban areas that are effectively still segregated.

This book is a critical look at capitalism, as well as a history of welfare in the US: a country where the top 1 per cent of earners take home more money than all middle-class families and double that of families in the bottom 20 per cent.

Desmond is not just airing complaints. He suggests solutions, including doing the maths on how making sure the wealthy actually pay their taxes could be a game-changer when it comes to eradicating poverty.

The US spent $1.8 trillion dollars (€1.7 trillion) on tax breaks in 2021, Desmond tells us. But the top 20 per cent of income earners receive six times what the bottom 20 per cent receive in tax breaks, he says.

One way of raising money is by going after tax “cheaters”, including multinational companies parking more and more of their profits in “shell companies registered in companies with bottom-level tax rates”. Here Ireland gets an ignoble shout-out beside Bermuda: he points out that Facebook recently logged $15 billion (€14.13 billion) profit in Ireland, which amounted to $10 million (€9.42 million) per Irish employee. American pharmaceutical multinational Bristol Myers Squibb reported making $5 billion (€4.71 billion) in Ireland – roughly $7.5 million (€7.07 million) per employee, he says.

“Poverty is the dream killer, the capability destroyer, the great waster of human potential. It is a misery and a national disgrace, one that belies any claim to our greatness”

—  Matthew Desmond

Desmond knows that a mind shift is required. “For as long as there has been poverty alongside great wealth, the winners have cultivated rationalisations for that argument,” he writes. Part of the change needed includes making sure people who take any action are publicly praised, with even performative steps helpful in propelling a broader change in thinking.

Investigate corporations and don’t support those that exploit their workers, he encourages readers. Consider the “poverty impact” of purchases, along with the environmental impact. Examine universities or occupations that are putting up barriers against the poor entering.

“When poverty abolitionists shop and invest based on their commitments to human dignity and material wellbeing, they should brag about it, crafting an aesthetics and even a lifestyle around those decisions,” he says. Many people need a social push to act.

This book could be read as a follow-up to Andrea Elliot’s 2022 Pulitzer Prize-winning non-fiction masterpiece Invisible Child, an in-depth exploration of the life of a homeless teenager, Dasani Coates, growing up in New York. To go more in-depth into the healthcare aspect, I’d also recommend Ricardo Nuila’s The People’s Hospital: The Real Cost of Life in an Uncaring Health System, which is also published this month.

“The end of poverty is something to stand for, to march for, to sacrifice for,” Desmond concludes his plea. “Poverty is the dream killer, the capability destroyer, the great waster of human potential. It is a misery and a national disgrace, one that belies any claim to our greatness. The citizens of the richest nation in the world can and should finally put an end to it.”

My Fourth Time, We Drowned by Sally Hayden won the 2022 Orwell Prize for Political Writing, An Post Irish Book of the Year and the Michel Déon Prize

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports on Africa