“Those of us living lives of privilege and plenty must examine ourselves.”
This is the primary sentiment of Matthew Desmond’s Poverty, by America. In his latest book, the Princeton sociologist and author of bestselling Evicted, explores the ways that each of us contributes to the suffering of the poor. He believes that poverty exists because we tolerate it, and even worse, because many of us benefit from it. This book is an exploration of how we might eliminate poverty by rectifying our contribution to it.
Desmond claims that rich Americans benefit from government programs as much (or more) than the poor do, yet somehow remain unaffected by stigmas of dependence. He cites bailouts of auto companies, massive uncollected corporate tax bills, untaxed American profits that are incorporated overseas, abuse and fraud of COVID-19 rescue plans, and other forms of skirting (or abusing) the system. These sophisticated ways of benefiting are in addition to more normal ways that we receive government help, such as federal student loans, FHA mortgage loans, 529 college savings plans, and economic stimulus checks. Desmond does not cite the evidence to shame the rich (okay, maybe he does), but instead to show that most of us receive help. According to Suzanne Mettler’s 2018 book The Government-Citizen Disconnect, 96% of American adults have relied on a major government program at some point in their life. There is nothing wrong with receiving government help; but there is a hypocrisy in taking our share and then judging others when they take theirs. Desmond helps us remove the log from our own eye before noting our brother’s speck. I appreciated his insights into how neighborhood associations and zoning laws have enacted racial injustice, and created pockets of exclusive homeowners who love their neighborhood but hate their neighbors.
The claims and solutions of Poverty, by America will not persuade or satisfy everyone. I found the book to be an arresting invitation into a complex problem, with Desmond’s prophetic voice necessary for a crisis that is too easily ignored. Some will question why Desmond would put so much confidence in the federal government’s ability to fix this problem when his argument assigns so much blame to that same government for creating it. Isn’t that like asking the robber to program your home security system? Further, Desmond’s idealism might feel stretched at times, such as when he asserts that additional affordable housing is the solution for homelessness–even when we know that everyone is not capable, interested, or safe in a house of their own. Finally, some readers will note the paltry attention to mental instability, substance abuse, personal decisions, or single-parent homes, despite the significant role each of these can play in creating and sustaining poverty.
Without question, Desmond’s sharp critique will put some of us on the defensive. That’s okay. Jesus has pretty blistering things to say about poverty, wealth, and greed as well:
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation (Lk. 6:24)
Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions (Lk. 12:15)
As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing (Mt. 13:22).
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God (Mk. 10:25).
The Bible does not feature a comprehensive solution for eliminating poverty. But it does have a solution for addressing it: love the poor. If we love people who are made in God’s image then we will care about their plight. We will be especially attentive to how our attitudes, habits, and behaviors shape their experience. We will see money as a tool for helping people, rather than seeing people as tools for amassing wealth. We will resist the addiction of accumulation and the empty promises of perpetual safety, knowing that God’s riches are the only ones that count anyway. This might show us that our wealth has created its own type of poverty in us. And through this we might reach out to the only one who can make us rich (Phil. 4:19).