Poverty, by America

Amy Pagliarella reviews Matthew Desmond's latest book.

Matthew Desmond
Crown Publishing, 304 pages | March 21, 2023

In the past 50 years, America’s infant mortality rates and deaths from heart disease have fallen by about 70%, the internet and smartphones were invented, and scientists eradicated smallpox and mapped the entire human genome. Yet, through all these advances, our country’s poverty rate has hovered between 10-15%. In a time of such change and growth, why are so many Americans still poor?

A professor of sociology at Princeton University who grew up in poverty, Matthew Desmond is perhaps uniquely qualified to answer this question. Poverty, by America is his comprehensive response. Desmond assesses government policies and spending, our systems of healthcare and housing, as well as attitudes toward the poor (and the scapegoating of immigrants), concluding that our approach is designed to create a permanent underclass (and source of cheap labor) to fuel the American economy.

Desmond doesn’t hold back — he critiques the policies of both Republicans and Democrats, federal and state governments, as well as the fundamental fallacies in their reasoning (such as providing married couples with fewer benefits while asserting that poor individuals should marry before having children). Those too poor to obtain mortgages or take advantage of tax deductions have access to predatory financial policies such as payday loans, pawnshops and high-cost credit. It’s expensive to be poor!

I found myself wishing I had a group to discuss this book with — including someone with a deeper understanding of economics and one from a different political persuasion. Poverty, by America is ripe for discussion. Desmond is clear that we “can’t just spend our way out of this” by funding policies that accommodate poverty rather than disrupt it. But what does that look like? And how can people of faith be a part of the solution?

Presbyterian Outlook supports local bookstores. Join us! Click on the link below to purchase Poverty, by America from BookShop, an online bookstore with a mission to financially support local, independent bookstores. As an affiliate, Outlook will also earn a commission from your purchase. 

Want to receive book-related content in your inbox once a month? Sign up here.