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Reviews of Poverty, by America by Matthew Desmond

Poverty, by America

by Matthew Desmond

Poverty, by America by Matthew Desmond X
Poverty, by America by Matthew Desmond
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  • Published:
    Mar 2023, 304 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Valerie Morales
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About this Book

Book Summary

The Pulitzer Prize–winning, bestselling author of Evicted reimagines the debate on poverty, making a new and bracing argument about why it persists in America: because the rest of us benefit from it.

The United States, the richest country on earth, has more poverty than any other advanced democracy. Why? Why does this land of plenty allow one in every eight of its children to go without basic necessities, permit scores of its citizens to live and die on the streets, and authorize its corporations to pay poverty wages?

In this landmark book, acclaimed sociologist Matthew Desmond draws on history, research, and original reporting to show how affluent Americans knowingly and unknowingly keep poor people poor. Those of us who are financially secure exploit the poor, driving down their wages while forcing them to overpay for housing and access to cash and credit. We prioritize the subsidization of our wealth over the alleviation of poverty, designing a welfare state that gives the most to those who need the least. And we stockpile opportunity in exclusive communities, creating zones of concentrated riches alongside those of concentrated despair. Some lives are made small so that others may grow.

Elegantly written and fiercely argued, this compassionate book gives us new ways of thinking about a morally urgent problem. It also helps us imagine solutions. Desmond builds a startlingly original and ambitious case for ending poverty. He calls on us all to become poverty abolitionists, engaged in a politics of collective belonging to usher in a new age of shared prosperity and, at last, true freedom.

Chapter 1

The Kind of Problem Poverty Is

I recently spent a day on the tenth floor of Newark's courthouse, the floor where the state decides child welfare cases. There I met a fifty-five-year-old father who had stayed up all night working at his warehouse job by the port. He told me his body felt heavy. Sometimes when pulling a double shift, he would snort a speedball—cocaine mixed with benzodiazepine and morphine, sometimes heroin—to stay awake or dull his pain. Its ugly recipe was laid bare in the authorities' toxicology reports, making him look like a career junkie and not what he was: an exhausted member of America's working poor. The authorities didn't think the father could care for his three children alone, and their mother, who had a serious mental illness and was using PCP, wasn't an option either. So the father gambled, surrendering his two older children to his stepmother and hoping the authorities would allow him to raise the youngest. They did. Outside the ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
  1. What was your experience reading Poverty, by America? What three words describe that experience, and why?
  2. Desmond defines poverty as "a tight knot of social problems," breaking with conventional definitions that focusonly on low incomes. What are the implications of this view? How would you define poverty?
  3. "We've been trained to see the poor as idle and unmotivated since the earliest days of capitalism," says Desmond. He also writes that "these old tropes and stereotypes are dying." When have you experienced these tropes and stereotypes? Do you think their power is in fact waning?
  4. "To understand the causes of poverty, we must look beyond the poor," notes Desmond from the outset, "which makes this a book about poverty that is ...
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BookBrowse Review


Poverty, by America leans upon history, since poverty is like an old oak tree with a million gnarly roots. I was surprised to learn that tipping waitstaff began after slavery, when former slaves who worked at restaurants were not paid and had to depend on the charity of diners. Desmond wants to do away with the sub-minimum wage for waiters. In another section of the book, he compares the aftermath of the 2008 recession with the financial effects of the COVID pandemic. After the 2008 recession, families in the bottom half of income levels had to wait a decade for their incomes to return to pre-recession levels. But after what Desmond calls "the COVID-induced recession," the same families had to wait just a year because of government intervention by way of stimulus payments and rental assistance. Desmond's scholarship and his unpacking of the multi-layered systems that keep poverty intractable, like housing, employment, banking, and government, is brilliant...continued

Full Review (919 words)

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(Reviewed by Valerie Morales).

Media Reviews

Oprah Daily
The passion, eloquence, and lively storytelling that made Evicted a Pulitzer Prize–winning bestseller are back in force as Desmond continues to speak on behalf of America's most hard-pressed. Desmond is our national conscience.

Desmond's electrifying pen cuts through the usual evasions and exposes the 'selfish,' 'dishonest' and 'sinful' pretence that poverty is a problem that America cannot afford to fix, rather than one it chooses not to.

Rolling Stone
Desmond's new book is short, smart, and thrilling. The thrill comes from the sheer boldness of Desmond's argument and his carefully modulated but very real tone of outrage that underlies his words.

With Poverty, by America, [Desmond] blends history, research, and firsthand reporting to show how the wealthy punish the poor and keep people living in poverty, both purposefully and without realizing. Passionate and empathetic.

The Economist
A fierce polemic on an enduring problem ... [Desmond] writes movingly about the psychological scars of poverty ... and his prose can be crisp, elegant, and elegiac.

The Nation
Poverty, by America is a searing moral indictment of how and why the United States tolerates such high levels of poverty and of inequality ... [and] a hands-on call to action.

The New Yorker
Urgent and accessible ... Its moral force is a gut punch.

[Poverty, by America] shows how wealthy and middle class Americans knowingly and unknowingly perpetuate a broken system that keeps poor people poor. It's not an easy problem to fix, but through in-depth research and original reporting, the acclaimed sociologist offers solutions that would help spread America's wealth and make everyone more prosperous.

A searing, essential book ...[that] solidifies Desmond's status as a remarkable chronicler of our times.

Claire Messud, Harper's Magazine
Desmond's book makes an urgent and unignorable appeal to our national conscience, one that has been quietly eroded over decades of increasing personal consumption and untiring corporate greed.

The Boston Globe
A data-driven manifesto that turns a critical eye on those who inflict and perpetuate unlivable conditions on others.

The New York Times Book Review
A compact jeremiad on the persistence of extreme want in a nation of extraordinary wealth ... [Desmond's] purpose here is to draw attention to what's plain in front of us—damn the etiquette, and damn the grand abstractions.

Provocative and compelling ... [Desmond] packs in a sweeping array of examples and numbers to support his thesis and ... the accumulation has the effect of shifting one's brain ever so slightly to change the entire frame of reference.

The Guardian
[Desmond's] arguments have the potential to push debate about wealth in America to a new level... . The brilliance of Poverty, By America ... is provided by effective storytelling, which illustrates that poverty has become a way of life.

Booklist (starred review)
A brilliantly researched and artfully written study of how the U.S. has failed to effectively address the issue of poverty ... [Desmond] also uses his knowledge of the subject to explore what works and identify potential solutions that merit further consideration. This thoughtful investigation of a critically important subject, a piercing title by an astute writer who is both passionate and fearless, is valuable reading for all concerned with affecting positive change.

Kirkus Reviews
A clearly delineated guide to finally eradicate poverty in America.

Publishers Weekly
A powerful inquiry ... Desmond enriches his detailed and trenchant analysis with poignant reflections on America's 'unblushing inequality' and the 'anomie of wealth.' It's a gut-wrenching call for change.

Library Journal
This book will likely interest scholars. Add it to social and behavioral sciences collections.

Author Blurb Ann Patchett
Reading Poverty, by America, I felt like Matthew Desmond was sitting at my kitchen table, explaining the complexities of poverty in a way I could completely understand. This book is essential and instructive, hopeful and enraging. It is a road map for how we can be better people, working together to build a better country.

Reader Reviews

Anthony Conty

American Equality
“Poverty, by America” by Matthew Desmond does much research and pulls no punches. It will rev up those who blame poor people for their problems unfairly and prematurely. His previous work, “Evicted,” exposed issues in the rental industry and showed ...   Read More
Cathryn Conroy

A Stunning Book That Will Shock, Anger, and Quite Possibly Change You
No matter where you are on the political spectrum, this book will make you think. It might make you cry. It might make you angry. But I can almost guarantee that you will have some visceral reaction to it. Approach it with an open mind, and it ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

What They Don't Tell You About the Success Sequence

Graduate in gown walking up steps with cap in hand, facing away from the camera When adolescents are baptized at the church where I worship, the recognized ritual is for the pastor to bellow out for all the congregation to hear and for the teenager to repeat: College. Job. Marriage. Family. In that order.

The words conflate virtue with escaping poverty and are known as the success sequence. In principle, the success sequence is anchored in math. A full-time job will ensure a family can be sustained before children are born. That keeps the government at a distance. However, Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond points to the flaws in the formula. For one, it blames the poor for their own poverty and what they cannot control: changes in economic trends.

In his book Poverty, by America, Desmond illustrates that ...

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Read-Alikes Full readalike results are for members only

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