Poverty infringes on all our prosperity, author Matthew Desmond says ahead of HBG appearance
The Pulitzer Prize winner speaks at Harrisburg’s Midtown Scholar bookstore on Wednesday at 7 p.m.
Author Matthew Desmond (submitted photo).
Harrisburg’s Midtown Scholar Bookstore hosts sociologist Matthew Desmond on Wednesday March 22, at 7 p.m., where state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, will lead an author and audience discussion of his latest book Poverty, by America.
Desmond won a Pulitzer Prize for his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Barbara Ehrenreich said of his work: “he set a new standard for reporting on poverty.”
Politico also lists him as one of “50 people across the country who are most influencing the national political debate.”
The Capital-Star spoke by phone with Desmond about his personal and professional experiences in trying to better understand poverty in America.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: In your Prologue, you write that you “needed to answer” the question Why is there so much poverty in America? What have you concluded?
Matthew Desmond: For most of my adult life, I’ve researched and reported on poverty. And it’s real to me. I’ve lived in poor neighborhoods, spent time with people living in poverty around the country, pored over all the government and think-tank reports.I’ve concluded that the cost of doing nothing far exceeds the cost of taking action.
Q: Your ‘lived experience’ at street level nixes the notion that you’re just another privileged academic who is virtue signaling that he’s ‘woke’?
A: That’s why I chose the Leo Tolstoy quote for a title page: “We imagine that their sufferings are one thing and our life another.” Our lives and the lives of those suffering are not separate. I believe that we’re all implicated in the continuation of poverty by ignoring it.
Q: How are we all implicated?
A: [The Rev. Dr.] Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote from his Birmingham jail cell “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” because “we are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
Q: What do you say to someone who may be skeptical of that ‘mutuality?’
A: I offer that injustice isn’t just a mockery or affront to justice, but a real threat to it, a danger, a predation to them. Left to fester, injustice tends to test its boundaries, eventually menacing lives not caught up in its grasp.
Q: Even if one disagrees with poverty-reducing economic policies, is it enlightened self-interest to go along so one doesn’t lose what he has? Doing the right thing for the wrong reason?
A: Economic injustice works that way. Poverty infringes on all our prosperity, making it a barricaded, stingy, frightened kind of affluence. But that can be a tough sell because we all benefit one way or another from poverty.
Q: How do we all benefit?
A: Take ‘scarcity,’ for example, or I should say a ‘fabricated scarcity’ which is a continuing fear among many people not living in poverty. What I call the ‘scarcity diversion’ pits one issue against another issue, which in turn pits neighbor against neighbor. And that brings us to race.
Q: Make what you just said real for readers.
A: Since the nation’s founding, the story of class politics in America has been the story of white worker against black, native against newcomer . Racism thwarted the rise of a multiracial mass labor movement which could have brought about sweeping economic reforms, maybe even the establishment of a labor party. Racism spoiled the creation of integrated communities and schools, ghettoizing poverty, and urban black poverty, aggravating and intensifying its miseries. That’s why I call it the scarcity diversion.
Q: How does scarcity diversion work?
A: I write in my book that our institutions have socialized us to scarcity, creating artificial resource shortages and then normalizing them. Housing is a good example. We’ve been so successful at blocking [the] construction of new housing that developers have turned their sights to down-market neighborhoods, where they also meet resistance, often from struggling renters who fear gentrification.
Q: Setting up one group against another when, as you posit, we’re actually all in it together?How does that happen?
A: It’s straight out of a playbook. First, we allow elites to hoard a resource like money or land. Second, we pretend the arrangement is natural, unavoidable, or we ignore the situation. Third, we then try to fix the problem of resource hoarding with what little is left over. As an alternative, we could require the rich to pay their fair share of taxes. But instead, we design a poultry welfare state with the leftovers. Then, when we fail, we claim that’s the best we can do.
Q: What’s our alternative?
A: The opposite approach to scarcity diversion is recognizing the nation’s bounty, recognizing that we have an economy of abundance. We can, but choose not to, orchestrate a system through our policies that ‘wealth’ means having enough to share. In my book, I quote ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer who writes “… where the gratification of meeting your family needs is not poisoned by destroying that possibility for someone else.”
Q: What’s your solution to our dilemma?
A: The final step is to tear down all the walls in order to create a more racially and economically integrated society. We’ve combed through textbooks and holidays to acknowledge the harm caused by colonization. We’ve changed street signs in recognition of the horrors of slavery. To use the housing example, why would we want to remain modern-day segregationists and block affordable housing in our own neighborhoods? To not act is to further colonize the future while denying families and their children a fair shot. The opportunity to succeed should not be hoarded.
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