Ezra Klein brings you into the conversation every Tuesday and Friday about a topic that is important, such as today's episode featuring Matthew Desmond. Listen to the podcast wherever you listen to it.
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"Books about poverty are usually books about the poor." Matthew Desmond says that in 'Poverty By America', his new book on poverty. But 'Poverty By America' is meant to be something different. It's about all those who benefit from poverty, their existence and exploitation.
This book is not about the poor, but about us. Desmond is a Princeton sociologist. He is the author of 'Evicted', which won the Pulitzer Prize, and 'Evicted', a book that focused on housing markets for the poor. It was a huge success. Desmond's colleagues in social science loved it.
His new book is a lot more controversial. This is partly due to disagreements over the way that he interprets poverty statistics. We talk about. There's an interesting, wonky part here about poverty measurement.
But I want people to focus on the bigger picture -- America is a country with a lot poverty. If it wanted to, it could have much, far less poverty. The question is why this choice is not made every year. My email is EMAIL.
Matt Desmond welcome to the show.
MATTHEW DESMOND: Oh, I'm so happy to be here.
EZRA KLEIN : I'd like to start with you, because I was not aware from previous work that you approach the topic from your own unique perspective. Tell me about your personal history of poverty and what led you to the inquiry.
MATTHEW DESMOND: I grew in a small railroad town in Arizona. Northern Arizona. Winslow. That's an Eagles song. My dad was a minister, and we didn't have much money. The money was tight. We had to deal with gas cuts.
Then, when I was in school, we lost our house, and that experience stayed with me. It made me realize how poverty can affect a family and make them feel stressed. Then I took it to Milwaukee and followed families being evicted. I saw poverty levels that I had never experienced or seen before.
I saw grandmothers living in winter without heat, and just huddled under blankets. I saw children being evicted regularly, and I was shocked and disturbed to see the deprivation.
EZRA KLEIN (in English): You spoke of losing your home as a college student, which brings to mind the book 'Evicted' that you may have written earlier. Tell me about the book 'Evicted' for those who may not be familiar with this aspect of your work. Also, describe the nature of the research which led to the publication of that book and how it changed the way you think about the structure of American Poverty.
MATTHEW DESSMOND: For 'Evicted', I moved into a Mobile Home Park on the South Side in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I lived there for four to five months. Then I moved to a rooming-house on the North Side. The inner city is Milwaukee.
I lived in these two neighborhoods for 10 months. From there, I followed families being evicted, and accompanied them everywhere. To eviction courts, shelters and abandoned homes. I watched their children, slept and ate on their floors, attended a number of funerals and even went to see a baby.
It was important to me to also get to know the landlords if I wished to better understand the market for low-income housing. So I was just as close with landlords who were evicting tenants as I was with tenants being evicted. I helped them pass the eviction notices, and fixed up their properties. I also learned more about the things that make landlords tick, and what irritates them.
"Evicted" is the result of this work. It's meant to say, "Look, if you want to understand inequality today in America, then we need to know the human costs of the housing crisis." For me, it was a real eye-opener to see the impact of the housing crisis on Americans. People lose their homes, their communities, their schools, and their families lose their belongings. Eviction can wipe out all the time and money spent on building up a house.
The eviction leaves a mark. This is a court order and it can stop you from moving to a good area or a nice home, because landlords will look at that blemish. We pushed these families into poor neighborhoods and into degrading living conditions. My conclusion is that evictions are not just a sign of poverty. It is a cause of the poverty. It makes things worse.
EZRA KLEIN : It's easy - and I am certainly guilty of it at times - to try to understand questions like eviction or poverty by reading big policy reports, looking at macrodata, or by following the lines in a chart. In this book and in your other work, you do all of that. There is a quantitative dimension to your work. What do you see differently if you immerse yourself? What is different when you look at the table from the floor?
MATTHEW DESMOND: It means I am accountable to people who are struggling differently. There's an old saying in the university that distance and objectivity are required to properly study a topic with accuracy and rigor. Distance is not a university problem. We have plenty.
It's really overwhelming to be so close to families who are going through hardships that many of us cannot even imagine. You are held accountable in a new way. I believe we can write with conviction and truth about these issues and people we care deeply about.
In this book I talk about my friends and call them friends. They are not my research subjects. These are people with whom I have spent a great deal of time.
It was a wonderful experience, not only because I learned a lot from being with people who are in need, but also because it reminded me of how gracefully and elegantly people resist the temptation to reduce themselves to their difficulties, that poverty hasn't stolen away humanity.
EZRA KLEIN : Please tell me a little bit about the magnitude of poverty in America. What would you call it?
MATTHEW DESSMOND: This rich country is rife with poverty. According to the official measure of poverty, 38 million people in the United States cannot afford the basics. If these 38 millions formed their own nation, it would be larger than Australia. It would be larger than Venezuela.
The poverty line is low and there are many people who suffer from economic hardships above it. One in three Americans live in homes that earn $55,000 or less. Many of these people are not officially considered poor but how else would you describe a family trying to survive on $55,000 or less while raising two children in Portland or Miami?
But poverty is more than a number. It's more than just a level of income. It's not just about income. Living in a degraded home is poverty. Fear of eviction is the main factor. Homelessness and eviction are the two main causes of homelessness. Sometimes it's being beaten up by police. The schools are bursting to the brim.
You're in a neighborhood where you and everyone else is struggling. Death is a constant, early and frequent occurrence. For me, poverty doesn't have a boundary. This tight knot of humiliations and social problems is felt by millions in the wealthiest country in history.
EZRA KLEIN - How has the world changed?
MATTHEW DESSMOND: It depends on what you measure. The official poverty line hasn't really changed much. In 1973, that was 11 percent. Now, it is 12 percent.
The official measures of poverty are flawed. The official poverty measure does not take into account regional variations and housing costs. The measure does not include certain government programs, such as food stamps and housing assistance. In 2011, the Census introduced a new measure of poverty, the Supplemental Measure. Researchers at Columbia University then figured out how to stretch out this new line over time.
You'll come to the same conclusion. In 1973, the supplementary poverty line was 15,1 percent. In 2013, it was 15.5%. In 2018, the rate was 13 percent. This is not much of a progress.
The Supplemental Poverty measure in Covid plummeted to historic lows due to the bold relief issued by the federal governments, such as the Child Tax Credit or Emergency Rental Assistance. But over the long term, many measures show that poverty is stubborn and stagnant.
EZRA KLEIN : I have seen a lot people working on poverty issues and who I believe are in agreement with you about solutions, be frustrated by the Supplemental Poverty line. It is important to start the dials at the beginning.
You can look back to 1967. In spite of all the stimulus spending, you can see that poverty has fallen from 25 to 8.4 percent. This is important because it's a real question whether these government programs work. The right will say that the Great Society was a failure. Spending more money on the poor will only result in more poverty.
The Supplemental Measure, and other measures of consumption seem to show a pretty significant and sharp drop over time. Please defend this idea a bit more, that there hasn't been enough progress.
MATTHEW DESMOND: This is a difficult problem, and we should approach it with humility and curiosity. One way to look at this is by asking, "OK, has poverty declined and have other hardship measures declined as well?" We should also see a decline in evictions if we are seeing a decrease in poverty. Debt should be decreasing. Homelessness should be decreasing.
In recent years we haven't. Since 2000, the number of evictions has increased by 22 percent. Since 2000, families that visit food pantries has increased by nearly 19%. Since the Great Recession, there has been a 74 percent increase in homeless children attending public schools.
Since the late 90s, the number families who report no income and rely on food stamps to feed their children has quadrupled. This is a very troubling sign. It suggests that the measures showing a decrease in poverty may not be in line with what Americans are experiencing today.
If you'd like to, we can dig deeper into these measures and look at them from the inside and ask, "How can one show a decline while another doesn't?" What's happening? I would be happy to take you there if that's what you want.
EZRA KLEIN : A little, because I want to make sure that you are aware of the fact that you may have problems which correlate, but do not cause one another or don't reveal as much about you as you would like to know.
There is a book called 'Homelessness Is a Housing Problem', and they say that there are urban areas where poverty is very high, but homelessness is very, very low. So Detroit, Philadelphia. Santa Clara County and San Francisco have relatively low poverty rates.
This suggests that, when looking at homelessness - which has, as you said, been on the rise in recent years - you are dealing with housing supply and housing prices problems that may be separate from many of the poverty issues.
In San Francisco, my current home, it is frequently pointed out that West Virginia has a very high rate of poverty. There are high rates of drug addiction and mental illnesses, which people here blame for homelessness. It doesn't suffer from the same homelessness problems as we do. So lumping them all together into one group of social maladies may obscure more than reveal.
The number of families who report that they have a difficult time paying their rent or mortgage has increased astronomically, massively since 2000. There are many other things that will be happening in the future besides homelessness, which suggest that the situation is not improving.
You are right to be concerned about the political implications of this debate. Many people say that there's a text and a subtext. If you don't think that poverty has decreased, then are you saying that government spending is ineffective? What's the deal? Government spending on antipoverty has increased in the last 40-years.
It's a complex story that we must embrace. This paradox is incredibly important. There's liability for both parties on the liability side of politics. Reagan said that we had fought a war against poverty and the poverty won. We can't do anything to reduce poverty in America.
Then, fast-forward to the Trump Administration. In 2018, the Trump Council of Economic Advisors released a report that enthusiastically supported work requirements for certain welfare programs on the basis of the claim that poverty had decreased so much that we could stop fighting it.
It's almost like Reagan said, "We fought the War on Poverty." Poverty has won. Trump said, "We fought poverty and won." Both came to the same conclusion. There are political landmines both on the left and right.
The job market and housing market aren't doing their jobs to reduce poverty.
EZRA KLEIN (interviewer): I'd like to pause on that statement for a moment because it is so profound. You mention exploitation a lot and we will discuss it in general. Reading the book made me think about the relationship between exploitation and broken market.
Now, I'm not saying that you can only take advantage of people who live in high-priced housing.