Matthew Desmond remembers that only small children inhabited the house, their mother having died recently and them with no place else to go. Yet the eviction enforcement officers Desmond was shadowing had a job to do, so the children were cleared out, their belongings thrown to the curb, the locks changed to prevent reentry.
Throughout the reporting and research for his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Desmond remembers constantly asking himself: Why is there so much poverty in this land of abundance? In his second book, Poverty, by America, he wanted to answer that question and another one: What can we do about it?
In a recent talk at the Urban Institute, Desmond and Myra Jones-Taylor, Urban’s chief policy impact officer, explored both of these questions in conversation with Mary Cunningham, Urban’s vice president for Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy. Their talk offered lessons on why America has so much poverty and what policymakers, researchers, advocates, and we all can do to remedy it.
Why is there so much poverty?
As of January 2023, nearly 38 million people in the United States were living in poverty, more than 10 percent of the population. Surveys show more than half of US adults live paycheck to paycheck, meaning they would have difficulty meeting their financial obligations if a paycheck were delayed. And more than a quarter of Americans have some form of debt in collections, which can make climbing out of poverty even more difficult.
And living in poverty has real consequences on people’s well-being. “Research on what happens when you raise the minimum wage that’s done by health researchers is incredible. People stop smoking, more babies are born healthy,” Desmond said. “We are literally stealing life from people.”
Notably, none of these burdens are carried equally. Black and Latinx families have lower incomes, a lower homeownership rate, less in savings, and ultimately less average wealth than white families. These differences are predominately the result of racist and segregationist policies that facilitated wealth-building opportunities for white families while preventing Black and Latinx families from pursuing similar avenues.
It’s from the legacy of structural racism that Desmond found the answer for why a country as rich as the United States still has so many people living in poverty. The system has long taken from some to prop up others, or as Desmond said: “Some lives are made small so others can grow.”
How can policymakers, researchers, and all of us address poverty?
For Desmond, the federal policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic offered a blueprint for how the country can begin to address poverty. The US enacted multiple generous cash-transfer policies, including the stimulus payments, the child tax credit (CTC) expansion, and emergency rental assistance, which all put more money in the hands of people who needed it.
With a universal mandate, these policies were able to help more people, with 84 percent of Americans receiving stimulus payments, 60 million children supported by the CTC expansion, and 10 million people receiving rental assistance. In fact, the CTC expansion cut child poverty in half in just six months, and the rental assistance program reduced eviction levels to their lowest ever.
These kinds of policy success stories are worth building on, Desmond said, and can motivate policymakers to pursue further changes. Urban research shows that without emergency rental assistance, entire communities would’ve seen adverse effects, including higher spending on social services and lost wages. And if the CTC expansion were to be continued, Urban research shows child poverty would decline 40 percent in a year, meaning 4.3 million fewer children would live in poverty.
Ultimately, no one policy will prove a silver bullet. To end poverty in America, Desmond suggested that policymakers, researchers, and everyone keep three ideas in mind:
- Social justice: “It’s impossible to write about poverty in America without writing about racism in America,” Desmond said, which he extended to tackling poverty in America. Any steps forward must come from the position of breaking down segregation and structural racism and ensuring all groups have real, unfettered opportunities to build wealth.
- Targeted universalism: Rather than targeting one solution to each group or each problem, Desmond recommended identifying the desired societal outcome, then implementing many universal solutions that could address it. Poverty requires recognizing that one size doesn’t fit all, he said, so we need to pursue all of the avenues to address it.
- Start with your own influence: “It’s easier to change norms than beliefs,” Desmond said, meaning that individual actions can build political will for larger changes. For researchers, influence can mean empowering communities, advocates, and journalists to tell their own story through data.
Combining data with storytelling to build political will
In a country as wealthy as the US, poverty shouldn’t play such a prominent and visible role. Children shouldn’t have to squat in an empty house because they have nowhere else to go. But many people have resigned themselves to the issue being too big to do anything about.
Both Jones-Taylor and Desmond extolled the importance of storytelling and reframing existing narratives. “How you tee up people to have the conversation will actually change the way they will hear what you’re saying,” Jones-Taylor said.
Many people currently frame poverty as a zero-sum game and approach solving poverty with a “scarcity mindset” as a result, but that view needs to be rejected, Desmond said. To do so, Jones-Taylor stressed the importance of not just relying on data to enact change. “The numbers can only move people so far,” Jones-Taylor said, emphasizing that building relationships with people already working in communities can surface best practices from lived experiences.
For researchers and advocates, writing stories about people’s lived experiences, changing the type of questions asked, and widening the aperture of the conversation can all move the conversation from hopelessness to progress. “If we start demanding the end of poverty in this land of dollars, we can make some progress,” Desmond said. “Things look impossible until suddenly they’re not.”