Poverty By America

Matthew Desmond interviewed on a Barnes and Noble video (55 minutes):

Matthew Desmond has been making the interview rounds the past couple weeks as his new book “Poverty By America” debuts. While I have not had a chance to read it yet, it is on my list. But I have been fortunate to hear a couple of interviews. Desmond’s look at poverty thoroughly breaks the myths that have become gospel in America through use.

Desmond looks at our government and economy to see how it punishes the poor and rewards the wealthier. For instance he notes that those who supposedly don’t need help get far more in subsidies from the government. His deep dive into government policies is needed and very timely.

As has been the norm for the past century Republicans have made policy that impoverishes the impoverished and moves money to the well to do through tax cuts and other forms of subsidies.

As you listen to this interview with Mr. Desmond, try to think of what you have learned about being poor in America. Think about how you absorbed the conventional wisdom about poverty in America and those who suffer from it. Also try to think about what you think of the middle class and wealthy and how you formed those ideas. Do they line up with the reality that Matthew Desmond describes?

Here are some excerpts from another interview on WAMU radio – an NPR radio station in Washington, DC.

On how homeowner tax breaks help the wealthy at the expense of the poor

“If you look at the amount of money we spent on homeowner tax subsidies, like the mortgage interest deduction, that’s around $190 billion a year. Well, how much have we dedicated to housing assistance for low-income families? About $50 billion a year. So it’s just a colossal difference. And, you know, if we didn’t have so many evictions and so many families paying 50, 60, 70% of their income on rent today, maybe we could live with that inequality. But it doesn’t make any sense to have an enormous, painful rental housing crisis and to be spending so much money on mostly families with six-figure incomes who are the biggest beneficiaries of the mortgage deduction.

And I guess what really angers me even about this conversation is that a lot of times when we put forward a proposal to stabilize people’s housing situation or cut child poverty in half, we hear over and over and over again, how can we afford it? How can we afford it? And the answer staring us right in the face like we can afford it if many of us took a little less from the government.”

On the decline in the investment in public services

“When you have a country like ours, where there are millions of poor people living alongside millions of people with considerable means, a system locks in — a system for private opulence and public squalor. And this is an old phrase. It goes back to the Roman time. But it was really brought out and brought to life by the mid-century economist John Kenneth Galbraith in his wonderful book, The Affluent Society.

And it goes a little something like this: If you are a family of means, you have the incentive to rely less and less on the public sector. So we used to want to be free of bosses, but now we want to be free of bus drivers. We don’t want to take the bus. We don’t want to often enroll our kids in the public school system. We don’t need to play in the public park or swim in the public pool. We have our own clubs, our own schools. We have our own cars. And as we withdraw into the private opulence, we have less and less incentive to invest in public services.”

On the politicization of government aid

A lot of us are getting these tax breaks and we don’t see that as a government helping us. We see that as us getting to keep more of what is rightfully ours. And often that leads to a kind of attitude, a political attitude, where we don’t think the government is in our lives. And so those of us who are more apt to take that mortgage interest deduction are also more apt to vote against affordable housing proposals. Those of us who already have employer-sponsored health insurance — which by the way, is government subsidized in a massive way — we’re often apt to vote against the Affordable Care Act. And so it does have this kind of strange political, maddening irony in our lives.

Is the end of poverty in America possible? Desmond makes a good case for it.

Do we have the political will to make it happen? We would be pushing against the tide of history and prejudices.

About Dave Bradley

retired in West Liberty
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