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The U.S. has been fighting poverty for decades. One expert says it doesn’t have to be this way

By Mark Brodie
Published: Monday, March 25, 2024 - 12:04pm

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President Lyndon Johnson declared a "war on poverty" in the 1960’s. But, nearly 60 years later, millions of Americans still live below the poverty line.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimated more than 11% of the country’s population was at or below the poverty line.

Matt Desmond, though, says there are things all of us can do to try to reduce that number — among them, using our influence to make sure workers are treated fairly, shopping and investing based on economic justice and standing up against segregation among them.

Desmond is a sociologist at Princeton and founder and principal investigator of the Eviction Lab there; he’s also author of the book "Poverty, By America," which came out in paperback this month. He’ll be speaking in the Valley on March 25, as part of Arizona State University's 25th Annual John P. Frank Memorial Lecture.

The Show spoke with Desmond about real doable solutions to help people who are in poverty, given the realities in which we live.

Full interview

MATT DESMOND: There are so many doable solutions. I mean, the thing about poverty, one of the biggest myths is that we have to live with it. You know, that there's nothing the government can do about it. And that's just a bald faced lie. In COVID, the American Rescue Plan, which was launched into the Biden administration, cut child poverty by 46% in just six months. And so I think we have the policies, we know what to do. We just have to get serious about dosing the problem more.

MARK BRODIE: How much of these solutions come down to policy and, and how much of them come down to money.

DESMOND: I think they're the same thing, you know. And so a lot of times when we talk about these things, we say, how can we afford it? Can we afford to, to abolish poverty in America? And the answer is absolutely, we can, you know. A study a few years ago showed that if the top 1% of Americans just paid the federal income taxes they owed that we could raise an additional $175 billion a year. Billion with a "B." That's just about enough to pull everyone below the official poverty line above it. I get really frustrated when folks say we, we can't afford to do more to fight this problem in the richest country, you know, in the history of the world.

BRODIE: So you mentioned that the American Rescue Plan really helped, especially with childhood poverty. What are the, the solutions that we know, work? Like what are the most effective things that, that we can and should be doing?

DESMOND: So in the American Rescue Plan, the, the big thing we did is we took a child tax credit, what, something that's been around for a while since the 1990s. And we made it something a bit different. Something that's more like a universal child allowance. We said, hey, we're gonna give this out monthly instead of yearly. We're gonna increase the stipend. And the big thing we did is we're gonna make it fully refundable. So that was the direct cash transfer. I think that's part of the solution.

I think other parts of the solution, that we're fighting exploitation, you know, especially in the labor and the housing market and the financial market and making sure money that goes into families pockets stays there. And then, then there's a third ingredient, you know, to this recipe which is ending segregation, embracing broad prosperity, tearing down a wall. And I think those three steps, you know, deepening our investment in fighting poverty, turning away from exploitation, empowering poor communities and tearing down our walls. That's how we can end poverty in America.

BRODIE: When you look at that, that last that last segment, you talked about what, what kinds of things specifically do we need to do there?

DESMOND: So on most residential land in America, it is illegal to build anything other than a single detached family home. That's a really weird way to design a civilization. And it's another core reason why poverty persists. When we create communities of concentrated affluence and we hoard opportunities behind those walls, there's a side effect. You know, we also create communities of concentrated poverty and despair. And so the best thing we can do on a policy front is take all those zoning laws that make it illegal to build any kind of affordable housing and replace them with inclusionary zoning laws. The best of which make it illegal not to build affordable housing in your community.

But I'll tell you what, this isn't just a policy matter. This is really a, a moral issue for us. And for those of us that are seeking a different kind of community, we have to start demanding this in our own neighborhoods.

BRODIE: Well, so do you think that enough attention is paid to the broad issue of poverty? I mean, we hear for example about, you know, child-care subsidies and minimum wage and housing and things like that, but those seem to be components of poverty. But do you get the sense that there's enough attention paid on really trying to bring people out of it on a large scale?

DESMOND: No. And one challenge is that poverty lacks a kind of identity politics. You know, the kind of politics we see with maybe the fight against racism or the fight for for more equality with respect to, to marriage. And I think that a lot of folks that are poor are still stigmatized by that, that standing and you don't want to stay poor, right? You want to get out of it. And so organizing folks under the banner of anti-poverty has been a challenge for years. But I think that there's a way for all of us no matter where we are on the economic ladder to embrace this mission of poverty abolitionism.

BRODIE: So you are from Arizona, you went to ASU. Where, where does Arizona stand nationally in terms of dealing with poverty and the number of people who are dealing with poverty?

DESMOND: So this, that's a really hard question to answer actually because you can line up the states by poverty rates. You know, that's one way to do it. But if you kind of embrace the idea that poverty isn't a line. It's this like really complex collection of social maladies and humiliations and agonies. It's a harder question to answer.

So Arizona has a decent amount of poverty. It has lower housing costs in general compared to other high-cost states like California or New York, for example. The right to work laws in Arizona, I think are still on the books. And so it has traditionally been a, a state that's been antagonistic to worker empowerment and unionization. That's a strike against it in terms of poverty abolitionism, I think. So, I think it's, it's more of a mixed bag.

BRODIE: Yeah. So let's assume that the policies for which you're advocating were to go into effect. How quickly would we start to see results, like how quickly could they start making a difference?

DESMOND: I mean, sorry to harp on COVID again, but like this massive reduction in child poverty that we saw, it happened in six months. So there are policies that we could roll out today that would start making a difference today in the lives of the millions and millions of children and parents and grandparents below the poverty line. But I also think we need to start thinking about longer-term solutions. And those are the solutions that really cut poverty at the root that threaten its very survival. And so I think that fighting poverty on different time horizons is really important if we want to really get at the root of it.

BRODIE: Well, I'm curious about getting to the root of it because I wonder if there's a danger almost in, to some extent anyway, of trying to focus on things that will get people out of poverty now and think, OK, we did it as opposed to trying to prevent people from getting into that position in the first place.

DESMOND: Yeah, I totally agree with you. I mean, one way to think about this is to kind of compare the New Deal with the war on poverty. So the New Deal is crafted in the dark shadow of the Great Depression. And FDR approaches poverty, unemployment by intervening in markets. You know, that's a different approach than an approach that we've kind of inherited since that we're on poverty, which is like, let's provide people food aid, right? Let's provide people Social Security. Now, both of those approaches really matter. But if we only have one approach, that kind of picks up where markets fail Americans, so to speak, then there is a risk that we kind of run and run just to stay in the same place.

BRODIE: Yeah, that is interesting.

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