Economics/Class Relations

Why even brilliant scholars misunderstand poverty in America

Housing expert Matthew Desmond argues poverty has stagnated in America, but misses something big.

A homeless encampment outside City Hall in San Francisco, on May 22, 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 lockdown.
Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox’s Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Matthew Desmond, the acclaimed Princeton sociologist and author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, thinks that poverty has barely improved in the United States over the past 50 years — and he has a theory why. Laid out in a long essay for the New York Times Magazine that is adapted from his forthcoming book Poverty, by America, Desmond’s theory implicates “exploitation” in the broadest sense, from a decline in unions and worker power to a proliferation of bank fees and predatory landlord practices, all of which combine to keep the American underclass down.

Desmond, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for Evicted, is an original and nuanced thinker and I cannot do his 6,000-word argument justice in a short article. But I do know a little bit about how we measure poverty, and I want to back up briefly and interrogate Desmond’s fundamental premise: Has poverty in America persisted? Is it true that in recent decades, as Desmond writes, “On the problem of poverty … there has been no real improvement — just a long stasis”? Is it true, as he posits, that the large increase in government spending on antipoverty programs in recent decades (a 130 percent increase from 1980 to 2018, by his numbers) hasn’t made a dent in poverty?

There is widespread disagreement, including among experts, about how to define “poverty.” But contrary to Desmond’s claim that the stagnation “cannot be chalked up to how the poor are counted,” I would insist the answer to whether poverty has fallen or stagnated in America depends entirely on how the poor are counted.

One set of approaches gives a clear answer: Poverty has plummeted dramatically since the 1960s due to a huge increase in government spending on programs that help lower-income people. Another set of approaches suggests that poverty has, as Desmond insists, stagnated (and would have risen absent that government spending).


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