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Poverty, by America – Matthew Desmond

1st November 2023
poverty, by America book cover


Poverty, by America is the author’s attempt to answer this question: Why is there so much poverty in America? It is a book about poverty that is not just about the poor but also how the other half lives, about how some lives are made small so that others may grow. I would like to know the answer to the author’s question.


Matthew Desmond is an American sociologist and the Maurice P. During Professor of Sociology at Princeton University, where he is also the principal investigator of the Eviction Lab.


Poverty, by America has a prologue, 9 chapter and an epilogue.

The chapters are

1) The Kind of Problem Poverty Is

2) Why Haven’t We Made More Progress

3) How We Undercut Workers

4) How We Force the Poor to Pay More

5) How We Rely on Welfare

6) How We Buy Opportunity

7) Invest in Ending Poverty

8) Empower the Poor

9) Tear Down the Walls


In Poverty, by America, the author discusses the persistent poverty in the United States, despite its abundance.


The technical definition of poverty is that a person is considered “poor” when they cannot afford life’s necessities. However, poverty is more than that. Poverty is instability; the constant fear that it will get even worse; the loss of liberty; the feeling that your government is against you, not for you; that your country was designed to serve other people and that you are fated to be managed and processed, roughed up and handcuffed; embracing, shame inducing; diminished life and personhood.

Poverty is the dream killer, capability destroyer, the great waste of human potential. It is often material scarcity piled on chronic pain piled on incarceration piled on depression piled on addiction – on and on it goes.

How do Americans make the poor in America poor?

First, exploit them. Second, prioritise the subsidisation of affluence over the alleviation of poverty. Third, create prosperous and exclusive communities.

The duality of American life makes it difficult for those who benefit from the current arrangement to remember that the poor are exploited laborers, exploited consumers, and exploited borrowers. Many features of the society are not broken, just bifurcated. Social ills can be motivated by bigotry and selfishness as well as by the best intentions, such as protecting our children.

Choosing to have a child outside of marriage may be an individual choice, but condemning many of those parents and their children to a life of poverty is a societal one.

Culprits of persistent poverty

The author has called out some parties who take advantage of the poor. These include landlords in poor neighbourhood who raise the rents as their tenants’ wages rise, banks or payday loan industry that issue exorbitant fines and fees, and companies whose low wages are subsidised by government benefits.

They are all involved in the exploitations at the bottom of the market.

Some solutions

There are some measures given to tackle the problem of poverty such as targeted programs (like food stamps), universal programs (like a universal basic income), broader or bigger tent targeting (targeted programs with a higher income threshold), and targeted universalism (supply different groups with different kinds and levels of aid to achieve goals).

The author proposes that the policies should foster goodwill and not those that kindle resentment. His recommendations are rebalancing social safety net, reining in exploitation, and turning away from segregation.


Poverty is not simply the condition of not having enough money but the condition of not having enough choice and being taken advantage of because of that. Lives are tangibly impacted in countless ways – by things beyond our control and the relentless irrationality of world. Everyday we confront the capriciousness of life, the unfair, stupid ways our future is determined by background or chance.

I think poverty in most countries is caused by the same problems faced by America. The author recognises that doing the right thing is often a highly inconvenient, time-consuming, even costly process. However, if we do nothing, the widening gap between the haves and have-nots might lead to social instability in the end. Thus, for those who are fortunate, we should do our part to contribute to the eradication of poverty.

One-sentence summary for Poverty, by America

Poverty persists because some wish and will it to, not because the poor does not want to change.


  1. Our vulnerability to exploitation grows as our liberty shrinks.
  2. Capitalism is inherently about workers trying to get as much, and owners trying to give as little, as possible.
  3. Where there is exclusion, there is exploitation.
  4. There is so much poverty in this land not in spite of our wealth but because of it.
  5. We hold many ethical beliefs, but we tend to act on them only when we receive a social push.


3 out of 3 stars

Interested in Poverty, by America?

You may get the book from through the link below*.

Get the print book from Shopee Malaysia here

Get the ebook from Shopee Malaysia here

*Disclosure: The above link is an affiliate link. Thus, I may earn a small commission when you purchase the book through the link.


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