Matthew Desmond asks a difficult question in his latest book, Poverty, By America. Why does a country with so much wealth have so much poverty? But his answer is much more challenging: we aren’t really trying not to have poverty because most are benefitting from the system in some way.
“I sit on a man’s back choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am sorry for him and wish to lighten his load by all means possible… except by getting off his back.”
― Leo Tolstoy
Desmond calls on Americans to be poverty abolitionists, arguing that the result of many public policies is to maintain not only wealth disparity, but exploitation of the poor. Along the way, he blows up many of the reassuring myths that excuse the status quo:
- The poor spend what money they do get on booze.
- The wealthy pay far more than their share in taxes.
- The middle class subsidizes government antipoverty programs for the poor.
- The wealthiest 20% spends twice the fraction of their income on alcohol as does the poorest 20%
- The wealthiest 400 Americans pay a lower tax rate than the middle class.
- On average, a middle class taxpayer in 2018 received more in aid than they paid in taxes.
Are college loans, mortgage interest deductions, and capital gains taxes welfare for the rich? Why are these programs so hard to challenge, when means-tested programs are under constant assault? I think it has something to do with our obsession with superheroes. We think the latest scientific breakthrough came because of a Nobel prize winner instead of the dozens of grad students who worked in their lab, thousands more who worked on other research across the country and millions of others all over the world who published the research that the new discovery was based on. And so we assume that history is made by individual hero characters and not by billions of people. And we quietly assume we will be that person one day (and thus fabulously wealthy), don’t we? But enough of my theory, back to Desmond.
So what can we do? “Liberals,” writes Desmond, “have a despondency problem: fluent in the language of grievance and bumbling in the language of repair.” Solutions are out there. The easiest step, politically, would be simply to go after tax cheaters. Give the IRS the funding and the mandate to collect the shortfall, 175 billion dollars, which is also, coincidentally, very nearly the amount which would raise every family to at least the poverty level (177 billion).
There are numerous other solutions that don’t kick things to the federal government. One that is particularly relevant to Cincinnati is to simply stop boxing people out of good neighborhoods with regressive building codes that do not allow multifamily housing.
By acting with compassion and reason, our short term discomfort will be repaid with an easier conscience and ultimately safer, and more just living. We have no excuse.
And there’s no excuse for not reading this book, it comes in under 200 pages and makes impossibly good use of them! So get with it!