Climate disruption adds to global poverty.
Our next guest believes that can be eradicated but only by getting enough people to make the change.
Despite being the richest country, the United States has a higher rate of poverty than any other advanced democracy.
A let's or prize-winning author Matthew Desmond is joining Michelle Martin to explain why the problem persists.
This conversation is part of our ongoing initiative about poverty, jobs, and economic opportunity in America cold "chasing the dream."
MICHELLE: thank you so much for talking with us once again.
The last time we talked with you, we talked about your book "evicted," critically acclaimed, best seller.
Just as the title implies, it dug into the origins and scope of the eviction phenomenon in the U.S..
Your latest book deals with similar ideas, but it feels different.
In a way it feels like a book that you have been waiting to write your whole life.
Do you want to talk about that?
Matthew: that is right.
I have been researching and reporting on poverty all my adult life.
I have lived in poor neighborhoods, I've dug into the statistics.
I did not feel like I had an answer to this pressing question, which is why is there so much poverty in this incredibly rich country?
This book is my response.
I think there has always been something about the American poverty debate that did not sit well with me.
I remember reading a line by a novelist where he writes 'these kids are jumping out of the windows of burning buildings, falling to their deaths, and we think the problem is that they are jumping.'
When I read that, man that sounds like the poverty debate.
We have been focused so much on the poor themselves.
We need to be focusing on the fire, who lit it, who is warming their hands by it.
This is a book about the fire, how some lives are made a small so others may grow.
Christine: You say poverty is often material scarcity piled on chronic pain, piled on incarceration, piled on depression, piled on addiction, on and on it goes.
Talk about some of the people that you profile in the book and the way you say poverty isn't one thing, it piles on and folds in on itself.
Matthew: That is right.
When I was spending time in Milwaukee for my last book I met grandmother's living without heat in Wisconsin, sleeping under blankets all winter long, praying the space heater did not go out.
I saw kids evicted all the time.
The courtroom in the eviction court is just brimming over with children facing homelessness every day in that city and across the country.
America harbors a hard bottom layer of poverty.
It is not just about a lack of money, it's about a lack of choice, about pain, Millie Asian, the nauseating -- humiliation, the nauseating fear of eviction.
It can really drive us to address this problem.
Poverty isn't just a lack of income, it's this exhausting collection of social maladies.
Michelle: is it your argument that the United States is fairly unique in that among affluent nations, that you just don't find peer economies in which the level of misery is what it is in the United States?
Matthew: That is right.
We really are in a class all our own when it comes to the level of poverty we tolerate amongst all this wealth.
There is no other advanced democracy that has the kind of poverty in the depths of poverty that we have.
While abroad I often heard Europeans use the phrase American-style deprivation.
They can see it.
Our child poverty rate is twice than Germany or South Korea or Canada, for example.
We are lagging behind other advanced democracies when it comes to addressing poverty.
Michelle: Your point of view is that poverty persists because the nonpoor benefit from it.
Matthew: We often consume the cheap goods and services that the working poor produce.
Those of us invested in the stock market like healthy returns, even those with -- even if those returns come at the cost of a human sacrifice with poorly paid labor.
A lot of us protect our tax breaks like our mortgage interest deduction, but those tax breaks accrue to the wealthiest among us.
Doing so starves anti-poverty programs because we invest a lot more in subsidizing affluence than alleviating deprivation.
Then the country continues to be segregationist.
We continue to build walls around our communities and hoard opportunity behind those walls.
We need to start taking responsibility for all the scarcity in our midst.
Michelle: Let's put this into different buckets, although you make the art event it is all related.
-- the argument it is all related.
One of the things you point out in the book is from 1980 to 2017 there was a 237% increase in federal spending on poverty programs.
That is not a small amount of money.
Just in total dollar terms.
So why is it that the misery you describe persists?
Matthew: Some might say it is because government spending does not have a real effect on poverty, but that is wrong.
There is a massive pile of research that shows government programs directed at our poorest families are incredibly effective, even efficient.
They prevent millions from plunging into hunger and listen us every year.
But they clearly aren't enough now.
Part of the reason is because we have not fully addressed the exploitation of the poor in the labor market and housing market and in the financial market.
Every day $61 million are pulled out of the pockets of poor families in terms of overdraft fees, check cashing fees, payday loan fees.
When James Baldwin wrote how expensive it is to be poor, he could not imagine those kind of numbers.
Unless we address that exploitation we will not build sturdy permanent foundation on which we can climb out of poverty for everyone.
Michelle: Even with direct federal assistance, in most places you say the majority of that money does not get directly to people who are under resourced, that there are only two states where a majority of their assistance under the TANF program goes directly into cash assistance.
That in most states echoes other places.
-- it goes other places.
Where does it go?
Matthew: Two points are important.
One is that a dollar in a federal budget does not mean one dollar in a family's budget.
Take TANF or cash welfare, for every dollar budgeted only $.22 ends up with the family in terms of direct aid.
States get a lot of leeway about how they spend their money.
States have used that money to spend on Christian summer camps or abstinence only classes, marriage initiatives.
Many of these things don't have anything to do with reducing poverty.
Other states simply sit on the money.
Tennessee last time I checked was sitting on over $700 million in unspent welfare funds.
Hawaii was sitting on enough to give every poor kid in its state $10,000.
That is one thing going on.
The second thing that is important is that a lot of poor families don't take advantage of programs they deserve.
We hear a lot about welfare dependency, but the bigger problem is welfare of ordinance -- welfare avoidance, that families are leaving billions on the table every year.
1 in 5 elderly Americans who could qualify for food stamps, they don't take advantage of that.
Michelle: Why is that?
Is it that the process of getting these benefits is just too hard?
Or because there is a stigma attached to it?
Why is it that people don't get the benefits they actually are entitled to?
Matthew: All that is part of it.
We used to think stigma is the biggest reason why folks were not relying on these programs but it seems the much bigger reason is we made them unnecessarily hard.
We wrapped these programs in regulations and we make it incredibly confusing.
This is also hopeful, though.
Studies show just increasing the font or connecting people with someone on the phone can bring a lot more benefits to families that need them today.
>> It can actually bring more benefits to families.
Michelle: one exception to that was during the Covid crisis when the federal government made aggressive efforts to get money to people directly.
There was a lot of debate about that.
There were some people who said we are paying people not to work.
But just in that time period, did that make a difference in alleviating poverty for some people?
>> It made a huge difference.
We were able to reduce child poverty by 46% in six months.
We expanded the child tax credit, which is a check mailed to families with moderate and low incomes.
We cut child poverty almost in half.
We reduced evictions to historic lows.
Renters finally got a breath and were able to stay in their home and not face homelessness during the pandemic.
And it did not seem to cost jobs.
One some states got rid of those benefits early in other states didn't, the states that got rid of their benefits did not see their job numbers jump up.
We made these historic, incredible investments in reducing poverty.
I would like that to become the new normal.
Michelle: Let's talk about the non-cash, non-direct government assistance or lack thereof.
Talk about the ways in which you feel these income subsidies were down to the benefit of the middle class and the upper-middle-class and not necessarily to the poor.
Give one or two examples.
>> When we think about the welfare state, we usually think about cash welfare and public housing.
We should also think about things like the mortgage interest deduction.
The 529 savings plan.
Tax breaks we get.
That is also part of the welfare state.
Both tax breaks and a check cost the government money both of those putting come in somebody's pocket.
If you add up all of the benefits that the government is giving out, social insurance, tax breaks, you learned that every year in America the top 20% of us receive about $36,000 from the government and the bottom 20% receive only 25,000 dollars from the government.
That is almost a 40% difference.
We are doing a lot more two guard fortunes then expand opportunity.
Michelle: What role do you think race plays in this?
It is a part of it, but not all of it.
Is there an interplay between the way we think about race and the way these systems persist?
>> Absolutely there is.
It is impossible to write a book about poverty without also writing about racism and race in the United States.
A big role race plays in the story segregation.
White affluent Americans continued to be the most segregated group in the country.
We built these communities where basically the only people who can live in the communities are affluent homeowners.
The majority of whom are white in this country.
Thinking about an end of poverty is also thinking about how to tear down those walls and embrace more inclusive communities.
So race plays a huge role there.
It also plays a role into how people understand the poor.
There are a lot of discouraging studies that show people will likely vote yes on an anti-poverty program if they think the benefit is not going to African-American families.
I think the country's legacy of racism and the countries legacy of economic exploitation have gone hand-in-hand.
Michelle: Your book has been incredibly well received.
>> I think the country is ready for this conversation.
There are so many of us fed up with the old stories of poverty and bootstrapping and responsibility.
And I think that we want a more fair society.
I think many of us who are not poor feel complicit in all of this poverty around us and it drags us all down.
So many of us are struggling and I also want a new story about why it is so hard to get ahead in the land of the free.
I do not know.
This is a driving issue of our day.
This is a morally urgent issue that many Americans want to have this conversation.
Michelle: You did not grow up wealthy.
You talk about it very openly in the book.
You have experienced losing your home.
You have experienced having to work very hard to get through school, not have been on the choices that you wanted to make.
>> I was given opportunities from the government.
I was given things like student loans and we often do not think about student loans as a government program, but it is.
I was given tuition remission at my State University.
That helped a lot.
I think I was able to recognize the weight that the government intervened in my life in ways that really did result in social climbing.
And I want the government that does more bad for everyone.
I want a government that is committed to ending poverty because I think that is the government that is obsessively committed to freedom and happiness and equal opportunity.
If that means I need to give up a few things that I now receive because I am a member of the professional class, that is a bargain I am willing to make.
For example, could it be the case that homeowners who get this big benefit from the government, start really thinking about that.
In 2020, we spent $190 billion on homeowner subsidies.
In a world where eviction is commonplace, where most renting families spend half of what they have on housing cost, that seems to be out luck with our values and our priorities.
Michelle: Thanks so much for talking with us today.