Review of "Poverty, By America" by Matthew Desmond

I can't tell you why. I don't remember the reasons. Barbara Ehrenreich published Nickel and Dimed in 2001 - my freshman year of college. I picked up a copy somewhere along the way shortly thereafter. Her book fascinated me. It startled me. It alarmed me. It drew my attention to the experience of the working poor in America. I couldn't un-see what she helped me see. 

In 2003, I lived in South Africa for six months. I was an exchanged student at the University of Cape Town. I saw poverty and racism to a degree I had not previously imagined. My house was broken into. I was held at gunpoint and knifepoint. I quickly became no stranger to the effects of poverty.

In 2005, I wrote a research paper for my law class on squatter legislation in the state of New York. What a strange topic for a Midwestern kid. It was a trip to New York City that seared my mind, seeing homelessness for the first time. I wanted to know where homeless men and women lived and what rights they had to make a home for themselves in abandoned spaces.

That same year, I traveled to Memphis, Tennessee with my church group. We worked for a week with Service Over Self in the historic Binghampton neighborhood. We walked through the Civil Rights Museum. I had my first exposure to the stories of men and women struggling against the bondage of mind-altering drugs, felony records, homelessness, income inequities, educational injustice, broken immigrant systems, and health care disparities. Again, I couldn't un-see what I saw that week. 

My wife and I returned four years later for a one-year internship. This time, working with an economic development corporation in that same neighborhood, as well as walking alongside refugees being resettled in Memphis by the State department. We learned about "toxic charity" and "when helping hurts." We learned about affordable housing, asset based community development, youth development, and empowering the poor. 

Four years later, I was working full-time for that same organization that first arrested my attention in Memphis, partnering with homeowners in Binghampton, Orange Mound, and the Heights. Helping them keep warm, safe, and dry in their homes. Listening to and stewarding their stories. Investing in the youth of those neighborhoods. Fighting against that 'savior' mentality, and trying to learn how to be a faithful presence, a caring neighbor.

It's now 2023. Half my life has passed since those early awakenings to the realities of poverty. Along the way, I've wrestled with the teachings of the Torah, the prophets, Jesus Christ, the apostles, the early church fathers, and modern prophets, on the topic of poverty, wealth, economics, justice, and government. I've read the books and blogs. I've been confronted by the warnings of Jesus to "be on your guard against every form of greed, for your life does not consist in the abundance of your possessions" and to not "store up treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in and steal" and "sell all you have an give to the poor" and "you cannot serve two masters; you cannot worship both God and Mammon" and most startlingly, "whatever you do for one of the least of these, you've done it for me." 

But - and this is confession time - a distance has grown between me and "the poor," between my heart and theirs. I am not walking in solidarity with the poor these days. A lethargy of spirit has crept in amidst the choking wants and worries of this life. I seem to recall someone issuing a warning about that...oh yeah.

I suppose Matthew Desmond's Poverty, By America (Crown, 2023) startled me in a similar way as Nickel and Dimed did in those undergrad years at the University of Illinois. 

And now, I can't un-see what he's written. I'm not a fundamentalist on the left or the right, so I don't dismiss his words simply by association. I'm listening. This is my attempt to engage thoughtfully with Desmond's arguments.

I'll step into his thoughts in part two of this post.


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