Review of "Poverty, By America" by Matthew Desmond, Part 2

First, I would say it's encouraging to remember there are people like Matthew Desmond, with brilliant minds, compassionate hearts, and steely determination, who are working at the forefront of the problem of poverty in America. It's a challenge and inspiration to the safe distance (and privilege) I too easily slip into. 

I want to begin my engagement with Desmond's content with a passage from chapter seven, where he brings Leo Tolstoy into the conversation:

 In 1881, having published “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina,” Leo Tolstoy moved to Moscow from the Russian countryside. He was fifty-three and a man of means, able to employ a team of servants who ran his household. One of the first things Tolstoy noticed about Moscow was its poverty. “I knew country poverty,” he wrote, “but town poverty was new and incomprehensible to me.” He was shocked to walk the streets of the city and see such hunger and hopelessness com­mingling with such ostentation and frivolity. The problem haunted Tolstoy, and he went looking for an answer. He vis­ited houses of prostitution, questioned a police officer who had arrested a beggar, and even adopted a young boy, who eventually ran away. The problem wasn’t work, the great writer quickly learned. The poor seemed to never stop work­ing. The problem, he ultimately decided, was himself and his fellow affluents, who lived idle lives. “I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means—except by getting off his back.”

     True then and there, and true now and here. There is so much poverty in this land not in spite of our wealth but be­cause of it. Which is to say, it’s not about them. It’s about us. “It is really so simple,” Tolstoy wrote. “If I want to aid the poor, that is, to help the poor not to be poor, I ought not to make them poor.”

In many ways, I feel this passage gets to the heart of Desmond's argument. The poor are poor in America because, frankly, we want them to be. We like it this way. We're all too comfortable with a certain level of poverty and the conveniences it affords us. We've come to depend upon a class of citizens who work for embarrassing wages and paltry benefits. The left blames broken, unjust systems and corporate greed. The right blames the welfare state and the poor for laziness. But, as a society, we've become all too accustomed with very high degree of poverty. And, there is something we can do about it.


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