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June 27, 2023

In Conversation with Matt Desmond: How We Can End Poverty in America

Parker Lester, Social Science Analyst, HUD

Mary Cunningham (left), Matthew Desmond (center), and Myra Jones-Taylor (right) sit and talk in front a screen that reads
Matthew Desmond (center) discusses the persistence of poverty in the United States, specific policy choices to curb the issue, and how storytelling can help people understand the issue of wealth inequality in the United States. Photo credit: Urban Institute

Sociologist Matthew Desmond, author of the 2016 book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City and a MacArthur Fellow, joined Mary Cunningham, vice president for metropolitan housing and communities policy at the Urban Institute, and Myra Jones-Taylor, the Urban Institute’s chief policy impact officer, in a discussion about how individuals, policymakers, and communities can address and resolve the problem of poverty. The panel went over promising policies, the role of evidence in solving social issues, and strategies to drive policy and narrative change.

Desmond described the city of Milwaukee as he prepared to write Evicted: “I saw grandmas living without heat in the winter; I saw kids evicted on a routine basis.” These stark observations drove Desmond to ask why eviction has taken such a strong hold in American housing systems. Evicted set out to answer two questions: why does poverty exist in a land of abundance, and how can we finally put an end to it? Desmond, who is a sociologist and academic, stated, “I think there is so much poverty in America not in spite of our wealth, but because of it. Which means many of us are connected to the problem — and the solution.” Desmond’s newest book, Poverty, by America, further examines the experience of poverty in the United States.

Cunningham brought up common arguments about the feasibility of paying for policies to eradicate homelessness. Desmond referenced a study suggesting that if the top 1 percent of earners were not able to find loopholes in the U.S. tax code, an additional $175 billion would be available to either reinstate the Child Tax Credit, which in 2021 reduced child poverty in the United States by 46 percent within 6 months; double the nation’s investment in affordable housing; or raise nearly every low-income household above the federal poverty level.

As for successes in the fight against poverty, Desmond pointed to the Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) program instituted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Desmond stated that the ERA doubled HUD’s budget to deliver funds to more than 10 million families. In addition, Desmond pointed out that eviction rates plunged to historic lows under ERA. Desmond then mentioned that when the Johnson administration launched its Great Society initiatives, poverty was not being fought by the government alone. At that time, the job market was robust enough to support the public and higher rates of union representation meant that more workers benefited from fair wages that their unions negotiated on their behalf. The contemporary shift away from union membership, says Desmond, means that federal antipoverty programs must work overtime to ensure that low-income families get what they need to survive.

Desmond noted that racial justice and poverty are inseparable, observing that “you can’t write a book called Poverty, by America without also writing a book about racism in America.” Desmond noted that low-income White families tend to be better off financially than many non-White families; for example, the average white family that has a high school degree as the highest level of educational attainment earns more per year than the average Black family with a college degree as the highest level of educational attainment.

Desmond also discussed “targeted universalism,” a concept originating with john a. powell at the University of California, Berkeley. According to powell, targeted universalism involves setting universal goals for an entire population but using varying approaches targeted to different populations to achieve those goals. For Desmond, adopting a targeted universalism approach “is to recognize that one size doesn’t fit all” when examining solutions to the problem of poverty. As Desmond puts it, “[I]nstead of going through the means” — focusing on the eligibility requirements of public antipoverty programs —  “let’s look at the ends” — policies focused on the goals of providing adequate affordable housing and livable incomes.

Myra Jones-Taylor, chief policy impact officer at the Urban Institute, then joined the panelists to discuss some of the policy impacts of evictions and other poverty-related issues.

The group first discussed how data influences our understanding of the causes and effects of evictions in the United States. Desmond recalled that when the Eviction Lab, his team of researchers at Princeton University, launched, eviction data was practically nonexistent and that, even now, researchers understand little about the problem of evictions from the landlords’ perspective. Jones-Taylor added that, although evidence absolutely matters, policymakers and researchers must also understand people’s context to further reform. Desmond stressed that policy change should include storytelling — and it is vital that abstract discussions “come around in human form.” However, Desmond added, it is imperative that we do not exploit people as we tell their stories. 

Desmond then stated that when society chooses to lift people out of poverty, “safety and life are given back to [them].” He referenced research finding that healthier babies are born and even smoking rates decline among families who are no longer impoverished. Desmond believes that poverty “drags us all down” and that a freer and safer country is waiting for us if we can end homelessness.

A recording of the event is available here: In Conversation with Matt Desmond: How We Can End Poverty in America | Urban Institute


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