California’s Hypocritical Failure to Confront Poverty

California’s Hypocritical Failure to Confront Poverty

California’s Hypocritical Failure to Confront Poverty

An interview with Matthew Desmond, author of Poverty, by America, on the state’s betrayal of its progressive values.

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In 2016, Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond created a sensation with his Pulitzer Prize–winning book Evicted, an immersive investigation into the precarious housing situation faced by low-income residents in Milwaukee. The book shone a spotlight on housing practices that all but ensured that many poor residents ended up on a hamster wheel, running faster and faster to try to avoid evictions and homelessness.

Seven years on, Desmond’s new book, Poverty, by America, is a searing moral indictment of how and why the United States tolerates such high levels of poverty and of inequality—of the choices that we, as a society make vis-à-vis how we distribute wealth and opportunity. It’s also a hands-on call to action.

Time and again in the pages of the book, Desmond, who labels himself a “poverty abolitionist,” calls out middle-class and wealthy Americans for bemoaning poverty in the abstract while doing little and sacrificing virtually nothing to end it in practice. He references the shallowness of anti-poverty investments based around historical patterns that he describes as “an unrelenting exploitation of the poor,” and a willingness by too many to tolerate the racial and economic segregation that pushes impoverished, vulnerable communities to the margins. Meanwhile, affluent Americans marshal the full force of state power to ensure that their tax breaks and other economic privileges come to be seen as sacred rights and as untouchable political third rails.

Recently, I spoke with Desmond, who was born and raised in Arizona, about the specific challenges around poverty facing Western cities. “The policy challenges out West are quite different from the rest of the country,” he argued. “One of the big signals you get in West Coast cities is private affluence and public squalor.” What that translates to, he explained, is “more people withdrawing from the public sphere and buying opportunity. It’s particularly acute in West Coast cities. One of the reasons is the intensity of the housing crisis. This speaks to one of the themes of the book: how we do much more to subsidize affluence than to alleviate poverty.”

Tweak the mortgage interest tax deduction, or tax breaks for retirement and education accounts, just slightly, and many tens of billions of dollars would quickly become available for an array of anti-poverty programs. Desmond is frustrated at the lack of political will, even in deep blue states, to make these changes. Policies such as California’s Prop 13, he argues, have artificially restricted the ability of local governments to raise money via property taxes, resulting in a decades-long squeeze on the provision of public services that has, inexorably, increased the number of people falling outside of the social safety net and ending up homeless. So, too, zoning restrictions that have long been used to champion the development of single-family lots and suburban sprawl out West make it extremely difficult to build affordable housing units in Western cities.

“Californians often talk about themselves as progressive,” he argues. “But as someone who sees themselves as a poverty abolitionist, it’s hard for me to look at California and see it as a progressive state. The proof is in the pudding. California is comfortable with a progressivism that doesn’t threaten the material well-being of affluent Americans.”

Maybe that’s why, as the snowmelt from this winter’s epic storms accelerates, poorer communities in the Central Valley—towns like Tulare and Corcoran—are staring down months of springtime flooding, as underinvested-in levee systems near their breaking point. Meanwhile, more-affluent communities in the region are far better protected by upgraded levee systems. Perhaps that is why California’s wealth gap is larger than Texas’s, despite California’s vaunted social policies and its proudly progressive political leadership. And surely it’s why so many massively needed housing developments get held up by California Environmental Quality Act legal challenges, often from well-to-do residents and powerful community organizations looking to shore up the property values of those who have, even if it comes at the expense of those who haven’t.

During the Covid emergency, when the government implemented a rash of safety net expansions—from increased unemployment to eviction moratoriums and the child tax credit—child poverty declined by 46 percent. It was an unprecedented decline, made possible by the temporary embrace of an array of social-democratic-type policies. “It provided proof of concept,” argues Desmond, “that poverty can be reduced via targeted policy reforms.” It was done, at speed, and dramatically reduced poverty, without bankrupting society. Yet, since then, the political consensus around the safety net expansion has evaporated, and, once again, vulnerable people and the programs put in place to assist them are being blamed for the country’s fiscal woes.

Even though many Western states have adopted increasingly progressive safety net and economic policies in recent years—for example, expanding health care access for undocumented residents, investing more dollars in mental health and supportive housing services, and hiking the state minimum wage—progressive impulses still often butt up against the reality that affluent residents want little more than for poverty to be rendered out of sight and out of mind. Frequently, even in progressive states, truly ambitious anti-poverty interventions are looked on as being prohibitively expensive.

It is, Desmond argues, a red herring, designed to distract from the underlying reality that poverty exists in this country at least in part because so many people have a vested interest in its continuance. When people turn around and ask, “How can we afford it?,” it is nothing more or less than a “sinful question,” he says. It is, for Desmond, “a dishonest question in a country this wealthy.”

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