Matthew Desmond, a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient and Pulitzer winner, is at a restaurant at the corner of Ninth Avenue and 25th Street in Manhattan. He has taken the train up from Princeton University, where he teaches sociology and runs a data lab, for this interview—something he didn’t need to do.
Smiling easily in a light gray sweater that matches his silvering hair, Desmond says offhand that he’s been on so many video calls over the past year that he was eager to meet face-to-face. It’s a simple enough statement, but in this case it offers a clue as to what makes Desmond tick: he seems to possess a powerful intuition that the best way to understand anything is to encounter it firsthand.
Desmond was catapulted from promising young professor (he won his MacArthur in 2015) to one of the country’s leading authorities on poverty with the 2016 publication of his bestselling Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.
In March, Crown will release his next book, Poverty, by America, in which Desmond takes a big swing at diagnosing why poverty exists in this country. His conclusion: we could, as a society, alleviate poverty—if only we had the stomach to give up benefitting from poverty ourselves.
Why is there poverty in the first place? It’s a question that has animated Desmond’s work since graduate school. “There was something about the poverty debate that was bugging me,” he says. “There are all these books about poverty, and I started asking, Where’s the tension in the story? Who is the bad guy? Is there a bad guy? Are there really 38 million people in this country who are poor, and it’s no one’s fault?”
For Evicted, which grew out of the ethnographic research he did in Milwaukee while working on his PhD at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Desmond realized he needed to ground this abstract question in a relationship between two real human beings. “That’s how I came upon writing about eviction,” he says. “That’s an ethnographic scene, where I can have landlords and tenants in the same room. And it turned out that eviction—unbeknownst to me—was something we just didn’t know a lot about.” He moved into a Milwaukee trailer park, and later an urban rooming house, and followed 10 tenants and landlords (eight made it into the final book) as they navigated poverty and eviction.
Writing about landlords and tenants came out of a need to see a problem firsthand, but it also reflected a keen writerly instinct for character and narrative tension. Desmond’s academic adviser had long encouraged him to write for an audience beyond the academy (years earlier, Desmond had turned his master’s thesis into a book titled On the Firelines), and soon Desmond was looking to turn his fieldwork in Milwaukee into a book for the trade.
“I met a lot of agents,” he recalls, “and a lot of the conversations went like this: ‘Let’s trim this paragraph and we’ll go to market. Let’s fix this thing and we’ll go to market.’ Power lunch agents.” Then he met Jill Kneerim, at what was then Kneerim, Williams, & Bloom. “Jill was just like, ‘This is crap. This doesn’t make any sense. This just isn’t working at all.’ She was like another dissertation adviser. She just handed me my ass all the time.”
Kneerim sold Evicted to Crown at auction, but Desmond’s work was far from over. The field work itself had been grueling—long days with his subjects, followed by long nights typing up his notes—and the process of writing the book wasn’t any easier.
“I got invited to give a talk in Paris,” Desmond says, “and I brought all this butcher paper there, and I had a coding mechanism for ‘this is exactly where this is in the field notes.’ I wrote all these themes, and then I had this other piece of butcher paper where I wrote all the ideas: Where am I going to talk about domestic violence? Where am I going to tell you about the racial disparities in eviction? And then I just connected the people to the ideas, and that’s how the book took shape.”
After Evicted came out, Desmond’s life changed dramatically. The attention, praise, and awards were gratifying, but he kept thinking of the relationships he’d formed with his subjects in Milwaukee. A Pulitzer was great, but how was it going to help Arleen—perhaps the most memorable character in Evicted—get out of poverty?
Desmond channeled his discomfort into action. “Publishing a book is step three of making a difference,” he says. “There’s all this follow-through work that was new to me.” That work brought him into a bigger national conversation about how to alleviate poverty, this time with policymakers who were actually in positions to effect change. He also started the Eviction Lab at Princeton, which compiled the first comprehensive data set of evictions in the U.S.
But eventually Desmond found himself thinking back to graduate school, and the question he used to ask himself about the origins of poverty: “I remember in my dissertation defense there was a scholar who asked this question, ‘What’s your theory of poverty?’ I should have an answer to that.” Perhaps this time he could try to tackle the question not as an ethnographer and sociologist, but as a public intellectual.
Poverty, by America is his answer. A departure from the narrative approach of Evicted, Poverty is as direct as a manifesto, with a message as damning as its title: Desmond argues that the problem of poverty in the richest country in the world isn’t unsolvable—it’s just that a bloc of highly entrenched, privileged citizens live comfortable lives that are enabled and
preserved by the systematic exploitation of the poor and powerless. Who are these people? Look in the mirror, Desmond argues; they’re us.
“I have a deep suspicion of theories of poverty that are just letting us off the hook,” he says. “The progressives have them, and the conservatives have them.” Abolishing poverty, he argues, will only be possible if we can face our own complicity in its existence.
Desmond points to recent changes in the national conversation around race as evidence that there’s a real opportunity for middle- and upper-middle-class people to begin examining that complicity critically. “I’ve given talks all over the country,” he says, “and America is ready for a different poverty conversation.” He hopes that Poverty will help launch it.
Kneerim died last year. Desmond visited her in a sunbathed hospice room, where she asked him what he was working on next. “She loved her work,” he says, moved by her singular focus even on her deathbed. “She really did believe ideas can change the world.”
Desmond believes that, too. When asked if he thinks his work will become more policy focused in the future, he says that the experience of Evicted helped clarify for him how he can best make a difference. “The last time I testified in front of Congress, I said we’ve got to have someone who was evicted testify. We brought this gentleman from Virginia who had stayed up all night working security, who then came to the House to testify. He didn’t have a jacket, so one of the staff let him borrow a jacket. And of course, he’s the one that everyone remembers. He took the air out of the room.”
“I want my writing to be read by policymakers,” Desmond adds. “I want to be in the meetings, but I’m getting to this place in my career where I think I’m a writer.” By elevating people like that security guard from Virginia—so that readers and policymakers alike can encounter the problem of poverty firsthand—he has realized that perhaps the most powerful thing someone in his position can do is get out of the way and let the powerless speak for themselves.
Andy Kifer cowrote Mutualism: Building the Next Economy from the Ground Up (Random House) with Sara Horowitz and is working on a book of narrative nonfiction about secret cities in the U.S.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Poverty, by America was publishing in May; it comes out in March.