Matthew 25 book study on ‘Poverty, by America’ draws more than 260 people — and the author of the best-seller

Matthew Desmond launches a four-week PC(USA)-wide book study with an inspiring and insightful 15-minute talk

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Matthew Desmond (Photo courtesy of Princeton University)

LOUISVILLE — Matthew Desmond, the author of the 2023 book “Poverty, by America,” made a 15-minute online appearance Monday to help launch a four-week PC(USA)-wide study of his best-seller. More than 260 people were present to hear from Desmond, the Maurice P. During Professor of Sociology at Princeton University, whose 2017 book, “Evicted,” won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. They also discussed the first two chapters in small groups.

“It’s lovely to see folks gathered from around the country,” said Desmond, whose family attends a Presbyterian church in Princeton. “It’s good to be in community.”

Desmond grew up poor in Winslow, Arizona. His father was a pastor, and the family struggled financially. Eventually the bank repossessed their home. “I think that experience of seeing my family pressed and stressed by the pressures of poverty led me to ask, ‘Why do we have so much poverty in America?’” Desmond said of the wealthiest nation on Earth, where 1 in 9 people live below the poverty line and tens of millions more people are just getting by just above the line.

Government spending on antipoverty programs has increased 230% since the Reagan administration, and yet poverty rates have remained “very persistent over those years,” he said.

One reason is that those of us who aren’t poor continue to consume the goods and services that the working poor produce. For a century or more, “We have asked every question we can” on poor people’s work ethic and welfare dependency, Desmond noted. Instead, “We back a system where we do much more to subsidize affluence.” One example: the amount of money people save on their mortgage interest deduction is three times what the nation spends on housing subsidies for the needy.

Another telling statistic: on average, families among the poorest 20% in America receive $26,000 each year from the government. The wealthiest 20% of families receive on average $35,000 from the government annually. “We give the most to families that have plenty already,” Desmond said. Our elected officials often react this way to proposed or expanded antipoverty initiatives: “How can we afford this program?”

“I think it’s a sinful question,” Desmond said. One study indicated it would cost $177 billion to lift every American above the poverty line. “It’s completely in our grasp,” Desmond said, noting that if the wealthiest 1% of Americans paid all the taxes they owe, it would add $175 billion to the treasury.

Not only do we need to address exploitation, we also need to dismantle “our evil embrace and normalization of segregation in our country,” Desmond said. “This is a word for the affluent white folks in the audience: What are we teaching our kids when we bar the doors?”

“Poverty, by America,” the best-seller from sociologist Matthew Desmond, is the book that Presbyterians from around the country are studying this month.

Desmond’s book seeks to make “poverty abolitionists” of people who like him think that poverty levels in America constitute sin. “Like other abolitionist movements,” he said, “poverty abolition views its enemy as an abomination.”

“I want to end poverty in America. I see no reason to settle for anything less,” Desmond said. President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty set a deadline for the end of poverty. “They had moral ambitions, and I hope we can rekindle those ambitions today. It’s something to sacrifice for,” he said. “We don’t need to outsmart the problem. We just need to hate it more.”

He suggested this website for learning more about poverty and connecting with antipoverty organizations. “Thanks so much for having me, and for engaging this work,” Desmond said.

“We feel like we’ve been in church!” said the Rev. Rebecca Barnes, coordinator of the Presbyterian Hunger Program, which is helping to organize the book study as part of the Matthew 25 call to eradicate systemic poverty. After Desmond signed off the call, Barnes told those gathered the author “doesn’t focus his argument on the choices of the poor, but on those of us who benefit from the current system.”

“We need honest self-reflection, and I would say confession and repentance, to transform ourselves into poverty abolitionists,” Barnes said, quoting Desmond’s prologue, “refusing to live as unwitting enemies of the poor.”

In small groups, participants discussed a handful of questions, including:

  • What struck you most in this week’s reading?
  • What more do you want to learn?
  • Where do you see these themes play out in your local community?
  • How can you create change and work on solutions to take some action in your local or regional context?

Barnes referred those tuned in on Monday to this Matthew 25 website to learn more about steps they can take to eradicate systemic poverty as well as the movement’s other foci and intersectional priorities.

“I love y’all, every one of you, for engaging in this topic in Jesus’ spirit,” one participant said.

Go here to register to participate in the three remaining sessions on “Poverty, by America,” which will be held beginning at 7:30 p.m. Eastern Time on Feb. 12, 19 and 26. The Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, a Presbyterian pastor who co-founded the Poor People’s Campaign and directs the Kairos Center at Union Theological Seminary, is scheduled to speak to the group on Feb. 26.

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