review of Matthew Desmond’s book Poverty, by America

My default assumption about any long-lasting problem is that it has persisted because it's complicated—that finding a solution which actually works and doesn't have intolerable unintended consequences is difficult. I'm prone to being a ‘hard mistake theorist’ as Scott Alexander has put it.

Desmond doesn't think poverty is that sort of problem. He thinks poverty has persisted because the exploitation of the poor provides genuine benefits to the wealthy, which the wealthy resist giving up.

People benefit from poverty in all kinds of ways. It's the plainest social fact there is...

When then-presidential-candidate Joe Biden told a room of wealthy donors that "nothing would fundamentally change" if he were to be elected, he was repeating a familiar liberal talking point: If you join me in this effort to reduce the inequality you yourself benefit from, you won't have to give up a thing. These "everybody wins" arguments ring false because they are. If ameliorating poverty and racial division would get rich kids into better colleges or bump up a company's stock price, wouldn't well-off Americans already be doing it?

Crucially, the wealthy who benefit aren't just the millionaires and billionaires; it's the whole middle class:

Corporate profits rise when labor costs fall. This is why Wall Street is so quick to pummel companies when they bump up wages...

Who benefits from this? The shareholders, of course, but who are they? ...over half of U.S. households are vested in the stock market... We are the shareholders, we lucky 53 percent who have a pension, a 401(k), a 403(b), or any other kind of investment... Don't we benefit when we see our savings go up and up, even when those returns require a kind of human sacrifice?

Consumers benefit from worker exploitation, too. We can now, with a few clicks, summon rides and groceries and Chinese takeout and a handyman, all at cut rates. We have become masters in this new servant economy, where an anonymized and underpaid workforce does the bidding of the affluent.

This rings true to me. I’ve had a great deal of freedom and flexibility throughout my whole adult life, and although I certainly worked to get to that position, I never had to submit to the grueling hours and tyrannical treatment that seem to characterize the day-to-day lives of so many people. I live in an economic world of soft corners and safety nets while others live in one of harsh consequences and constant insecurity. That the latter world continues to exist despite all the technology and infrastructure humanity has accumulated seems both tragic and absurd.

Some of Desmond’s favored solutions include strengthening labor unions, providing a public option for housing (subsidies aren’t enough, since they incentivize landlords to raise rent to pocket more of the subsidy), and directing more welfare spending to the poor:

If you count all public benefits offered by the federal government, America's welfare state (as a share of its gross domestic product) is the second biggest in the world, after France's. But that's true only if you include things like government-subsidized retirement benefits provided by employers, student loans and 529 college savings plans, child tax credits, and homeowner subsidies: benefits disproportionately flowing to Americans well above the poverty line. If you put aside these tax breaks and judge the United States solely by the share of its GDP allocated to programs directed at low-income citizens, then our investment in poverty reduction is much smaller than that of other rich nations. The American welfare state is lopsided.

One fascinating thing Desmond says in response to the worry that welfare will incentivize people not to work—aside from it being empirically false—is that this way of thinking

protect[s] one kind of dependency, that of the worker on the company, by debasing another, that of citizens on the state.

In general I found this to be a pretty powerful book. It may have dragged me somewhat closer to a ‘conflict theory’ perspective on poverty.