Photo illustration
Matthew Desmond’s book “Poverty, by America” approaches poverty as “the fire,” a pervasive and powerful force. In order to abolish poverty, he says it’s important to note “who lit it and who’s warming their hands by it.” Illustration by Andrea Morales for MLK50

Matthew Desmond wants to inspire Memphis with his message on poverty.

On May 30, the Princeton University sociologist and author of “Poverty, by America” will speak with MLK50 founder Wendi C. Thomas at Rhodes College. While tickets have sold out, there is a waitlist for additional tickets, and the event will be live-streamed.

Though Desmond plans to force attendees who aren’t poor to think hard about the ways they benefit from poverty, he said he hopes the event will uplift the audience.

“This is a book that really tries to make the case for how we can abolish poverty — in our own lives and in our nation — and I believe we can, truly,” he said.

Desmond’s 2016 book, “Evicted,” is one of the preeminent texts on housing of the last decade. It won a Pulitzer Prize and has inspired a growing anti-eviction movement along with numerous MLK50 articles. Desmond himself won a MacArthur Fellowship for his housing research in 2015.

Ahead of his upcoming trip to Memphis, MLK50 asked Desmond a few questions about his book and his hopes for the event.

Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

In what ways do you hope this event exceeds a typical community conversation on poverty?

I would like folks to leave the event and move into action. I think there are tangible, clear things that we all can be doing today on behalf of poverty abolitionism — in our personal lives, in our communities and in our political lives. The home run would be that people would leave the event energized and activated and move into action and into community.

Why are these conversations worth having?

This is a conversation about one of the most morally urgent questions facing us today as a country, which is, “Why is there so much poverty in this land of abundance?” I think we should all care about this question, no matter if we come from poverty or come from abundance. All this poverty in our country drags us all down. It affects all of us, and I think that many of us feel connected to this problem, which means we’re connected to the solution. 

Also, the anti-poverty movement that’s afoot today is not only a movement that is vying for new policies and new political imaginaries. It’s also a movement that is charting a different way to be in community in America. It’s a big-hearted movement. It’s full of joy and hope and fun and spunk and ingenuity. 

Matthew Desmond

What do you mean by the anti-poverty movement?

All around the country, there are organizations putting in work to do things like fight for a living wage. There are groups that are fighting for housing justice that are more organized and energized than anything we’ve seen since the Great Depression. Then there are groups like the National Domestic Workers Alliance or the Poor People’s Campaign, or local groups like tenant advocacy groups. You can find these organizations all over the country, including in Memphis. And I think by connecting with them and being part of them, we can connect with a purpose bigger than ourselves and also connect with real community.

In a majority Black city, why should people come listen to a white guy talk about poverty?

I don’t really know the reason. But one of the ways that I write is by spending a lot of time in communities and working alongside people below the poverty line, union organizers and housing organizers. To me, those voices and experiences matter just as much as anyone in the academic world or the political world. For me, those are my mentors. What I can do with my little time on this planet is help elevate and introduce those voices to audiences that might never have connected with them. 

Poverty has been the subject of countless books. What makes your book different?

The novelist Tommy Orange has this sentence in his book “There There”: “Kids are jumping out the windows of burning buildings, falling to their deaths. And we think the problem is that they’re jumping.” And when I read that, I thought, “Man, that sounds like the American poverty debate.” For over 100 years, we’ve had one book after another on the poor. This book is about the fire. It’s about who lit it and who’s warming their hands by it. 

What are some ways this book might challenge or inspire Memphians who are already working to improve the lives of people living in poverty?

I think that we as a country are collectively reaching for higher ambitions. Most Democrats and most Republicans now believe that poverty is a result of unfair circumstances, not a moral failing. Most Americans want a $15 minimum wage or higher. Most Americans don’t think the rich are paying their fair share of taxes. So on issues of basic economic justice, I think there’s a real hunger for action, including action in our personal lives. I think many of us feel our complicity and can feel the emotional damage and humanity disfiguration we do to ourselves when we contribute to someone else’s poverty. 

I bring a challenge in this book. But I also bring hope. This is not a despondent book.

Jacob Steimer is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.

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