Education is the central mission of higher education. It’s what we do – our core function. It is far, though, from all that we do or have to do. For those of us who work in public education, in particularly in community colleges, the pursuit of mission depends in great part on the well-being of our students and communities. Students who do not have housing, who do not eat regularly, who are not safe – they do not learn. Want to improve enrollment and student success? Among our many responsibilities, understanding those in need and their needs is essential.
Toward that end, I strongly recommend reading an extraordinarily informative big-picture study, Matthew Desmond’s Poverty, By America. It is an accessible, rigorously researched book that it is written with compassion and urgency. Desmond is an exceptional thinker and writer. The During Professor of Sociology at Princeton University, he has the rare ability among academics to bring on-the-ground issues to the fore without sacrificing policy, politics or history. It is rigorously researched and understandable. One of his earlier books, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, put a light on the day-to-day struggles of the poor and the landlords that housed and profited from them. It is a study that continues to resonate for higher education.
Poverty, By America is a confounding read, a book that challenges conventional thinking. Desmond sets the table with key data points. The percentage of Americans living in poverty has changed little over the past fifty years. Federal spending has not been decreased significantly over the past decades, either. The persistence of poverty is not tied to government cut backs. For some measures and in some programs, federal dollars allocated to anti-poverty efforts have actually increased. However, one constant for many years is that surprisingly little of these funds ever make it directly into the hands of the poor. As Desmond notes in a New York Times op-ed, “there are, it would seem, deeper structural forces at play, ones that have to do with the way the American poor are routinely taken advantage of. The primary reason for our stalled progress on poverty reduction has to do with the fact that we have not confronted the unrelenting exploitation of the poor in the labor, housing and financial markets.”
Desmond does go deep in Poverty, By America, examining that exploitation. He is particularly strong on highlighting the massive gaps between popular understanding of government efforts and the actual flow of dollars. What emerges, in policy after policy, are the explicit choices that provide resources and subsidies to the wealthy and middle class. From mortgage interest tax breaks to anti-union laws, the United States has been unwilling to make the political choices that would redistribute resources more equitably. We tend to think that government is wasteful and not for us (if we are middle class or have means). That mindset, Desmond makes clear, does not align with fact. Until we are able to have an honest analysis, poverty – despite the government dollars – will remain.
The book also shines light on the many ways that the poor are exploited. It is rampant in housing, in education, and in health care. One small example – 529 plans for college savings – have become tax-free havens for the wealthy. One of Desmond’s many strengths is his ability to look at a policy through a lens of real discovery. Bypassing the rhetoric, he seeks to answer a very important question: Who is this helping and why?
Poverty, By America is a powerful book, worthy of reflection. It is a moral study as much as a look at politics and policy. The arguments offer a much broader understanding of the ways in which work, in public higher education, to address inequity can and cannot make sustainable difference. While there is much that we can do, in our programs and institutions, we have to be mindful of the broader ecosystem of supports, policies and expectations. This larger world, difficult to study, grasp and navigate, shapes thinking and actions. Food pantries, financial coaching, increased financial aid – steps that so many of us are taking in public higher education – are worthy and inadequate. Getting that – and why – is a lesson that Desmond teaches well.