Why does the richest nation in the world have so much poverty? Matthew Desmond puts the question in his new book Poverty, by America. It follows his 2016 Puliltzer Prize winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Speaking to Adam Maguire on The Business, he talks about his deep research into evictions, his personal experience of childhood poverty and how they feed into this latest work. Matthew also revealed astonishing data that lay waste to common myths about poverty in the US.

The myth that 'hard work' will raise everyone out of poverty is a powerful one, but the evidence shows it’s not true; Matthew says. In low-paid jobs, people work bone-crushingly hard and yet they remain in poverty:

"I’ve met home-health aids around the country whose backs are giving out or knees are giving out because they are bending and stretching, lifting our sick and our old in bed – they worked hard to stay in poverty too. And so hard work certainly is a good thing to tell our kids, but it’s not a decent theory of how the world works. "

Paying up to 80% of their income in rent and being charged more for credit, as well as having none of the tax breaks available to the wealthy: these are just some of the reasons that people who work all their lives can remain financially insecure, Matthew says. This brings us to 'welfare'. It's another aspect of the poverty narrative which is saturated in myth, Desmond says. Adam Maguire sums up some of Matthew’s key statistics from the book:

"20% of the top earners in the US take home $11,000 dollars more in government benefits than the bottom 20%. Landlords in poor areas earn almost double what they might earn in affluent areas and you say things like overdraft fees take $61 million dollars out of the pockets of poorer people each day. Is the entire system stacked against poorer people in the U.S.?"

The data uncovered by Desmond show that America gives the most government support to those who need it the least. Matthew agrees, yes, the cards are stacked against people of low means. He says even he was stunned when he found so much solid proof:

"That stat you said; that we give almost 40% more to the richest families in government benefits blew me away when I first calculated it. Because so often we are told that we can’t afford this, we can’t afford reduce child poverty, we can’t afford to make sure that every family in the country has a decent, affordable place to live."

Welfare for the rich comes in a different form to welfare for the poor, but it is still a bigger drain on the system; Desmond says. People don't talk about it because the system is designed to fudge the issue of how much government help is given to the wealthy, Matthew explains. It also comes down to a truism in psychology, he says, where people feel the pain of their tax payments more severely than the joy of getting the money back as a tax break:

"We often think about the loss, we think about the taxes we have to pay, but we often don’t think about all the ways the government relieves our bill. And look, a lot of us don’t think of a tax break as akin to a government cheque or a housing subsidy, but both of those things cost the government money, and both of those things put money into a family’s pocket. So we should think of tax breaks as a kind of welfare support."

America doesn’t just promote wealth as something to aspire to, the government pay people to stay wealthy more than they help people to exit poverty, Matthew says:

"We in the US do so much more to subsidise affluence, to protect fortunes than we do to eradicate poverty."

The media and popular culture are partly to blame, Matthew says, and poverty is not how it’s portrayed on TV. To give an alternative view, he draws on a powerful metaphor created by the Native American novelist Tommy Orange:

"These kids are jumping out of a burning building, falling to their deaths and we think that the problem is that they are jumping."

Desmond says there is too much focus on ‘the poor’ themselves, rather than on the systemic causes of poverty. It makes no sense to blame people who are battling a blaze they didn’t start:

There’s so much attention on the poor themselves, about welfare, or work ethic: the ‘jumpers’. We should have been focussing on the fire, who lit it, who is warming their hands by it. […] The questions we ask about poverty are the wrong questions. We need to be asking who profits? Who lit this fire?"

For his book on evictions, Matthew spent a year in 2008-9 living is a trailer park and a rooming house with the 8 families whose housing struggles he documents. This latest book takes the questions raised in that book further. The people Matthew got to know and formed lifelong friendships with, refused to let their poverty define them. Even so, Matthew says, poverty robs people of their health, their peace of mind and it crushes their opportunity to reach their full potential:

"Poverty reduces people born for better things and it steals our poets and our artists and our scientists and engineers in a massively shameful way."

In spite of a fraught political landscape in the US, Matthew Desmond has hope that change is possible. He says that some of the greatest advances in America were achieved in far from ideal circumstances. In the 1960s, southern Democrats aligned with Republicans to try and stop progressive legislation, but they didn’t succeed:

"Under those conditions, the modern American safety net was born, with the ‘Great Society’ and the ‘War on Poverty’ and major pieces of civil rights legislation were passed. And if all that happened despite the odds, it was because social movements put unrelenting pressure on lawmakers. My hope lies in the movements; the anti-poverty movements of the past and the present."

Matthew has more fascinating insights on how to rethink poverty and wealth, including some thoughts on TV series like Succession and White Lotus in the full interview here.

Poverty, by America is published by Allen Lane.