In This Episode
DeRay, Kaya, and De’Ara cover the underreported news of the week — noise surveillance in the nation’s largest city, the decline of youth voters, and unprecedented diversity in president-appointed judges. DeRay interviews Pulitzer prize winning author Matthew Desmond about his new book Poverty, by America.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Hey, this is DeRay. And welcome to Pod Save the People. In this episode it’s me, De’Ara, Kaya, and Myles talking about all the news that you don’t know with regard to race and justice. News that went underreported in the past week that you should have been talking about. And then I sit down with Pulitzer Prize winning author Matt Desmond to talk about his new book, Poverty by America. It was an important conversation. I learned a lot, and you might know him from his other book, Evicted. Which he came on the pod and has talked about. And this book, Poverty is as amazing. Let’s go.
De’Ara Balenger: Family. Welcome to another episode of Pod Save the People. I am De’Ara Balenger. You can find me on Instagram at @dearabalenger.
Kaya Henderson: I’m Kaya Henderson at @HendersonKaya on Twitter.
DeRay Mckesson: This is DeRay at @deray on Twitter.
De’Ara Balenger: So we want to kick off today talking with our new favorite film. There’s a consensus here. We all love it. American Fiction. Nothing negative to say. Nothing. And I don’t want to hear anything negative from you people on the Internet either, because I’m not standing for it. American Fiction written and directed by Cord Jefferson. It’s his first time directing. This film is absolutely incredible. Jeffrey Wright is the lead. I’d loved Jeffrey Wright for decades, he’s also a DC guy. Not only that, he grew up in my neighborhood in Hillcrest.
DeRay Mckesson: Oh, I didn’t know that.
De’Ara Balenger: Sure did. Right down the street from me. And like me, Mama sent him across town or really uptown to go to high school. So that’s where we lost our southeast cred because then we went to private school. But anyway, so lots in common with Jeffrey Wright. He’s incredibly talented. Really shines. DeRay just told us that he is nominated for best actor for a Golden Globe. DeRay? Um.
DeRay Mckesson: Mm hmm yeah.
De’Ara Balenger: And the film is hilarious, um but also so profound and so beautiful. But the plot is basically Jeffrey Wright, who is a writer who happens to be Black, who really writes about mythology and other things, can’t get published until he writes something that is very sensationalized, kind of Black exploitation and then does very well. And so the movie talks about that, but also has some really beautiful layers around family and Black identity and the intricacies of it. So, yeah, we loved it. We saw it. DeRay and Campaign Zero hosted a screening in D.C. that was really Kaya’s screening. So thank you, Kaya. [laughter]
Kaya Henderson: If you need somebody to help you get people out to a movie, I can do that. I can do that. It was pretty spectacular. I knew what the movie was about, but I really was expecting I was a little worried that it might be a little minstrelsy uh involved to pull a word from Myles. Um. But it was so thoughtful and so well-done and so critical. And I just I really it forced you to have conversations like the one thing that I’ll say next time we do a screening is we need to do it not on a school night, and we need to have some time for conversation afterwards because it just brought up so many questions for me and I’m trying not to say anything because I want people to go see the movie.
DeRay Mckesson: I saw it at the first screening in New York City. Cord got his friends together to see it, and I walked out like, oh, we got to show people this. I was like, you know, I don’t know if the trailer is an accurate representation of what the film is about, but the film is amazing. And let me anybody who’s ever been in the theater with Black people, the Black people are the other actor in the film because it is just that good. And it comes out on December 15th. It was nominated as best picture for the Golden Globe, and Jeffrey Wright got nominated. Issa Rae is in it. Tracee Ellis Ross is in it. Erika Alexander’s in it. They are all, Sterling K. Brown is in it. They’re all legitimate stars in it. They’re not background characters, which is sometimes what they’re relegated to be. And it’s just a good movie, so. Boom.
De’Ara Balenger: See, that was so nice, that conversation. Now we got to get into what’s happening in the world. Oh, humbug. So the day of the college president’s testifying was actually the day of the screening because I was because–
DeRay Mckesson: Oh.
De’Ara Balenger: I remember leaving the theater to go to the restroom and I was in the restroom with women who were so upset around the testimony. And funny enough, they were saying back and forth to each other how stressed they were and how this has been. You know, they’re just so undone by this thing. And this woman was like, I’m just going to take a night off from this. I’m going to take a night off. I can’t take it anymore. I’m going to take a night off. And I said to her, you should, because some of us can’t take a night off, so you should take a night off. And then I went back into the theater and continued watching my Black movie. [laughter]
Kaya Henderson: Girl you a [?]. Um. [laughter]
DeRay Mckesson: De’Ara.
De’Ara Balenger: But I feel like I don’t I’ve been thinking about that moment because I feel like it’s such a microcosm around like, kind of what’s happening in the world. And like, there are some real things that are life and death things that are just unimaginable and incomprehensible that are happening right now at this moment. And I just get so incensed when people make it so personal about their privileged selves and like how hard it is for them in their privileged worlds to understand what’s going on. And they’re just so enraged around it. Get out of town. Go have a seat. So anyway, part of why I’m talking about this because I think this is part of sort of the dynamic around what’s happening around these college presidents. So the president of Penn has already stepped down and now the president of Harvard. You know, there is some conversation around whether or not she’s going to resign. I think one of the things that I was so lost on with that testimony just was how unprepared I felt they were. And as someone who has prepped, I don’t know Hillary Clinton for, you know, 16 hours of congressional testimony, the level of preparation that goes into that so that you’re not and I don’t want to say caught off guard, but I want to say caught in sort of a trap, if you will, because I feel like so much of the questioning was trying to lead these folks into a place not of resolution or a place of having positive outcomes, but was really and interestingly enough, by the right to trap them, [laugh] to trap them into into just sort of circumstances that there was no way to get out of. You know, and maybe that’s not true. That’s it no way to get out of. But I just feel like one, they could have answered those questions in quite a different way, I don’t know where the instruction was to answer in that way. Like also just answer how you feel, what’s going on, but interested to hear how what you all thought around it because this is something that is like happening, right, right. right now.
Kaya Henderson: First of all, on the testimony itself like stop parsing words, just say the thing right? Like just say the thing, say maybe you were supposed to say there are some instances where this happens and there’s some instance, but like the word play and then like a congressional hearing is not a place where, like, nuance thrives. Right. And so you just got to be very clear. You know, as somebody who has sat through not congressional hearings, but a ton of city council hearings being grilled like grilled. One of the things that I realized early on was it’s actually not about responding to the questions. It is about telling your story. It is about narrating what your point of view is, the way it best works for you. And they clearly didn’t get that advice. And so I feel like the testimony, it was stupid. Whoever prepared them should be fired and should, you know, refund their money and whatnot. And it was also sort of weird that Congress calls these presidents in um and but to what end? Like, I’m not really sure what the point of a congressional hearing was for these college presidents. And then I also feel like it is not a coincidence that these are three women presidents and they went at them like this and I just think about how many times like we’ve seen people botch congressional hearings, like just say all the wrong things and mess up and not have the same reaction and response that these presidents are getting. And so it is the big donors threatening to withhold money from these institutions if these women are not fired. It is I don’t know all the public pressure, it seems like a lot of energy. Maybe this is way more consequential than I know. But you fire the president and then what happens? You get another president. And I guess I guess the thing is, this is about safety for young people and faculty on campus who feel unsafe. So I am committed to figuring that out. Maybe I am unequivocal. Maybe I am not nuanced. Maybe [laugh] maybe I’m a stop testifying about this. How about that?
DeRay Mckesson: How about that? You know, one of the things that’s really interesting, let me just read what the line of questioning was that Claudine, we’re talking about the president of Harvard now, Claudine Gay. The congresswoman who, to be clear, cares nothing about free speech at all and is just on a witch hunt. Stefanik, she said at Harvard does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules of bullying and harassment. And Gay responded, it can be depending on the context. And she was pressed again to give a yes or no, and she replied anti-Semitic speech when it crosses into conduct that amounts to bullying, harassment, intimidation, that is actionable conduct. And we do take action. Then Stefanik pushed back and said, So the answer is yes. That calling for the genocide of Jews violates Harvard’s code of conduct, correct? She said again, it depends on the context. And Stefanik replied, it does not depend on the context. The answer is yes, and this is why you should resign. These are these are unacceptable answers across the board. Now, I have been following um his name is Jeremy Ben-Ami. He is the president of J Street, uh which is a prominent Jewish organization. And he you know, we don’t agree on everything, but he is so good at being like, remember that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism. And disagreeing with the state of Israel, criticizing Netanyahu, saying that we shouldn’t destroy Palestine. None of those things are anti-Semitic, just by virtue of the fact that somebody says them that equating that with any realm of anti-Semitism is just false choices. And one of the really wild things about Stefanik’s line of questioning is that it’s a wild hypothetical. She can’t point to an instance at any of these colleges that was students or groups calling for the genocide of Jews. She is equating not saying that, you know, Palestine should not exist and da da da, she’s saying that is anti-Semitism. And you’re like, no, that’s not that’s not it. Um. So, you know, I also don’t think that people are prepared for the slippery slope. I remember I was obviously not you know an adult then, but when the ACLU was protecting the right for the neo-Nazis on American campuses as a as a measure of free speech. And if the bar becomes when people say things that are racist or even more intensely experienced as racist, that you got to go. Then baby, it’s not going to be a white person in an American college because if everybody who I have ever been on a college campus with who did something that made me feel unsafe and made me feel like they threatened Black people, if they got expelled. It won’t be no faculty. It won’t it’ll be a it’ll be a different day in America. So, you know, we’ll see how this plays out. But, you know, it has been really important for me to follow Jewish scholars and thinkers who have been very clear that criticizing Israel’s actions is not criticizing Judaism and being really clear that what has happened in Palestine is just a human rights violation. Point blank period.
Kaya Henderson: It really feels I mean, and I think we’ve all sort of talked about this, but it feels dangerous to say anything at this point. And I feel like I haven’t experienced anything like this. But I feel like, you know, maybe McCarthyism in the ’50s where people were literally, like scared to talk to their family members and friends because we were, you know, routing out communism. The stifling of dialog is the dangerous part to me. It feels like we can’t talk across difference. We can’t be okay with having different perspectives. And, you know, that’s what colleges and universities are for. That’s where you figure out what you really believe by engaging with people across lines of difference. And this feels, you know, when you fire these three presidents, then it feels like you are endorsing a crackdown on speech. And I’ve never been like a big free speech advocate, but this feels very different for some reason.
De’Ara Balenger: And I think part of that is is like, Kaya, we’re actually, no one’s disagreeing like no one.
Kaya Henderson: Yeah.
De’Ara Balenger: It’s not it’s like–
Kaya Henderson: That’s right.
De’Ara Balenger: –not an anti-Semitic positioning versus I think part of it is from what I’m seeing and how this is playing out. It’s about power. Right. You said something we didn’t like, and we’re not going to feel better until you’re out of there. So to DeRay’s point like, where is that? As a paradigm. Where is that going to leave us? It’s just a very interesting phenomenon that that is happening. And the other thing with particularly Dr. Gay, who’s a president of Harvard, now, so much conversation around her competency and she was hired as a diversity hire. So that conversation is okay. [laugh] You know what I mean? It’s just it’s very interesting. What we are saying is okay to say and okay to do and okay to act and not.
DeRay Mckesson: And let me just say to that point, it is really interesting because people have definitely been in my mostly Instagram, Twitter. I haven’t seen stuff. But Instagram upset with me that I have not said something or, you know, or disagree with my stance or whatever. And just this morning, I woke up to a white Jewish woman in my DMs who her comment to me was, why did I ever think you were smarter than this? Like you, I thought. I thought you were smarter than this take or like smarter than saying that criticizing um Israel for what’s happening in Palestine. I thought you were smart. And it’s like if you think that the strategy is like calling me dumb, that doesn’t work. And the other things that I’ve gotten a lot of was like, we stood with you during BLM. It’s like, well, you know, uh the same. Yeah, I don’t know. Did you stand for the issue because killing innocent people was a bad thing then, killing innocent people is a bad thing now, you know, like that’s what you should have been standing for. And you should stand for that context every time it comes up. So like seeing people try to like guilt me into it as an activist or like into silence is one of those things that or people who are like, if only Black people understood. You’re like understood what baby? We get it. We this is why pe–
Kaya Henderson: Un– [?] Yes.
DeRay Mckesson: This is why we so loud. Because we see how easy it is for people to turn a blind eye. We see how the stories come and go and dead babies in hospital rooms and people act like it’s another day. We live that. We get it. So that’s why I know all a lot of Black people who had never even thought about a Palestine who are like, oh, this can’t be right. Because we have lived very similar logic that says somebody did something, you deserve this. We know better. And you’re like, no, that’s not it.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Hey, you’re listening to Pod Save the People. Stay tuned. There’s more to come.
De’Ara Balenger: I wanted to bring this because I actually find it quite controversial given our political climate. This is something Joe Biden has done well during the administration. I will hold for everyone being like, oh my God, I can’t believe we’re talking about Joe Biden. Y’all, we got to be able to hold space for all these things at the same time. So start practicing right now. So this is Pew Research Center, and they’ve done a lot of work around looking at judicial appointments. And you all know I’m obsessed with judicial appointments because our judiciary is so, so, so important. I don’t know, Roe versus Wade, just a couple of things. So. Nearly two thirds of federal judges that Joe Biden has appointed are women. And the same share are members of a racial or ethnic minority group. To put Biden’s judicial appointments into historical context. Pew examined how his appointed judges to date, compared with those of other presidents at the same point in their ten years going back all the way to Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s. Essentially, he has appointed 145 judges to the three main tiers of the federal judicial system, the district courts, the appeals courts of the U.S. Supreme Court. Women have accounted for just over 66% of those judges. 95 out of 145. 95 out of 145. The 95 women judges Biden has appointed as of November 5th, far exceed both the number and share of any other president that any other president has appointed at this point in the term. The pattern is also similar when it comes to judges who are racial or ethnic minorities. Nearly two thirds of the judges Biden has appointed as of November 5th, 96 of 145, or just 66%, again, are Black, Latina, Asian American or members of another racial or ethnic minority group. Again, this is far more than any other president has appointed at the same point in their tenure. For example, Trump, who also made a ton of judicial appointments, [?] um had appointed 22 minority judges by the same stage 14% of his total at this time. And Obama had appointed 42, 37% of his total time. So basically they’re saying like if Biden continues at the pattern, he’s going to be so far ahead of any other president in terms of judicial appointments that are women and that are women of color. So I just wanted to bring this. And Pew goes through all the data and compares all these presidents, again, um going all the way back to Eisenhower. But I just thought this was so fascinating because following this, you know, Biden is the one that put the first Black woman on the Supreme Court. That this is crucially important. And as we consider the future of the United States, the protection of laws, voting rights, women’s bodies, LGBTQ+ rights, you name it, these judges are going to be integral in all of that work. Right. And not only that, these are lifetime appointments. So these judges are in and then continue to ascend in the judiciary. So I just I wanted to bring this because I think it as we’re thinking about this election and I know the complexities around this election, but things like this are so important to ground because our day to day protections and DeRay a lot of the work that Campaign Zero is doing, a lot of work that we’re doing around organizing, around mass incarceration, etc.. These judges are part of of that trajectory. So I just wanted to bring this. I thought it was really fascinating. I don’t know where I found this. You kind of have to dig for things, good things coming out of this administration because, you know, they don’t know how to message anything. So just wanted to highlight this. I thought it was fascinating. Please look at it. Look at the data, because it’s fascinating and super helpful in the long run.
Kaya Henderson: Yeah. Thanks for bringing this to the podcast, De’Ara. This felt hopeful to me. This felt like building towards the future for me. Um. We talk a lot about how the right plays the long game and how, you know, these judicial appointments on the right have actually been catalytic to what we are experiencing in our lives today. But they didn’t start with President Trump like they have actually happened over decades. And so this feels like a real long term play. Um. It was also sort of interesting. I feel like we have heard and said often on this podcast that Trump made more judicial appointments than any president in the history of the United States. And that still may be true. This data only looks at the first thousand plus days, but since Biden is close, it seems like maybe we could change that number as well and have Biden with the most judicial appointments over any president. And that also feels hopeful. And I just think for women, for people of color, we know representation matters. We know leadership is different. When you come from this lived experience. And, you know, there are people who are expert at their roles who never got the chance because of who they are. And so I’m excited. I like this was an exciting piece of news for me. And it says, let’s keep going. So thanks.
DeRay Mckesson: This was really interesting because it is a big win for the Biden administration, who’s had some some other good wins. And we got to figure out how to talk about these stories in ways that people get. Because, you know, I think about in my work in justice, the number of people, the number of Black people who have had an experience with the criminal justice system is really high, either by proximity or personally. They know somebody they you know, which is not surprising given that we lock up so many people and we do it disproportionately. So people have had even proximate experiences with judges. Do you know what I mean? But the question never becomes like how’d they get there? People sort of and I get it because before I was an activist, it’s sort of like, well, they just are a judge you’re like uh [?]. And you’re like, no, somebody picked this person. So when you when you think that person was racist and unfair in your cousin’s courtroom and da da da, remember that that was a choice that somebody made along the way that might have changed your trajectory of your life or your family’s life. And we got to figure out how to help people understand that you actually do have the experiences. You know what I mean? Like I think about the courtrooms that I’ve sat in and I’m like, oh, how did this this got to be somebody’s cousin because there is no way this was by merit. And people don’t think about their ability to be able to change those things. Like that’s not the way that we were told the story. So I’m interested in our storytelling abilities here.
Kaya Henderson: My news this week also has to do with the presidential election or has to do with Presidents Biden and Trump in some respects. And it’s about voting intentions amongst young people. So the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School released a poll last week, and the poll showed a potential decline in participation by young voters. Now, we already are worried. Lots of people are worried about um the youth vote. And what the poll showed was that overall, compared to 2020, overall Americans between 18 and 29 who definitely plan to vote for president has decreased from 57% to 49%. And that is a significant number. Amongst Democrats, the statistics are consistent with 66% of young people saying that they will definitely vote for in the presidential election. And that’s consistent with 2020. But for the Republicans, the figure is down ten points from 66 to 56%. But with independents, less than a third of independent young voters are going to vote in the presidential election. And what’s crazy about that is most voters under 30 identify as what? Independents. And so if independents are not going to vote in the presidential election, that has significant impacts. In fact, the poll shows that the person who is most likely to be affected by that will be President Biden. That a decrease in participation by young voters is most likely to hurt his chances in a matchup against Trump. But the poll also shows declines in voting intention among young Blacks, Hispanics and women. And so this is a problem. There is still time to correct it. And there are lots of people doing great work around mobilizing the youth vote. I gotta shout out, my friend Diane Robinson, who did a documentary called The Young Vote, and it examines through the storytelling, through the lives of four or five young people why young people didn’t vote in the 2016 election and helps to understand some of the motivations. You know, these young people talk about having a two party system that shuts out independents, which is critical if so many of them are independents. Lots of them talk about undocumented youth being locked out and having real table stakes in what’s happening, but not having the ability to do anything. And largely, they just distrust this system that they see as rigged against them. And so I brought this to the podcast because I wanted to highlight the fact that we still have work to do. There are great student youth vote organizations that are doing this work, lots of folks doing work on campuses to make sure that young people are registered to vote and are going out to the polls. And, you know, you can’t be mad if you don’t participate. And so I think this is sort of the canary in the coal mine for us. And it just means we have a lot of work to do around organizing the youth vote because it’s important.
DeRay Mckesson: I do think that voting in some ways becomes a game time decision. So this doesn’t make me nervous yet as much as it does signal like you said, Kaya, we got some work to do. Um. Because I think that with the right stories, I think people will will get it. I was just seeing I’ve been thinking a lot and I texted you about this, about the mask bans that are happening. So Philadelphia just passed a ski mask ban. DC is contemplating one and Atlanta is also contemplating one. And the framing of a ski mask ban is really interesting because people are like, why do you wear a ski mask? Shouldn’t be wearing a ski mask. Da da da. The language of the law actually says that what’s banned is anything that obscures the face. Well, that is a hoodie, that’s a bandana, that is wild.
Kaya Henderson: That’s a mask. A N95 mask, right? That is lots of stuff.
DeRay Mckesson: It could be anything. And they’ll have a carve out for health da da da. But who gets to decide? The police. So when you tell people that your councilperson just voted for a hoodie ban, people are like, Oh, no, not the hoodie, the bandana ban, people are like, that’s wow. And it’s like that sort of stuff. You know, if Ferguson taught me anything, it’s like that people can get mobilized. People like young people with the right story, with the right target, can do anything. And we got to figure that out. That is one of my goals as we think about the next year.
De’Ara Balenger: This is so interesting Kaya. And then I also found a Brookings report just from last week about youth vote polling for Biden. And according to this report, Biden did worse among very engaged young voters than those somewhat less engaged and young conservatives are more committed to Trump than young liberals are to Biden. So I think my nervousness around this is going to be the Biden campaign play to moderates. And the more we play to moderates and the more we play to trying to court voters like white women, white suburban women who have not voted for us in the last few cycles. The more we dump money into trying to get those folks as opposed to bettering our positioning according to what these young people want. That’s my concern.
Kaya Henderson: That is absolutely right. I think, you know, the poll also showed that young people don’t trust Trump or Biden on most issues. And so the behavior is not irrational. Right. It just has much deeper consequence than you initially think. Right. And so I need these young people to understand that their vote counts a lot and that they are building the future. You know, and in a world that is so crazy, the young people are the thing that consistently give me hope. They have a clear sense of the world that they want to live in. They have a clear sense of the systems and processes that they want to see based on what’s not working now. And so I want them to participate. I want them to lead the charge and sitting out of the vote does not lead the charge.
De’Ara Balenger: Yeah.
DeRay Mckesson: So my news is about the framing is what happens when you have a problem and you use a carceral thing to try and be the solution. The hint is that it rarely ever is the actual solution. So in New York City, people are frustrated by loud noises and uh not just sort of cars honking, but jackhammers, people leaving clubs and bars. And there are about 50,000 noise complaints filed every year with the city’s Department of Environmental Protection. Now, again, they’re probably a lot more people who are pissed off, but they’re enough people pissed off that they filed an actual noise complaint. I don’t even know who you call or where the form is for a noise complaint, but that’s neither here nor there. And then thousands of additional complaints are handled by other city agencies and the noise generated by cars with modified mufflers, loud motorcycles and drivers who honk are just a small fraction of the complaints that people get. But of course, the city is turning its energy into dealing with the cars, even though they’re a small fraction of the complaints. They are going to put in noise cameras. Yes, you heard it right. Noise cameras that will be activated when it’s over 85dB, which is about as loud as a lawnmower. Now, there are a lot of things that could be that loud and this is going to log them and when and the cameras will always be on, but they will only start recording when loud sounds are detected. That’s a lie. We’ve been down that road before and the violations cost, here’s the kicker. The violations cost in between $800 and $2500 a piece. The city currently has ten-ish of these noise cameras that cost $35,000 a piece. And somebody in the council supported this and helped to get it passed. Now, let me tell you that if they think this is going to make noise gone down, it’s not. Because people are rarely making rational decisions about consequences when they engage in the loud noise. So if I’m honking, I’m not like I’m honking because something happened. I’m honking because I need to get somebody’s attention. Could you imagine getting an $800 ticket because somebody was about to hit somebody and you honked? That is wild. This is technology is agnostic of the context and what happens when you criminalize and yes, it is criminal because what happens when you don’t pay the fine, then you’ve committed a crime. That’s how we get to the carceral system. And there are a lot of people who don’t have $2,100 just hanging out in their bank account. $800 just hanging out in their bank account. But this is agnostic of the context. There are a lot of times where a honk saves somebody’s life, there are times when other loud noises were not simply because people were just trying to piss off everybody, but because a loud noise was the only way to get somebody’s attention. And hemming people up in the legal process because of it is just not the right solution. Though I don’t feel compelled right now to offer a noise solution because I’m not convinced this is a citywide problem in that sense. But I’m I am certain that the noise cameras are just a scam.
Kaya Henderson: This is so crazy to me. Like, this sounds so crazy. First of all, you live in New York City, and so what did you think? What like literally, what did you think? A, number one. B, number two. I lived in New York City and I lived in New York City for from 2017 to 2020 after living in Washington for a zillion years. And I will say that the noise, it was a noticeable difference in terms of noise. But I was like, okay, I moved to New York City, but it wasn’t cars honking and it wasn’t big mufflers. It was jackhammers at all times of night, it was trash trucks. It was all stuff that the city actually was doing to pollute the world with noise. And so check yourselves before you start charging people $800 to $2500 on this stuff like this is bananas. And this lady, the like expert that they have. No shade, but she’s a 87 year old lady who is like kids, you know, sleep better when there’s no noise. Well, okay. Yes, indeed. [laugh] As she sits in her noise room, an office in her Upper East Side apartment where she keeps decades worth of research. Come on, y’all. Is this what we’re spending our time, our money and our energy on? Why, like, help make it make sense to me. This is just silly. I don’t get it at all. And this lady literally says, do you know why New Yorkers walk very quickly on the streets? To get away from the noise. I don’t I have walked quickly on New York City streets never to get away from the noise. She calls noise a slow killer. Y’all, come on. C’mon.
DeRay Mckesson: She probably was in the penthouse. She lives in a penthouse somewhere. You’re right Kaya.
Kaya Henderson: For real. [sigh] Thank you for bringing this to the podcast.
De’Ara Balenger: Thank you. Because it’s also you know, where this takes me is just. And I particularly given what’s happening online. I’ve been thinking so much about surveillance because I think this is part of it. So surveilling me because of how much noise I make. Surveilling me because you think I’m about to commit a crime. Surveilling me because I’m not posting what you think I ought to be posting. Now, when y’all are surveilling, remember? Simone Brown, who’s a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote a book called Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. And her work traces surveillance back to the institution of slavery and Brown talks about how surveillance practices are predicated on colonial logics of anti-Blackness, capital governance, property and violence. So when you start to surveil somebody, think about the roots of surveillance. And what surveillance has meant for Black bodies. That’s all I got to say about that y’all.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save the People is coming.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Did you know that more than 38 million Americans live beneath the poverty line? This week, we welcome Pulitzer Prize winning author Matt Desmond to talk about his new book, Poverty by America. The U.S., the richest country on Earth, has more poverty than any other advanced democracy. Matt and I talk about landlords, bank fees, the illusion of the middle class. There are a lot of things, and I had just had a conversation a week ago about what is the dollar amount that denotes poverty, but I didn’t really understand it until our conversation. Here we go.
DeRay Mckesson: The one and only Matt Desmond. It is an honor to have you back on the podcast to talk about your latest book. How are you doing?
Matthew Desmond: I’m good DeRay. Good to see you, as always.
DeRay Mckesson: Now, I have a lot of questions and it is so timely because I was literally just talking to somebody yesterday about the poverty rate and I asked them, how much money do you think a person earns a year to be like on the poverty line? And she wrote $40,000. And I was like, well, that’s not right. And then when I was prepping for this, I like I remembered at the beginning of the book where you talk about how the rate is calculated. Your book was the first time I’d ever seen an explanation of how we got to the numbers. I just knew the numbers were really low. And then this morning I was like, Oh, I’m talking to Matt today. So this is like perfect timing. Okay. But before we talk about the poverty rate, can you tell us how did you get to this book? You know, Evicted, obviously, incredible book. What was the roadmap from Evicted to to Poverty.
Matthew Desmond: I grew up poor in a little town in northern Arizona. My dad was a preacher and we just never had enough money. And we experienced some of the, you know, slights and and pressures of poverty. We got our gas turned off, the bank took our home. We lost our home to foreclosure. Um. And I think that that’s where my my journey started. And it, you know, put this question inside of me, which is, you know, why is this how we handle, you know, when a family falls on hard times? And then from my last book, Evicted, you know, that’s when I really saw a kind of poverty that I had never seen before or experienced before, you know? So, you know, like grandmas living without heat in the winter in Wisconsin, just praying the space heaters don’t go out. Seeing kids routinely evicted. And so I think, you know, seeing that kind of hard bottom layer of poverty in America really effected me, but also convicted me in the years after Evicted because I you know, this is my beat, right? I’ve been writing and researching on poverty all my adult life. But I felt that if someone stopped me in the street, and is like, break it down for me, Matt. Why is there so much poverty and what can we do to finally eradicate it? I don’t know if I’d have an answer, you know, and this book is my my answer.
DeRay Mckesson: Boom, let’s start at the poverty rate itself and the dollar amount that is I don’t know, a sign or like that is demarcated as what poverty is. Can you walk us through that? Because every time I look at the chart, I’m like, it is, wild that it is so little money.
Matthew Desmond: Right? The poverty line is way too low. And so, you know, the poverty line is drawn at different income levels depending how big your family is. You know, uh for a family of four today, the poverty line is drawn at about $28,000 a year, $28,000.
DeRay Mckesson: Insane.
Matthew Desmond: Now 38 million Americans live below that line. 38 million. So if the officially poor in America got together and formed a country, that country would have a population that’s like Australia’s population. Huge. But like your friend said, you know, at the top of the talk, right. It’s like, you know, you ask people, well, how much you need to get by in America, they’re not going to say $27-28,000. They would say 40, 50, $60,000. And it’s clear the poverty line is way too low. You know, about 1 in 3 Americans live in families making $55,000 or less. One in three of us. So a lot of those folks aren’t officially poor, but like try to raise two kids in Chicago on $55,000 or less. Right. I mean, there’s plenty of poverty above the poverty line, so to speak. And so, you know, when you think about what kind of problem poverty is, for me, it’s not just about that line, right? It’s about all the stuff that comes with trying to get by on such little money. It’s about eviction and humiliations of poverty, debt collector harassment, your cousin getting roughed up by the police, your other cousin doing time in a cage. On and on it goes. You know, so poverty is it’s much worse than just an income level. It’s like this titan out of social maladies right.
DeRay Mckesson: And before we go to those things, is there a conversation about increasing the number or is it are we is it just is what it is? Do people not know and they don’t care? Do policymakers fight us on it? Like, are we still here in 2023?
Matthew Desmond: There’s a huge debate. And, you know, measuring poverty is really hard.
DeRay Mckesson: Okay.
Matthew Desmond: And for a long time, ever since we got this official poverty measure, which was kind of calculated on a fly. Right. Like Lyndon Johnson announced the war on poverty and we needed a way to measure how well we were doing in fighting that war. So we came up with this really kind of quick and dirty way to measure poverty, which is like take an average amount of families were spending on a bare bones food budget. If that amount is more than a third of their income, they’re officially poor. So, you know, this is 1964, right? If you’re bringing in $3,000 a year and the average cost of food is, you know, a little over $1,000 a year, you know, you’re poor. That’s the line. That’s the poverty line adjusted for inflation every year. And so for a long time, most folks are like, that’s kind of a terrible way to measure poverty. Right. Like, you know, having $20,000 in rural Mississippi and $20,000 in L.A. are very different experiences. Right? And and then there’s like all the money that the government gives some folks, you know, housing subsidies, food stamps, Medicaid, that’s actually not counted in the poverty line. And so the government actually announced this other poverty line in 2011. It’s called the Supplemental Poverty measure. And when we announced it. We actually gained 3 million more poor folks because reductions in poverty that we gained by taking to account like government programs like food stamps and housing assistance were more than offset by also take into account rising medical and housing costs. And so if you’re a politician, right, you don’t really want 3 million more poor folks. And so I think, you know, behind all this science and technical stuff is also our politics. And it’s that’s kind of the subtext of these debates.
DeRay Mckesson: Now, let’s jump into some of the things that really stuck with me. Everybody go buy the book if you have you not bought the bookso I won’t give away everything. But one of the things you talked about was check cashing.
Matthew Desmond: Yeah.
DeRay Mckesson: And how if there were not fees for check cashing, if I remember the part correctly, that almost like a billion dollars would stay in people’s pockets.
Matthew Desmond: Right.
DeRay Mckesson: Now that is because when you do check cashing, you like give up a little bit to get the money quickly, right?
Matthew Desmond: Right. You pay a portion of your check. Yeah.
DeRay Mckesson: Is the structural fix just use banks? Like a lot of neighborhoods, I grew up in Baltimore. There were no banks, which is why like the first checks I ever cashed were at check cashing. Probably my whole–
Matthew Desmond: Yeah.
DeRay Mckesson: –high school career. I would go across the street to the liquor store and they would give me my money right there. And I was like, I got money. You know, I never even I was it was so easy.
Matthew Desmond: Yeah. So uh check cashing fees account for about $1.6 billion dollars a year. It’s a big number. Overdraft fees from banks account for $11 billion dollars a year.
DeRay Mckesson: $11 billion.
Matthew Desmond: $11 billion dollars. Most of those fees are charged to just 9% of bank clients. So who are they? They’re the poor made to pay for their poverty. So, you know, when you think of like, well, maybe banks is the is the answer, it turns out, you know, if you’re struggling, banks are actually doing a lot more to nickel and dime the poor than even check cashing and payday loan folks are.
DeRay Mckesson: Hmm.
Matthew Desmond: And you know, you and me are probably embroiled in this in a way, You know, I get a free checking account right, in my bank.
DeRay Mckesson: Right.
Matthew Desmond: But it’s not free. It’s subsidized by all those fines and fees that are that are levied on the on the poor. So when I think of the fix here, I don’t think it’s necessarily shifting the banks. I think it’s a bit more about regulation, but also about finding ways to make sure low income folks can access credit and money that’s just a lot cheaper. And I, I wish the faith community would get involved here. You know, I wish there was a lot more leveraging of capital that a lot of churches and other faith communities have to undercut this exploitative financial business that the poor face every day.
DeRay Mckesson: Now when you think about what people anecdotally talk about as the quote, “welfare state.” When we think about TANF. What is your read on both the current state of them and and efforts to make it better? Like, do you think we’re thinking more progressively about food stamps and increasing the amount that families get? Do you think that that is a big lever worth fighting for Or, you know, you make a strong case for cash assistance in in the book um and maybe they’re not mutually exclusive. Maybe this is like a both and?
Matthew Desmond: So this is a big question for me. So forgive me if I, you know, jump into professorial mode or whatever. But I mean, I feel like on the one hand, spending on these kind of programs, including food stamps, housing assistance, especially health care, they’ve gone up a lot in the last 40 years. And so inflation adjusted, spending on the 13th biggest means tested programs has increased by over 237%. You know, since Ronald Reagan, a big increase, a real increase. But poverty’s still been pretty persistent. And so we do need to look at places where we do need to make these programs more generous. This is especially true in housing, right? Only 1 in 4 families who apply for any kind of housing assistance get it? And those waiting lists can just stretch not only into years, but into decades. Right? So, like, if I applied for public housing today in like D.C., for example, I’ve got two young kids now, I’d probably be a grandpa by the time my application came up. So in situations like that, it’s clearly we need a bigger dose. But there’s also this deeper thing that’s going on, which is like we seem to be pay more to stay in the same place. And so and this is because many of the programs that are directed at low income families are also programs that interact with markets, right? So the biggest thing we do to subsidize housing is housing vouchers. You know, you can take this ticket, go in the private market, live anywhere you want, and pay 30% of your income. But if rent goes up. The price of that voucher is going to go up without it expanding to more families. So I think we need deeper investments like you’re talking about. But I think we also need different ones, ones that really cut poverty at the root kind of attack exploitation on multiple levels.
DeRay Mckesson: Now, you know, the idea of direct cash payment is not new and more popular today than it has been in a long time. What do you say to people, though, who you’ve heard all the arguments? Right, the people who are like, no, we got to food stamps is better because people spend it on new Nikes right. People spend it on clothes. And that’s not what. What do you say to people who make those arguments? I’ve heard those arguments from not the wild people, but from some middle of the road people who are sort of against the cash assistance stuff.
Matthew Desmond: I think from a like a look at the data point of view, that’s just not the case. Right. When you look at how folks are spending like their earned income tax credit, right? When it, you know, tax time, our poorest paid workers get this wage bump, but it could be kind of a big deal. You know, thousands of dollars. How they spend it, they invest in their kids. They pay off debt. You know, so from a data point of view, this concern is really overblown. But like stepping back, I think the bigger picture is like like no one’s asking me what I’m doing with my mortgage interest deduction, right? No one’s making sure I don’t spend that on alcohol or cigarettes. Right. No one’s asking me what I’m doing you know with my savings for my kid’s college savings plan, which is a huge cut out in the tax code. And so it seems like when it comes to the welfare state, it’s not just about welfare, housing assistance, food stamps. It also is about tax breaks, you know, which puts money in people’s pockets and costs the government money. And somehow those questions go away when it comes to like wealth fare, right. The way that the rich benefit from the government. And it’s only the poor that gets that kind of scrutiny. And that’s just unfair and wrong. Yeah.
DeRay Mckesson: Boom. This is sort of a crossover question. It is something that came up in this book, but it obviously makes me think of Evicted because it’s about landlords. And there was this part that I was like, I didn’t think this was true. So you talk about landlords in poor neighborhoods make more like they make a lot of money.
Matthew Desmond: Yeah.
DeRay Mckesson: And when I read that section, I was it totally pushed my thinking because I’m sitting here like, you know, landlords in poor neighborhoods the what I hear from them is like, you know, it’s so costly to be here and, you know, the renovations takes so much. And like that is the narrative I hear. And then I read this and I was like, Oh, Matt is doing Matt again, pushing us to think deeper. So can you help us understand that?
Matthew Desmond: Yeah. So this idea came to me in Milwaukee. You know, I was living in this mobile home park and the landlord opened up his books to me. And so I could calculate what his rate of return was, what his profit margin was. And I took into account everything like his water bill, his electric bill, his overhead, his eviction cost, all his repair costs on and on and on. And I learned that the landlord of the poorest trailer park in Milwaukee, which was our fourth poorest city at the time, was taking home about $400,000 a year after expenses.
DeRay Mckesson: Matt.
Matthew Desmond: Serious, at 132 trailers. And his his tenants were like on Social Security, right? And SSI. And were literally collecting cans to pay the bills. And so I was like, how common is this? Right? Like, because when I started, I was like, why would you buy a trailer park? Like, if you have enough money to buy a trailer park, I was like, why would you do that?
DeRay Mckesson: Right.
Matthew Desmond: And then when I left my field work, I was like, oh, why wouldn’t you do that? This can be very lucrative. And so but then I needed to figure out, look, is this just a one off or is this a big pattern? And it turns out there’s a national database of property owners in America. It’s called the Rental Housing Finance Survey.
DeRay Mckesson: Hmm.
Matthew Desmond: And so I analyzed those data with a sociologist named Nate Wilmers. And what we found is that landlords in poor neighborhoods like poor neighborhoods like 27% poverty or higher. So these are objectively poor neighborhoods. Landlords in poor neighborhoods don’t just make more than landlords in rich neighborhoods. They make double. They make double.
DeRay Mckesson: Wild.
Matthew Desmond: It’s wild. And the reason is their expenses are a lot lower, but their rents are not that much lower. So, you know, you can buy housing a lot cheaper if you’re, you know, in the Oliver neighborhood in Baltimore. Right. Then if you’re in the Inner Harbor. But, you know, the rent isn’t that much lower in Oliver. And so I think that you you get this bigger profit margin. And I think it’s another you know, for me, it’s another way that, look, we need to think about building more housing. We need to think about deepening investments in affordable housing. But also, like, is that okay? And what is a fair rate of return? And, you know, can we have that conversation now as a country?
DeRay Mckesson: I didn’t know either until um until I read it that there was no white neighborhood where poverty is concentrated above 40%. Right?
Matthew Desmond: Right.
DeRay Mckesson: I got that right?
Matthew Desmond: Yeah. Yeah.
DeRay Mckesson: That sound [?]. None. I was like, whoa.
Matthew Desmond: Yeah. This is where, like, Black poverty and white poverty are just completely different things, right? So there’s a lot of poor white folks in the country, but they tend to not live in neighborhoods with such concentrated poverty. So that means their kids go to better resourced schools. That means their housing is better. That means their public services are higher functioning. That means their neighborhoods are often safer. And so when you think about, you know, the average white kid below the poverty line, and the average Black kid below the poverty line, you know, they’re experiencing completely different realities, even though, you know, their parents might make you know the same amount of money every year. And this is kind of another reason why the book takes on segregation and really argues that, you know, turning away from this evil embrace of segregation is really key to, you know, abolishing poverty in the United States.
DeRay Mckesson: One of the things I want to ask you, too, because I had this conversation when I was talking about um the poverty line yesterday. We were also talking about the states that didn’t participate in the Medicare–
Matthew Desmond: Yeah.
DeRay Mckesson: –funding because they didn’t like Obama or Biden. And I wanted to get your take on whether you thought that was as big of a deal as people think it is.
Matthew Desmond: It’s a huge deal. And what we see from states when they kind of accept the Medicaid expansion is we see that affecting families lives in ways that are way beyond health. Like evictions go down, for example, which when you think of it, makes a lot, lot of sense, right? If families aren’t forking all this money over to basic health needs, uh they can they have an easier pay time paying the lights, paying the rent, you know, investing in their kids, you know, fixing their car up. And so the the effects of that policy, if we look just at the effects on health, it’s serious. But if you broaden out and look at all these other ways those policies affect people’s lives, you know, not accepting or turning away, rejecting, you know, this really needed relief for for families that was incredibly costly, that cost lives and that blunted futures.
DeRay Mckesson: Now, are there any policy solutions that are being considered today that you think are like right direction? So there are a lot of things that people like me would want that I know aren’t being considered, you know? But is there anything on the table today where you’re like, you know what this is, feels a little more likely, either at the city, state or national level, and it’s like a good thing we should be scaling.
Matthew Desmond: Yeah. So the pandemic. Right, it has this paradox, which is most Americans. I mean, and this really speaks to what America is like today. Most Americans were financially better off during the pandemic than before. And the reason for that is these three enormous relief bills. And I think the American rescue plan, which Biden released, is one we have to take really seriously when it comes to this question. So, you know, one of the things that was in the American Rescue plan was a child tax credit, which reduced child poverty by 46% in six months, 46% poverty reductions in six months. And so there are proposals to make that extended child tax credit permanent. You know and to bring America into the 21st century, because we are like one of the only advanced democracies without a child allowance. And we had one for a brief shining moment. And then we let it go away. And so I think that, you know, bringing back some of the policies that were rolled out during the pandemic that had this like, historic, incredible effect on reducing poverty would make a lot of sense. And then I think we also have to think about ways of addressing exploitation in the housing and financial markets. And so deepening our investments in like social housing or public housing make a lot of sense to me. Uh. Providing more on ramps for homeownership for low income families are proposals that have been on the books for a long time that I support. And also this kind of new energy around unionization and worker power and investing in that, especially enforcing labor laws. So I think there’s a lot of exciting things that are going there’s always right, like really exciting things going on here, there, everywhere. But it’s like the old American problem where we’re just not dosing the problem as much as we have to.
DeRay Mckesson: One of the other things that you write about in the book is and the way I thought about it was sort of the illusion of the middle class.
Matthew Desmond: Hmm.
DeRay Mckesson: That sort of the way that maybe our language around the middle class is not as precise or the middle class isn’t as real or as potent as people talk about it as. Or maybe I read that that is that was my takeaway um from the book. I guess my question is like, are more people actually poor and we need to update the definition or is there truly like a middle class?
Matthew Desmond: I guess it depends what we mean by middle class and what we mean by poor. Right. And the thing is, like, no one says the P word. You know, our politicians, even our most progressive politicians, they don’t say poverty. They say families. They say middle class. You know, they say workers. And even in our many of our anti-poverty movements with the Poor People’s Campaign being the exception. They don’t organize under that banner, that banner of anti-poverty. They organize as tenants or or workers or families. And so poverty still remains so stigmatized in the country that it it really kind of silences folks. But as Michael Tubbs says, like you can’t fix a problem that you don’t name. And I think he’s right. You know, if we’ve got a third of the country living in homes making $55,000 or less, many of those would be considered officially middle class by some standard. But does that feel like economic security to those families? I don’t I don’t think so. And so one of the other myths about the middle class is that the middle class and the affluent are subsidizing the poor. Right. And this is another myth that the book takes on. And it shows that a lot of us, whether we’re poor or whether we’re secure in our money, are benefiting from the government. And in fact, you know, the book makes this argument that the rich actually get the most from the government when it comes to to dollars going out the door. And so I think this imbalanced welfare state is another myth we have to confront because that, like the implications of recognizing that are huge and the biggest implication for me is like it makes us reject this, I don’t know, scarcity mindset or this lie that this rich country can’t afford to do more. We could abolish poverty, you know, if the rich just took less from the government.
DeRay Mckesson: Now, I’m interested because the book has been out, you know, it didn’t come out yesterday. It’s had a life. How has it been received? Um. I can imagine it has allowed people to talk about things in ways that they might not have had the language for. But I’m interested. What has it been like as it’s been out in the world?
Matthew Desmond: I think there’s a real hunger for this book. I was actually, frankly shocked that so many people were engaging it and connecting to it. And I think it speaks to something that’s happening in American life right now where a lot of people are just completely dissatisfied with all this poverty and all this inequality and all this exploitation around them. The polls show this. Most Democrats and most Republicans now believe that, you know, the minimum wage is too low, that the rich aren’t paying their fair share of taxes. They’re right that poverty is a result of a structural failing, not an individual or moral failing. So it’s like something’s changing. And it’s like the old saying, where the old is dying, but the new hasn’t been born yet. And I think that um interacting with audiences and readers and organizers that are in this kind of inflection moment has been really exciting. I think that um one of the things I’m confronting is hopelessness, though. There’s a lot of hopelessness and there’s a lot of folks that are like responding to the book. They’re like, I’m with you. I understand. But and there’s like a but, you know but Congress or but, you know, you should see my neighbors. My neighbors will never get behind this. And and I think that we have to push through that. And I think that we have to recognize that, you know, just sheer hopelessness is is useless to this mission. And we have to find ways of grasping for and working toward cultivating a language of promise and hope. And anti-poverty organizers do this all the time. You know, I mean, if we want hopeful spaces like join up and, you know, you’ll find folks that are not naive, that are up against it, but have also had real wins. And I think those are spaces of of beautiful collective strength in a way. Yeah.
DeRay Mckesson: And where do you get your hope from?
Matthew Desmond: From folks on the ground putting their shoulder to the wheel. You know, there’s a little story in the book about this group I was hanging out with right before Covid. They called United [?] for Justice. They’re in Minneapolis. A lot of undocumented folks, folks who spoke different languages, communicating across Google Translate app on their phone. And they they were fight a landlord, or they had a landlord, and they found him negligent. And they they actually went and asked him for the buildings back they’re like sell us the buildings. And the landlord’s like, all right, uh $7 million bucks, you know. And so the tenants were like, we’ll be right back. And so they started raising and raising the money, but they also started protesting the landlord pretty hard. And it kind of came to a head. They raised the money. They raised $7 million dollars, but they also were all threatened with eviction. The landlord had had enough, and it kind of came to a head this one snowy day during a jury trial where the tenants were either going to be homeowners or homeless. And I was sitting next to this one tenant. Her name was Tacara. And we were waiting for the jury. And she says, you know, what’s taking this jury so long? They’re asking themselves, why do these tenants want this raggedy building? And it’s because people have forgotten how to dream. And when she said that to me, I was like, gosh, maybe I’ve forgotten how to dream, you know? And maybe I’ve been all about what can get through Congress, what’s pragmatic, but like, who gets to say what’s feasible? These tenants didn’t think about those terms. They just they just sought something and they won. And I think that’s very hopeful, you know, And I think it’s very beautiful. So I think being in more spaces like that is incredibly hope giving.
DeRay Mckesson: And as we close, can you tell people how to stay in touch with what you’re doing with your projects? And is it Twitter? Is it Facebook? Is it Tiktok? You don’t strike me as a Tiktoker but–
Matthew Desmond: I’m off all of those. I have to say, I’m I’m a I’ve divested from social media, but I do have a website and the website is called Endpovertyusa.org. So it’s just endpovertyusa.org. And it does two things. It connects families to social services in their communities that they really need, that they deserve. And it connects all of us to anti-poverty organizations. Just putting in the work all around the country. So if you’re interested in getting involved with becoming a poverty abolitionist with binding your lives in solidarity with the lives of the poor, with, you know, if all this indignity and poverty offends your sense of like decency, go to this website and plug in with groups in your own community, you will not regret it.
DeRay Mckesson: Boom, well Matt we consider you a friend of the pod, a friend in the work and can’t wait to see your next thing.
Matthew Desmond: Thanks DeRay. I appreciate you man. Thank you for these great questions. [music break]
DeRay Mckesson: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning into Pod Save the People this week. Tell your friends to check it out and make sure you rate it wherever you get your podcasts, whether it’s Apple podcasts or somewhere else. And we’ll see you next week. Pod Save the People is a production of Crooked Media. It’s produced by AJ Moultrié and mixed by Evan Sutton. Executive produced by me and special thanks to our weekly contributors Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger and Myles E. Johnson.