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John Hanly Lecture Focuses on the Moral Issue of Ending Poverty
Greg Waxberg

“Why is there so much poverty in America?”

That question is so profound that a book could be written about it—and, indeed, a book was written about it.

Pulitzer Prize–winning author Dr. Matthew Desmond, Professor of Sociology at Princeton University and the Founder of and Principal Investigator for the university’s Eviction Lab, has written two books about poverty. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction; his newest, Poverty, By America, is a New York Times Best Seller.

The content of his books figured prominently in his remarks when Dr. Desmond visited Pingry on January 25 to deliver the John Hanly Lecture on Ethics and Morality. This lecture series is named for Pingry’s 13th Head of School, who served from 1987–2000, and was established upon his retirement to carry on his legacy of focusing on character, integrity, and behaving honorably. For Mr. Hanly, who created Pingry’s Ethical Dilemma course, the Honor Code is as much about a person’s behavior after making a mistake as it is about guiding a person’s behavior before making a mistake.

Also on stage with Dr. Desmond were Ethan Boroditsky ’24, Kate Marine ’24, Ally Smith ’24, and Divya Subramanian ’24 from the Honor Board (established during Mr. Hanly’s tenure), as well as David Gelber ’59. Mr. Gelber is a former producer for CBS News’ 60 Minutes, Executive Producer of the award-winning, multi-part climate change documentary Years of Living Dangerously, Pingry’s 2010 Letter-In-Life Award winner, and two-time Hanly Lecture speaker. (He had introduced Dr. Desmond’s books to Head of School Tim Lear.)

Demonstrating his passion for ending poverty, Dr. Desmond laid out a series of reasons for why it still exists in the United States—overall, he believes the country has stopped trying to end it. He showed graphs illustrating that the government’s antipoverty spending has increased over the past 40 years while hardships have worsened. However, he said, “Part of government aid doesn’t reach the poor . . . people who could apply, don’t; there are people who could benefit, but don’t.”

He pointed out that the job market is not doing enough for wages; unions have lost power; the poor population is financially exploited, largely through fees; the country subsidizes the wealthy, via tax breaks, instead of helping to end poverty (the richest families receive nearly 40 percent more in government subsidies than the poorest families, about $35,000 versus $25,000); and, in what Dr. Desmond terms “segregation,” communities do not allow affordable housing to be built.

Dr. Desmond also laid out potential solutions. “We could afford to end poverty if the richest people took less money from the government . . . there is so much poverty because of our wealth.” One action that could be taken: collecting unpaid federal income taxes from the wealthy could go a long way toward helping with the approximately $177 billion needed to end poverty. Another solution—expand people’s housing choices. “The walls [around our communities] have to go,” he said. “Tear down the walls. Build affordable housing.” On that topic, he urged audience members to attend their local township meetings to defend the idea of constructing affordable housing.

Believing that the fight to end poverty is everyone’s fight, for moral reasons having to do with people’s beliefs and life circumstances, Dr. Desmond said there must be no justifications for allowing poverty to continue. “I want to end it. Become poverty abolitionists. It is something to stand for. It is something to sacrifice for. I don’t want to outsmart it—I want to out-hate it.”

Pictured: Head of School Tim Lear, Dr. Matthew Desmond, Divya Subramanian ’24, Kate Marine ’24, Ally Smith ’24, David Gelber ’59, and Ethan Boroditsky ’24

Contact: Greg Waxberg ’96, Communications Writer, Editor of The Pingry Review