“Books about poverty tend to be books about the poor,” the sociologist Matthew Desmond writes in “Poverty, by America” (Crown). That’s true whether the motivation is to blame the poor for their lot—chronicling the supposed pathologies creating a “culture of poverty”—or, more commonly nowadays, to generate empathy via detailed ethnographies of survival and agency amid deprivation. It was true of the first books that set out to systematically map and measure poverty, such as the Victorian reformer Charles Booth’s seventeen-volume “Life and Labour of the People in London,” and of Progressive Era attempts to rattle the consciences of the well-off, like Jacob Riis’s document of New York tenement life, “How the Other Half Lives.”
When Michael Harrington wrote his 1962 classic, “The Other America,” a work of morally charged narrative nonfiction often credited with helping to inspire the War on Poverty, his aim was to reveal the “socially invisible” poor to the rest of America. A cocoon of postwar prosperity and complacency, he wrote, blinkered “middle-class women coming in from Suburbia on a rare trip,” who might “catch the merest glimpse of the other America on the way to an evening at the theater”; it also blinkered “the business or professional man,” who might “drive along the fringes of slums in a car or bus” without regarding it as “an important experience.” The book’s dominant rhetorical modes, as Harrington’s biographer Maurice Isserman notes, were paradox and revelation. If the scales were pulled from the eyes of his well-meaning readers, they would see, in the shadows of American plenty, tens of millions of poor people, whom Harrington catalogued and described: rural poor, city-dwelling slum poor, alcoholic skid-row poor, and so on—all of them urgently needing the help of the government and liberal élites. Even a book like Charles Murray’s “Losing Ground,” an influential neocon attack on “welfare dependency,” from 1984, focussed on the poor themselves, if only so that Murray might make an argument about how they had immiserated themselves by adapting to anti-poverty policies.