Pulitzer winner, poverty researcher Matthew Desmond to deliver 2023 Roger Wilkins Lecture


Matthew Desmond says the Pulitzer Prize he won in 2017 for his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the America City came as a surprise. “I didn’t even know it was happening that day,” he said, still blushing a bit during a Zoom call from his home office in Princeton, New Jersey.

Matthew Desmond portrait
Matthew Desmond. Photo by Barron Bixler

Desmond, a professor of sociology at Princeton University, is the principal investigator of the Eviction Lab, which compiles data on the 3.6 million eviction cases a year in the United States; it’s an aspect of his heartfelt studies of poverty and public policy. Desmond is the guest lecturer for this year’s George Mason University Roger Wilkins Lecture, taking place Tuesday, Sept. 26, at 4 p.m. in the Harris Theater on the Fairfax Campus. The free event is open to students, faculty, staff, alumni, and all members of the Mason community.

Desmond’s new book, Poverty, By America (Crown), is a deep and compassionate dive into the persistence of poverty in the U.S. and the policies that have been shown to be effective in abolishing it.

“Tens of millions of Americans do not end up poor by a mistake of history or personal conduct. Poverty persists because some wish and will it to,” he writes in the book. “Poverty isn’t simply the condition of not having enough money. It’s the condition of not having enough choice and being taken advantage of because of that.”

Desmond has seen the effects of poverty—and the policies that change it—firsthand. The son of a preacher growing up in Winslow, Arizona—a desert town offering little else beyond a fabled street corner in a song by the Eagles—Desmond experienced “the humiliations of poverty—we got our gas shut off, for instance,” he said, and losing the family home to foreclosure.

But a public policy changed everything for young Desmond: Arizona students who finish high school in “the top 5 percent of your class, you get free tuition at a state school,” he recalled. “That was the lifesaver that helped me get to Arizona State University. If we’re going to point to one policy along the way that was the secret sauce, it was that tuition assistance policy I got when I was 18.”

He added that there are other policies can help eradicate poverty in addition to tuition assistance. Housing vouchers, for example, allow families to “go to the grocery store to buy more food because they don’t have to pay 50, 60, 70 percent of their income on rent. These things work for the lucky minority that benefit from them.” And lucky is the word: “They literally have won the lottery” when awarded vouchers, he said.

While he’s hopeful his Wilkins lecture will have an impact on those in the audience, “a fear of mine is people read my book or come to my talks and they say, ‘good book, good talk,’ and they go on with their lives,” he said. “I want us all to commit to this project of ‘poverty abolitionism,’ this conviction that we should have a zero-percent poverty rate and [understanding] that profiting from someone else’s pain corrupts all of us.”

The Wilkins Lecture is named for the late Wilkins who was a civil rights activist, the first Black U.S. assistant attorney general, and a Robinson Professor of History and American Culture at Mason for 20 years. The series was established as a tribute to Wilkins by his colleagues and is also sponsored by the undergraduate Philosophy, Politics and Economics program. Previous Wilkins lecturers include Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie, and civil rights activist James Foreman Jr.

“Poverty isn’t simply the condition of not having enough money. It’s the condition of not having enough choice and being taken advantage of because of that.”


~ Matthew Desmond