When a room of parents at a PTA meeting at a Title 1 school audibly squirmed in response to my assertion that I would drink milk on its sell-by date, the armor I wore in childhood to make my poverty less hurtful clamped down around me. Many children at that school would drink milk on its sell-by date and likely have a parent who knows how to make use of spoiled milk. While my early experiences with poverty remain near the surface, the one type of poverty-related insecurity I didn’t fear is eviction. That’s the focus of Arizona-born Matthew Desmond’s new book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit In the American City.
Evicted is a compact summary of Desmond’s qualitative and quantitative research in Milwaukee, Wisc. This ethnography follows the eviction experiences of renters and landlords. Subjects are Black and White, while the Hispanic population is largely ignored. The stories are highly personal, revealing intimate experiences that disappoint and frustrate. Desmond’s focus on evictions flows from the notion that “rent eats first” and that housing makes up a disproportionately large part of a poor person’s income.
When I was an AmeriCorps VISTA in the late 1990s, I read New American Blues: A Journey Through Poverty to Democracy (Affiliate Link) by Earl Shorris. (This book and a nudge from the Oklahoma Humanities Council inspired me to bring Shorris to my project where he drew commanding crowds at every event we planned and also made an appearance on a local PBS talk show because he’s a rock star.) In that book, he describes a “surround of force” that prevents the poor from upward mobility. If someone who is poor gets sick and healthcare is out of their reach, then they miss work. If they miss work, they don’t get paid. Without pay, it’s difficult to pay rent. Housing insecurity means that sickness lurks in your future. The upshot of this surround of force is that you can’t fix one thing and expect poverty to disappear.
Similarly, Desmond writes of the “compounded limitations” that cause extremely poor people to make financial decisions that others might find unwise. By way of example, Desmond relates that Lorraine has $164 leftover after she pays rent. Maybe she makes extreme sacrifices to put $50 a month away and has $600 at the end of a year to cover one month’s rent in the case of an emergency. That sort of sacrifice has a deep physical and psychological price. Food restrictions, utility restrictions, entertainment restrictions, travel restrictions–and for what? At the end of the year Lorraine would still live from check to check. That deprivation makes the additional hardship seem futile, so she pays for cable to keep her mind off her own reality.
As I read Evicted, it occurs to me that while income and standards of living are the same, the African-American experience with extreme poverty in Milwaukee comes with additional difficulties. Desmond addresses these complications in his chapter “Nobody Wants the North Side” (the primarily black area of Milwaukee). In a country that prohibits housing discrimination based on skin color, Black people face higher eviction rates based on the systemic discrimination they experience in life in general. As Desmond writes, “Equal treatment in an unequal society could still foster inequality.” Desmond’s history of slums, especially as experienced by minorities, as income sources for the already wealthy provides perspective on an issue that seems to have evolved, but never really did.
Nobody wants the North Side because the people are more fluid, moving frequently. The result is streets that aren’t safe and schools that don’t “perform” (quotation marks mine). Neighborhoods with fluid populations don’t have long-term residents with the social relationships required to set up and maintain crime watch groups. These neighborhoods are served by schools that struggle to meet the needs of children experiencing too many transitions to be school ready.
When facing a surround of force and compounded limitations, the poor experience continual setbacks from any progress they may make. This leads to feelings of powerlessness and disappointment that overwhelm them. This may take the form of giving up on paying bills, giving up on sobriety, giving up on enforcing homework time for children, giving up on government benefits, giving up on the justice system, giving up pushing that rock up a hill when all signs point to the chances that it will just roll right down–and probably on top of them.
Desmond offers solutions to America’s eviction problem based on his belief that citizens should value public housing as crucial to our unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He remembers a time when Americans celebrated public housing. Later we choked it of funding until it failed and then we privatized it. He surmises that the public housing mess may be too big to tackle, but there are achievable options. Two of these are:
* We can offer legal representation for those struggling with addiction or facing eviction.
* We can enact laws that bring to a halt the exploitation of the poor (via practices like inflated rents) in conjunction with an expanded voucher system for eligible participants so that they don’t have to pay more than 30% of their income on housing.
I’m no expert on housing policy. Also, I have a social justice streak that prevents me from feeling empathy for landlords who inflate rents for substandard housing. Desmond likely offers workable solutions whereas I would like to see the impossible happen. I do agree with Desmond that we need to acknowledge the exploitation of the poor and bring a stop to it, not because we are Americans who believe in equality, but because we are humans and believe in humanity.
Although Evicted sprouted from an academic endeavor and it covers a great deal of policy and history with about 60 pages of notes, it is accessible and engrossing. I would recommend it for general readers, not just experts on urban poverty. I would certainly put a copy in the hands of VISTA members and fellow alumni.