“Poverty was a relationship, I thought, involving poor people and rich people alike. To understand poverty, I needed to understand that relationship.” – Matthew Desmond
Matthew Desmond is a professor of sociology at Princeton University and received his Ph.D from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 2010. He has authored four books and been on the receiving end of numerous awards for his research on poverty in America. It is not just poverty but also public policy, city life, racial inequality, and housing insecurity that he focuses on. There is such a complicated relationship among these various factors that it doesn’t seem possible to exclude one from the other. This realization is what spurred him to dedicate part of his life to actually living in his field of research.
This book is crafted in such a way that it feels more as if you are reading a story, yet it is nonfiction. It is a story of eight families struggling in the city of Milwaukee to acquire housing, at times food, and a sense of security. It is such a powerful piece of literature and truly needs to be read by everyone. The lives of these families brings to the forefront a crisis that is occurring from coast to coast in our country. Not just eviction but poverty.
The lack of affordable housing is not a reflection of our citizens, it is reflection of a broken system that puts money above people’s needs. The predicaments that these different families continuously run into shocked me. The conditions of the apartments and homes they are able to get into are degraded enough to psychologically trap. Then it becomes a continuous cycle of shame, lack of confidence and ambition.
Desmond wholeheartedly devotes many years to this project by “living in the field”. He lived in the trailer park first and then eventually in an inner city neighborhood so that he could observe the day to day experiences. After building relationships and getting to know 100s of people he narrows his story down to eight different families that range from single African American moms to a single white man originally from Iowa.
What I loved about this book is that he didn’t write in the first person. He realized that many ethnographers “make themselves small in the field” and then go on to write from their perspective which changes the focus of the reader or listener. By using the first person people become focused on how the researcher was affected. This book is gripping and is so well written you really don’t think about the writer until the end in the About the Project section.
The work itself inspires you to genuinely think about the real issues of poverty in America. The racism, sexism, ageism, and general bigotry this country has simmering below the surface is bubbling out in heartbreaking ways. Women are denied housing because they have children but yet society loves children. The contradiction is palpable as these families go through tens to hundreds of rental inquires to be constantly turned down for either their children, rent history, records, or color. Beyond just the eight families the numerous studies and statistics he references makes it impossible to think this is only an issue for Milwaukee.
“Together, these combined data sources provide a new portrait of the powerful ways the private housing sector is shaping the lives of poor American families and their communities. They have shown that problems endemic to poverty – residential instability, severe deprivation, concentrated neighborhood disadvantage, health disparities, even joblessness – stem from a lack of affordable housing in our cities. I have made all the survey data available through the Harvard Database Network.”Evicted – About the Project by Matthew Desmond
In order to understand the renter to landlord relationship he also spent time building a relationship with one of his landlords from the inner city, along with research into general strategies of landlords. He does attempt to provide an understanding to the reader that landlords are trying to survive too. When rent payments are missed then mortgage payments and tax payments are missed. The more properties they own the harder it becomes to keep up with repairs and bills. However, the primary take away paints landlords in low income areas as money hungry and even negligent. His research on public policy begs to ask the question though of how did we get to the point that landlords aren’t held responsible?
The management strategies they are legally able to utilize only work to further depress the impoverished. As long as they inform the renter of the condition they can actually rent places that are not up to code. For lower income families that have faced previous housing insecurity or evictions they often don’t have a choice but to accept these substandard conditions in the hopes their landlord will make the repairs. As long as tenants are paid up they can be secure in seeking assistance from a building inspector but if they fall behind then they are caught in a cycle of poor outcomes.
It seems easy to throw accusations at people that miss rent payments and have been evicted but there is a deep cultural and socioeconomic history that makes these issues messy and human. It is so easy to stay in our comfort zones. I am sympathetic to these families but it is hard to be empathetic because I am privileged. I am a white female from a lower middle class family with a college degree and although I, and my family, have faced financial worries often it is nothing compared to the stories of Evicted. I cannot fathom the feelings that surround scarcity of what we now consider to be basic necessities.
Evicted is a compelling non fiction read that puts a spotlight on serious social deficiencies that we have in this country. The research is presented as a narrative of very low income families in their day to day struggles to secure housing, work, and even food. How far can you stretch a budget of $164 after rent is paid? Do you eat or take a hot shower? Should you short your landlord rent because your kids need new shoes?
These are the realities of families today in our country. There are solutions and we need to work to find them. The first way is to educate ourselves and be aware that there is a problem. Desmond’s conclusion is painfully accurate.
“Whatever our way out of this mess, one thing is certain. The degree of inequality, this withdrawal of opportunity, this cold denial of basic needs, this endorsement of personal suffering – by no American value is this situation justified. No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching, can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become.”
You can find more information about the book at his website Evicted or go straight to Just Shelter to find resources and learn how to help. If you want your own copy I have an affiliate link to Amazon below.