“A different kind of society is possible, and powerful solutions are within our collective reach. But those solutions depend on how we answer a single question: do we believe that the right to a decent home is part of what it means to be an American?”
This is the question at the heart of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. What do we, as a country, owe the least among us? Evicted makes the argument that the current state of the low-income housing situation in America is akin to not providing unemployment insurance, Social Security, or food stamps to needy families. Americans have taken steps to ensure that the jobless, the retired, and the hungry have at least marginal safety nets, but housing needs are significantly under-addressed in America, and we’ve barely noticed.
Evicted is the work of sociologist Matthew Desmond, who wanted to understand poor Americans as more than just a product of forces beyond their control (the typically liberal view) or as a result of individual deficiencies (the typically conservative view).
To that end, he spent most of 2008 and 2009 living first in a low-end trailer park in poor-white Milwaukee for several months, and then on Milwaukee’s almost exclusively black and poor North Side for almost a year. In the trailer park, he got to know poor white residents and their struggles, as well as the maintenance/collections staff who ran the place. On the North Side, he experienced a different angle of the housing struggle. To better understand motivations, concerns, and challenges, he shadowed not only his neighbors (some of whom became friends), but also their landlords.
The data were astonishing. Among Desmond’s findings:
- 1 in 8 Milwaukee renters had experienced at least one forced move–formal or informal eviction, landlord foreclosure, or building condemnation–in the previous two years.
- For every eviction executed through the judicial system, there were two others executed outside of legal avenues, without any form of due process.
- In predominantly black neighborhoods, women were more than twice as likely to be evicted as men.
- Even after accounting for how much the tenant owed the landlord, and other factors like household income and race, the presence of children in the household almost tripled a tenant’s odds of receiving an eviction judgment. In Milwaukee, the effect of living with children on receiving an eviction judgment was equivalent to falling four months behind in rent.
- Female parents who experienced eviction suffered from increased material hardship, as well as poorer physical and mental health than their non-evicted counterparts.
Desmond’s book is bolstered by strong, steady research, but its heart and soul are the personal stories of the people Desmond met doing his fieldwork. The denizens of the trailer park and the North Side come alive in Desmond’s depictions of their struggles, their desires, their failures, and their few successes. A warning: It’s grim.
It was discouraging to read about setback after setback for these families living in poverty, especially the ones with children. My heart broke for the upheavals these kids experienced at such early ages, like losing their home because their mother’s roommate called police on an abusive boyfriend. Police visit = low-rent landlords sense trouble… and as a result, even law-abiding tenants get evicted.
In addition to these challenges, many of Desmond’s families experienced more than a few self-inflicted setbacks as well. Turns out, people in poverty don’t always make great choices. One woman on the verge of eviction, Larraine, spent her entire monthly allotment of food stamps on a lobster dinner for herself. This is hard to comprehend until you understand that, in Desmond’s words, “The distance between grinding poverty and even stable poverty could be so vast that those at the bottom had little hope of climbing out even if they pinched every penny. So they chose not to.” It helps the reader to learn that Larraine at least didn’t complain about the rest of the month’s struggle to feed herself. In her eyes, her extravagant dinner was entirely worth it.
It was easier to find sympathy for Scott, a trailer-park citizen whose former good job as a nurse had gone up in flames when he became addicted to opiates. And Arleen, who, as a young mother at 19 years old, had given up public housing when a friend asked her to move in because the friend needed help with rent. Now middle-aged, with two growing kids who had caused her to be evicted from multiple locations, Arleen deeply regretted the short-sighted move she had made as a teenager. Had she stayed in public housing, she could have still been there all these years, paying a much smaller percentage of her income in rent and able to give her children the stability she knew they needed…but now, the public-housing waiting list in Milwaukee was 3500 families long, with an ETA of four years.
As Desmond accurately points out, both liberal and conservative observers find it hard to defend these and other unfortunate choices made by Milwaukee’s housing-challenged. The conservative mindset typically strips the poor of all virtue, depicting their troubles as exclusively brought upon themselves; while liberals have a tendency to cleanse poor people of all sin, and to see them as purely the victims of circumstance. Either angle has a dehumanizing effect.
In previous eras, renters might form tenants’ unions and organize against evictions and unsanitary conditions, even stage rent strikes when landlords raised rents too often or too steeply. These people weren’t typically radicals, but “ordinary” mothers and fathers who believed that landlords could impose modest rent increases and had a right to fair profits, but were not entitled to engage in “price gouging.”
But this kind of political organization requires a certain kind of vision. To accomplish this, renters need to see themselves as a “class” with shared interests and a unified purpose.
“‘For a protest movement to arise out of [the] traumas of daily life…the social arrangements that are ordinarily perceived as just and immutable must come to seem both unjust and mutable.’”
In other words, people needed to perceive injustice, but also to believe that they had the capacity to change things when they worked together. For poor people, that means identifying themselves as poor and admitting it publicly…something many of the people Desmond met during his stays in low-income rental housing were absolutely unwilling to do. Many tenants Desmond met felt strongly that they were not “of” this environment, that they were “just passing through”…even when they had grown up there and knew nothing else. (This was especially true in the poor-white trailer park.)
The black North Side, where Desmond also lived temporarily, had its own sets of issues. In the 1960s and ‘70s, poor black families were able to rely more on extended family relationships for help. Family networks couldn’t sustain you forever, but by occasionally swapping goods and services and providing temporary housing in times of stress, they could help you weather a tough patch until you got on your feet again. But large-scale social changes like the crack epidemic and subsequent prison boom had frayed this fragile safety net in many poor black communities. (They weren’t helped by government policies either, like Aid to Families with Dependent Children’s practice aiming at limiting “kin dependence” by giving mothers who lived alone or with unrelated roommates a larger stipend than those who lived with relatives.) The rise of the black middle class had an effect, too: Middle-class relatives often did not know how to help or did not want to.
The Church As Social Safety Net
A favorite trope of conservative politicians is to advocate for churches and other social-service organizations to take on the role of helping the poor, but Desmond demonstrates how poorly-equipped religious groups can be to take on this task. Crystal, mentioned below, had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, reactive attachment disorder, and borderline intellectual functioning, and was a victim of childhood sexual abuse.
“It was easy to go on about helping ‘the poor.’ Helping a poor person with a name, a face, a history, and many needs, a person whose mistakes and lapses of judgment you have recorded–that was a more trying matter….Crystal received a bag of food once in a while; and congregants had opened their homes to her for a night or two. But her church was in no way equipped to meet Crystal’s high-piled needs.”
’Our government doesn’t need to exist to take care of the poor and hungry. That’s the Church’s job,’ said Pastor Daryl, adored by Larraine. Conservative politicians often express similar beliefs. In 2013, [California] Republican congressman Doug LaMalfa voiced a sentiment shared by many in his party when he argued that low-income Americans should be helped ‘through the church…because it comes from the heart, not from a badge or a mandate.’ But after watching people like Larraine and Crystal seek help from their churches, you can’t help but wonder if our hearts are really big enough for people with such heavy and persistent needs, people who need a lot more than some groceries now and again, a few hundred dollars here and there. (‘My knowledge of social work is next to zero,’ Pastor Daryl said.) In the biblical telling, the early Church was able to uplift the poor only after believers ‘sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need’ (Acts 2:44). Modern-day churchgoers have been less inclined to make such sacrifices. Pastor Daryl was frustrated by what he called Larraine’s ‘poverty mentality,’ her inability to ‘buckle down’ and ‘manage her finances.’ Minister Barber often called Crystal and snapped at her for doing things 18-year-olds are prone to do, like staying out late. Both people of the cloth had extended help in the past, and both had reasons why they felt they should not extend help in the future. Government mandates and entitlements are far from perfect, but they are less dependent on the limits of human compassion.”
Eviction and Families
Perhaps one of the hardest things to read about in Evicted was the outsize toll poverty takes on families, especially those headed up by single mothers (i.e., most of them). According to Desmond, the prevailing storyline is that poverty diminishes a person’s capacity for affming and supportive parenting because it causes parents to become irritable, depressed, and anxious. These feelings increase the tendency to be more punitive and less supportive of children. But Desmond’s take is that many parents are irritable, depressed, and anxious:
“These conditions are not unique to poverty. What is unique to poverty is poverty. It is the experience of parenting in scarcity itself that impels mothers like Arleen to become harsh caregivers some of the time. Their barbed coolness is a necessary protection, a defense mechanism in the teeth of deprivation.”
Not surprisingly, non-supportive and punitive parenting styles are connected to lower self-esteem, aggression, and antisocial behavior in children…some of which may or may not lead to landlord frustration and a greater tendency to evict. And the circle continues: Desmond’s research found that even as much as two years after an eviction, single mothers still experienced significantly higher rates of depression than their peers.
Desmond doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about solutions; this book is more about drawing attention to the problem. But he does mention a few which make a lot of sense:
- Legal aid for the poor (in eviction court, 90% of landlords are represented by attorneys; 90% of tenants are not, resulting in an unsurprising lack of tenants’ understanding about their own rights)
- More affordable housing (the current supply is rapidly shrinking)
- Universal housing vouchers (a solution used successfully all over the developed world)
It’s hard to argue with why he feels that solving the housing crisis is at the core of sound social policy, and why, in the words of former U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone, “we all do better when we all do better”:
“Civic life too begins at home, allowing us to plant roots and take ownership over our community, participate in local politics, and reach out to neighbors in a spirit of solidarity and generosity….It is only after we begin to see a street as our street, a public park as our park, a school as our school, that we can become engaged citizens, dedicating our time and resources for worthwhile causes: joining the Neighborhood Watch, volunteering to beautify a playground, or running for school board….
“We have affirmed provision in old age, twelve years of education, and basic nutrition to be the right of every citizen because we have recognized that human dignity depends on the fulfillment of these fundamental human needs. And it is hard to argue that housing is not a fundamental human need. Decent, affordable housing should be a basic right for everybody in this country. The reason is simple: without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.”
Katy Epler is a writer, an historian, and a pop-culture enthusiast who is making her way through decades worth of Entertainment Weekly’s Best Books of the Year lists, and then representing them to us in a modern light. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org