In this brilliant, heartbreaking book, Matthew Desmond takes us into the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee to tell the story of eight families on the edge. Arleen is a single mother trying to raise her two sons on the $20 a month she has left after paying for their rundown apartment. Scott is a gentle nurse consumed by a heroin addiction. Lamar, a man with no legs and a neighborhood full of boys to look after, tries to work his way out of debt. Vanetta participates in a botched stickup after her hours are cut. All are spending almost everything they have on rent, and all have fallen behind.
The fates of these families are in the hands of two landlords: Sherrena Tarver, a former schoolteacher turned inner-city entrepreneur, and Tobin Charney, who runs one of the worst trailer parks in Milwaukee. They loathe some of their tenants and are fond of others, but as Sherrena puts it, “Love don’t pay the bills.” She moves to evict Arleen and her boys a few days before Christmas.
Even in the most desolate areas of American cities, evictions used to be rare. But today, most poor renting families are spending more than half of their income on housing, and eviction has become ordinary, especially for single mothers. In vivid, intimate prose, Desmond provides a ground-level view of one of the most urgent issues facing America today. As we see families forced into shelters, squalid apartments, or more dangerous neighborhoods, we bear witness to the human cost of America’s vast inequality—and to people’s determination and intelligence in the face of hardship.
Based on years of embedded fieldwork and painstakingly gathered data, this masterful book transforms our understanding of extreme poverty and economic exploitation while providing fresh ideas for solving a devastating, uniquely American problem. Its unforgettable scenes of hope and loss remind us of the centrality of home, without which nothing else is possible.
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
Publication Date: February 28, 2017 by Broadway Books
I will admit that I was hesitant to pick up this book after seeing that the author was a white, male who teaches at Harvard. I clearly have my own biases to work through, but I was worried that a book about poverty and the role race and gender play in the housing system was not something I wanted to read through the viewpoint of someone like Desmond. I am happy to say I was wrong about my own assumptions as Desmond proved to not only be an amazing writer, but his work as a sociologist is stunning in bringing to light a topic that hasn’t been given enough coverage in this country.
Evicted is a difficult read. Desmond brings to light all the horrific details of what it’s really like to struggle to maintain housing in an American city where eviction is unbelievably commonplace for those living in extreme poverty and helps to explain why so many people find it too difficult to ever “move up” economically-speaking. While some of the statistics or factual arguments Desmond makes are not necessarily new to many readers (myself included), the sociologist approach of sharing the information through the personal narratives of real people makes these issues much more “real” and easier to understand.
People like Larraine lived with so many compounded limitations that it was difficult to imagine the amount of good behavior or self-control that would allow them to lift themselves out of poverty. 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. Instead, they tried to survive in color, to season the suffering with pleasure. They would get a little high or have a drink or do a bit of gambling or acquire a television. They might buy lobster on food stamps.
Desmond sheds light on what it means to live in poverty and easily squashes some of the typical, irrational arguments I’ve often heard from people who see living in poverty as a “choice”. He also shows the similarities and differences that can arise depending on a person’s race and gender – all within the same city. I can’t imagine a person reading this book and not being affected because while it it clear that Desmond wanted to maintain a personal distance when sharing people’s experiences, I found myself most impacted by the people he wrote about as it made the factual information that much more upsetting.
While Evicted may be a challenging book to read, it is also an extremely important one as it humanizes an issue in our country that people either often overlook or don’t have an opinion on as it doesn’t directly affect them. In his epilogue, Desmond also shares ways that we as Americans could vastly improve the housing crisis in our country if we only chose to focus more on helping the poor rather than the rich.
Most federal housing subsidies benefit families with six-figure incomes. If we are going to spend the bulk of our public dollars on the affluent – at least when it comes to housing – we should own up to that decision and stop repeating the politicians’ canard about one of the richest countries on the planet being unable to afford doing more. If poverty persists in America, it is not for lack of resources.
Although it might be easy to walk away from this book with a sense of despair, Desmond makes it very clear in his epilogue that the poverty and housing issues in this country are not impossible to overcome – if we only could work towards making it a priority in our government. This is a book every American should read.
I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.