Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

Read April 2017
Recommended for Americans
★    ★    ★   ★    ★  

It is no surprise that “Evicted” was the University Wisconsin-Madison’s Go Big Red book read for 2016, a book chosen by the chancellor and worked into campus-wide discussions and events. Set in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, it examines the lives of a number of people who deal with eviction and the property owners. To those outside the state, it might be less obvious how state politics have played into the background of many of the people in Evicted but suffice to say, the once-independent State of Wisconsin has fallen on conservative and judgemental times.

At any rate, for non-fiction book littered with references, it is extremely readable. Done in a more ethnographic style, it reminds me of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Read these two back-to-back and I will guarantee you will go to bed thankful. Like Enrich, Desmond tried to ‘walk the talk’ by living in the trailer park he writes about by renting and living close to the subjects of the book, and by tailing the landlords as much as possible.

The last chapter of the book before the footnotes is an ‘About the Project’ section that details his own history, his goals and his structure in writing the book. I actually think it should be the first chapter, as it lends explanation and context to his sources and the style of writing. For those who might be scared off by the voluminous footnotes, I recommend peeking at them-many are actually commentary or elaborations on some of the personal details. Definitely not one I would have wanted to read on Kindle.

Unlike Nickel and Dimed, much of Desmond’s material will be controversial, perhaps only serving to reinforce stereotypes about poor people. In some ways, perhaps, this might be one of those books that says just about as much about the reviewer as the subject. Being entirely honest with ourselves is hard, right?, and it’s easy to judge many of the people in the book.

Issue one, the simple one: people without resources have high stakes and no cushion when they indulge or make mistakes–as we all do. For instance, I have a fat pile of COBRA paperwork waiting for me to read through it, and recently I spent $50 on chocolates for gifts for my personal references. If I didn’t deal with the COBRA paperwork, I’d probably be fine (unless I got in a traumatic car wreck), because I have prescriptions stocked, generally good health, financial resources and a job that will cover me in a month. If a person in Evicted forgets to attend a caseworker appointment or forgets to file a change-of-address, they’re screwed, because they will get no food stamps that month and have no saved resources to cushion them (how can you save money when you only have $40 extra dollars a month) Desmond does a decent job of making the costs of human indulgences clear, showing that the disabled, dishonorably discharged vet has exactly $40 dollars a month after rent, or that eating a lobster tail dinner means a month of ramen noodles.

Issue two, the complex one: One of the most BRILLIANT and amazing things I’ve read this year was an interview with Bruce Perry, psychologist about the long-lasting effects of childhood trauma. Read it: here The essay talks quite a bit about what kind of constant physiological stress that does to the human brain, and how it changes learning and relationships. Physiological stress can result in more (or even less) reactive brain than one that has only smaller, more intermittent amounts of stress (leading to the million-dollar question of how to we teach resilience?) A body that is always on alert because of safety issues, or a body that is always hungry is not one that will be in an environment of optimal function.

You see where I’m going with this? A majority of people in this story sprung from poverty. They were born into it, had their brains wired by it, their coping skills and expectations structured by it. They were set up to ‘fail’ by traditional society. Patricia’s kids, the ones who are sharing a mattress on the floor in the living room? Probably not going to be doctors and own the latest McMansion. Not because they aren’t capable of it, but their ongoing circumstances are going to continue to set them up to fail (changing schools every time they move, missing school due to issues with housing/resources, stress caused by having to find new housing every six months, the violence in the places they live, the lack of trustworthy relationships built where they live–because how can you build them when you keep moving?), and thus the cycle continues. Desmond actually demonstrates impaired coping from ongoing stress when he shows how Arleen initially tries to deal with Crystal’s generous but irrational moods and how Arleen eventually responds from a place of stress, anger and pride that makes the housing situation even worse. I’d even argue that Arleen was never set up to succeed in the first place from her childhood.

Issue three, the other complex one: addiction, that ongoing, ever-present itch. People will argue that heroin is a ‘worse’ addiction. I don’t know; you live long enough, you see addictions come in waves, like fads. Meth was the rage in Wisconsin about ten years back. Heroin is the hot drug these days. Scott is the poster child for addiction in this book, a former nurse who got caught using and spiraled down. You know how many sanctions are applied quarterly to nurses who use some kind of substance? I’d say over a hundred, at least. WI Department of Regulation publishes a list of nurse sanctions and addiction-related issues are by far the most common (alcohol and drugs). This is a horribly complex issue, and though Scott manages to rally after eviction, he falls again. Now he’s straight (at the moment), thanks to a supportive recovering-addicts residential housing program that also employs him.

You want to know about the homeless I meet? Frequently addicts of some sort. There are housing programs and shelters, but you have to be sober to get in, or stay sober for long-term housing, and many addicts aren’t willing to leave their addiction. There aren’t good answers for this one. The trailer park Desmond lives in shows a little what a group of addicts living together must be like, how one of the residents goes door to door looking for a fix and knows he’ll find it.

Issue four, the last complex one: mental illness. Way back in Reagan era (haha, I know you kids don’t remember that), there was a huge movement to ‘de-institutionalize’ people with severe mental illness. There are reasons for and against, but the upshot is that each community has to deal with how to care for a population that may not be able to adequately care for itself. An excellent article gives some of the facts and figures that my own experience has demonstrated. I’d say about half of the people I’ve had to take care of with schizophrenia have stopped taking their medication, which is part of what lands them in the hospital. It’s a well-known and vicious cycle (for people who are able to get access to medication): meds make people feel better and in control, so they decide to stop the meds because they are feeling so great. OR, the medications make people feel shittier, so they stop taking them. Either way, the result is uncontrolled mental illness. Desmond has a poster-child for this one too, Crystal, who despite a consistent SSDI check and support from her faith community, frequently ends up evicted due to fighting with other tenants.

What is less easy to see is how many of the people in the book are political pawns. Newly imposed trailer park management and local police response to ‘nuisance’ properties show how political stances have real and unintended consequences contributing to eviction. The City of Madison was dealing with this in the past several years as well, finally forcing one of the local ‘slumlords’ into cleaning up his properties that resulted in many being placed on the market. He–like landlords in the book–argued he was providing housing for people too poor to rent elsewhere, unable to get housing due to criminal history or prior evictions latest story. All of that said, somehow the slumlords have squeezed hundreds of thousands of dollars out of their properties (I think the Madison one has a portfolio of over SIX million dollars, much like the trailer park owner in Evicted) while letting the tenants live in conditions you’d be furious to see at the local shelter.

Desmond has a few suggestions. First, is more research, because good policies should be informed by reality. His studies were one of the few looking at eviction and poverty. More documentation should be done on it’s effects in the neighborhood and on longer lasting effects. He mentions people who are evicted end up having higher levels of material hardships for up to two years after eviction. His immediate suggestion is better court advocates and legal aid (which is being cut) for those facing eviction so that they can help prevent evictions and further needless homelessness.

His ethical suggestion is that we recognize housing as a basic human right, not a mechanism of exploitation. As I mentioned in my own Madison example, while the slumlords may claim they are providing at least some kind of housing, they aren’t doing it as a public service. His solution is expanding housing vouchers for all low-income families, not just a small number–are eligible for a voucher that can be used for anywhere that is “decent, modest and fairly priced.”

I’m not sure Desmond is recognizing the things he experienced with Sherrena the landlord commenting on how taking voucher families was a pain because the buildings had to be up to code. This is the part where I also think he is ignoring the roles that addiction and mental illness play in housing as well. Still, he’s offering something as a solution, and in an area that has the potential to negatively impact both individuals and communities, it’s worth trying a solution or three or twenty til we can get it right. Overall, an excellent book that provides much information for consideration and discussion. Highly recommended.

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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2 Responses to Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

  1. Melora says:

    Excellent review! I have this one in my tbr stack, and I’m very glad that you feel like it’s well done.

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