A Feature Review of
Poverty and Profit
in the American City
Hardback: Crown Books, 2016
Buy: [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]
Reviewed by Kristin Williams
When the housing market was as close to the bottom as it would get, my husband was offered a perfect job in another state. Our only hesitation came when we looked around the small town we would be leaving and saw many homes for sale or standing empty and very little movement in the market. Thinking we could wait until the market rebounded, we decided try renting our house for a while. Today, nearly 8 years later, we are still renting our house out and still learning exactly what that means.
It was from the perspective of a landlord that I picked up Matthew Desmond’s devastating new book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Desmond, a Harvard sociologist and recipient of a MacArthur Grant, combines personal insight gained during years living in inner city Milwaukee and data collected as part of his Milwaukee Area Renters Study to create an eye opening portrait of poverty and racial inequality. These problems are not unique to Milwaukee, they can be found in every large American city.
Evicted follows 8 families, some white and some black, as they deal with the process of eviction. These 8 families are not unique but reading their stories helped me understand low income housing difficulties in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to by simply reading statistics. Evictions used to be rare and often accompanied by neighborhood crowds protesting the eviction. Today most places have sheriff squads whose only job is to carry out eviction and foreclosure orders. The majority of poor renting families spend more than half of their income on housing and at least a quarter spend more than 70%. Eviction has become an epidemic.
The housing problems described in the book impact both white and black families are particularly onerous for black families. In Milwaukee, 3 in 4 people in eviction court are black and of those, 3 in 4 are women and the majority of those women have dependent children. Desmond argues that “incarceration has come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods [and] eviction…the lives of women.” When white families are evicted, they have an easier time locating new housing than African American families with similar records. But even when everyone is treated the same, “equal treatment in an unequal society could still foster inequality.”
Generations of inequality have left most African Americans without family resources to fall back on in hard times. In Evicted, Scott, a white heroin addict, is evicted from a trailer park and then makes do with several different temporary housing situations before finally asking his estranged mother for assistance. That assistance made all the difference for Scott. Because his mother was able to help him, he was able to pay for methadone treatments that resulted in his eligibility for a program that ended in a permanent housing situation. Scott’s life was back on track and he had enough hope that he was able to make a 5 year plan considering his future. All of this because he was able to ask his mother for assistance. Although some the African Americans featured in the book did have an extended family network, very few of them had family in a position to offer financial assistance and this reflects the situation in the whole country. (For more on the wealth gap, see “The Burden of Debt on Black America” The Atlantic, October 9, 2015: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/10/debt-black-families/409756/)
For me, the most convicting aspects of this book have to do with the role of the church. In describing one particular incident where a woman on the verge of eviction approached her pastor for assistance, Desmond writes: “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 judgement you have recorded – that was a more trying matter.” Inner city churches, faced with so much need, are forced to make difficult decisions about who they should help, and how. In trying to be good stewards of their resources, many churches make the same mistakes that government agencies do in looking only at the record of the person in need without considering the forces that led them there.
Matthew Desmond’s core argument in Evicted is that eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty and that is a barrier to a person’s right to flourish, which he believes is an aspect of the right to liberty. Desmond advocates for public policy initiatives to provide low income families with affordable housing and claims that existing programs are the most meaningful anti-poverty programs in the country. He acknowledges that we have made mistakes with our policies in the past but claims we can do better. We should want to do better because “without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.”
I live in rural America, almost as far removed from urban life as a person can be and still live in the same country. It would be easy for me to say that the problems outlined in Evicted don’t apply here. But that would be a lie. Even here in farm country we have a tight rental market, we have people living in substandard housing, and we have landlords who take advantage of people who are desperate for a place to live. I have personally counselled people in difficult housing circumstances to “just make a budget and stick to it.” I find it difficult to see where personal responsibility and systemic injustice collide and how to help people caught in the middle. I still don’t know what the answers are but I feel like I have a better handle on what the problems are. With national vacancy rates for low cost rentals in the single digits, landlords have no incentive to lower rents, repair property or forgive late payments and tenants are stuck in impossible situations. Imagine, for a moment, if your housing costs consumed 70% of your monthly income. What would you have to do without?
Jesus commanded believers, in Mark 12:30-31, to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s easy to tell ourselves that we love God but 1 John 4:20 reminds us “If anyone says ‘I love God’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” Evicted describes how evictions destabilize neighborhoods by breaking up relationships and forcing people into “temporary” housing that they don’t have a connection to. If neighborhoods are destabilized then, by extension, cities, states and, ultimately, the country will suffer from the same destabilization. But maybe what is most broken is our ability to love our brothers.
*** If you want to read a novel that wrestles with similar themes, we recommend Angela Flournoy’s award-winning The Turner House, which just came out in paperback…