REVIEW: Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, New York: Crown Publishers, 2016
By Frank A. Fear, professor emeritus, Michigan State University
“Whatever our way out of this mess, one thing is certain. This degree of inequality, this withdrawal of opportunity, this cold denial of basic needs, this endorsement of pointless suffering—by no American values 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.” (p. 313)
Eloquently phrased, so valid and compelling in substance…. Those words gave me great pause for thought.
I thought about America. How did it get this way? I thought about me. How can I make a difference?
The most sobering thought of all was this: nothing Matthew Desmond writes about is new.
At various levels we know severe poverty exists in this country. But most of us live a world apart—apart occupationally, economically, socially, and institutionally. But it’s different geographically. Wander a bit from Main Street or the suburbs. You’ll find it. And it’s closer than you think … often too close for comfort.
Desmond’s book should make us feel uncomfortable. He helps us confront this “other reality” in vivid and sometimes raw terms.
For me, the most discomforting part of the book was Desmond’s treatment of profit. There’s money to be made in the slums. Landlords, lenders, and other actors profit on the backs of vulnerable people—people living hardscrabble lives who don’t always know what tomorrow will bring.
“Exploitation, now there’s a word that has been scrubbed out of the poverty debate,” Desmond writes (p. 305). I won’t forget that phrasing.
I didn’t read Evicted from cover to cover. I read Part One (through p. 107) to get grounded. Intrigued by the study design, I then turned to the end of the book and read about Desmond’s methodology (“About This Project,” pp. 315-336). Wondering about Desmond’s overall conclusions and recommendations I next read “Epilogue: Home and Hope” (pp. 293-313).
I used Epilogue as the foundation for reading the rest of the book. I highlighted (literally so, by marker) supporting documentation (the material cited in footnotes) and connected that evidentiary material to vignettes about people and relationships. Connecting those two domains—data about poverty (important to me as social scientist) with stories about poverty (important to me as citizen activist)—made the book come alive.
After finishing the book I spent time thinking about the meaning of Evicted. I concluded that it’s a Call to Arms. We must do more, and do better, as stewards of the commonwealth. Desmond says as much:
“Working on behalf of the common good is the engine of democracy, vital to our communities, cities, and states—and, ultimately, the nation. It is “an outflow of the idealism and moralism of the American people, wrote Gunner Myrdal.” (p. 294)
What might we do to serve the common good? I offer two recommendations. The first has to do with our role as benefactors. The second pertains to our role as political actors.
As Benefactors. A benefactor is a kindly helper. Millions of Americans are benefactors in the fight against poverty. We serve by volunteering time and giving money to America’s nonprofit agencies.
Not all agency work is the same, though. A good share of the work involves providing people relief from poverty and some of it targets the causes of poverty. If you’re like me then you’ve devoted more attention to relief and less to cause-remediation.
When I served as president of a municipal food bank I watched the client roll grow. More people needed food assistance. Many were children. Many were senior citizens. Many were “new kinds of people,” people you wouldn’t ordinarily associate with hunger, such as out-of-work professionals.
How could this be happening in America, I thought? I wasn’t the only person asking that question. And many times I heard this answer: “There will always be poor people in America. Our moral responsibility is to tend to their needs.”
Relief services certainly have a place. But raising more money to provide relief services to more and more people is an endless routine. It capitulates to the forces that cause hunger. And it makes benefactors problem responders, not problem solvers.
I believe America needs to reinvigorate its efforts to address the causes of poverty. One way to do that is by concentrating more time and money on agencies, programs, and services that target the causes of poverty by addressing those causes directly.
But it isn’t easy to identify those initiatives. Why? First, many evaluation systems only use financial indicators to judge nonprofit merit and quality (e.g., % of budget devoted to administration). Fiscal accountability is important, but it only gets at how agencies operate. Second, resources to help Americans make nonprofit choices don’t always do a good job of differentiating among diverse initiatives. Disparate activities are often lumped in a generic category, such as “Fighting Poverty.”
We need to be inquisitive and discriminating, first, then declarative and active, next. Volunteer. Serve on a committee. Become a board member. Make targeted financial contributions to projects with high impact. Endow a program to make a long-term difference.
I’m more convinced than ever—thanks, in part, to reading Evicted—that we must speak openly and passionately about shifting primary emphasis in this country from relief to remediation. Then we must act.
As Political Actors. Nonprofit initiatives are important, but local, state and national-level policies represent the cornerstone of transformation. With that in mind I very much like Desmond’s proposal—to expand the housing voucher program (pp. 308ff).
Sadly, though, poverty isn’t a primary concern politically in this country — and it hasn’t been a primary concern for nearly a half century. That’s why we don’t have the policies we need to attack poverty aggressively.
What a difference that is from the America of my youth! Poverty was on the national radar screen in the 1960s: we had a “War on Poverty.” Then the focus shifted substantially—from a progressive stance emphasizing commonwealth to a neoliberal ethic accentuating individual achievement.
“Capitalism … /has been celebrated/… not only as a wealth-generating engine,” David Brooks wrote recently, “it also … / became/ … a moral system, a way to arouse hard work, creativity and trust.” The creed? Focus on what you can get for yourself. “Everyone else can take care of themselves.”
The political rhetoric shifted correspondingly, too, from a Kennedy-esque “what I can do for my country” to cries for cutting taxes, shrinking government, and trimming regulations—three pillars of The Reagan Revolution. We hear those same cries today.
For decades, neither major political party made poverty a priority—even though data have shown clearly and consistently that a good share of America is being left behind. It’s the same in this election cycle. Poverty has been an off-and-on topic, mostly off, and sometimes back on, largely as a result of external pressure.
In September The New York Times Editorial Board published an opinion piece entitled, “The Failure to Talk Frankly About Poverty.” Hillary Clinton followed with plan to help America’s poor, but that plan was evaluated as lacking when compared to what other Western countries have done and are doing (e.g., Great Britain).
Part of the challenge is the way political parties go about their business. They use a routine I call “The Three P’s”—Philosophy, Policies, and Programs. Party partisans talk about values they hold (Philosophy), the legislation they’ve enacted in the past and are pending today (Policies), and initiatives they’ve funded or intend to fund (Programs). Data and expert opinion are used to support the contention that America is “better off” (or at least improving) because of the party’s work. Then, on the flip side, party partisans use the Three P’s to argue that America has been hurt by what the other party stands for, has done in the past, and proposes to do in the future.
This either-or routine is patently familiar, the stuff of which stump speeches, party platforms, and candidate-authored Op Ed’s are made. That routine is connected intractably to what Desmond writes about poverty on pp. 316-17. For Conservatives the poverty narrative is mostly about individual deficiencies (e.g., having children out of wedlock). For Liberals the focus is largely on structural forces (e.g., loss of manufacturing jobs).
Desmond proposes another way of framing the poverty debate, a way that makes more sense to me as a Progressive—not just substantively, but morally as well. He sees poverty as a relationship involving poor and rich (emphasis added):
To understand poverty…I needed to understand that relationship. This sent me searching for a process that bound poor and rich people together in mutual dependence and struggle. Eviction was such a process.” (p. 317)
Desmond’s approach acknowledges that we (not just “they”) have a problem. It emphasizes our collective responsibility to serve the public good. And it’s a much-needed antidote to neoliberal self-centeredness.
How might we help that type of thinking grow and bear fruit? The first step is creating broader awareness of what’s going on—to become “Desmond’s Disciples,” as it were. But spreading the gospel won’t be easy. Survey data reveal that a majority of Americans (almost 70%) believe that people are responsible for their own welfare. And over 70% of those surveyed are pessimistic that poverty can be eliminated—even if the government made poverty a high priority.
Because change won’t come easily, I believe in approaching change as a political endeavor. What political acts might we take? Here are several examples.
Host a reading circle in your home with Evicted as common reading. Better yet, contact your local library and offer to organize a reading group in your community.
Write an Op Ed about Evicted for your hometown paper. Describe what’s going on in America and discuss its implications. Follow that up by writing a series of pieces about poverty, the plight of people, and what we can do—as everyday Americans and as a country—to address it.
Become knowledgeable about poverty-related legislation that’s before your state legislature and Congress. Identify representatives who support or oppose policies that lift people out of poverty. Endorse those who do. Volunteer to work on their campaigns. Speak out against those who don’t support poverty legislation. A good way to express support and oppose is by writing Letters to the Editor of your hometown newspaper.
Affiliate with local, state, and national-level poverty-focused organizations. Work with others to advance a political agenda that addresses poverty directly.
The bottom line: Do what you can and as much as you can. Lives hang in the balance.
If you think that interpretation is an exaggeration, consider what Jennifer Senior wrote in her review of Evicted:
“How can you hang on to a job, send your child to school, or build roots in a community if you are constantly changing homes, each one more dilapidated and dangerously located than the next?”
Repeat those words to anybody who questions your activism.
Would they want to live their lives that way? Certainly not. If they did, would they want others to care about them? Probably yes.
We should care about those who live this way—today, right here, in America. And we should do something about it.
So let us.
 SYNOPSIS (from Amazon.com): “Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City is a sociological study of evictions, housing, and homelessness in Milwaukee. The book follows the lives of a number of tenants and landlords in order to examine how access to housing affects the poor. Desmond also includes historical background, statistics, and research findings to provide context for his narratives…. /The study shows that/…eviction is hugely disruptive, and those who are evicted face loss of property, intensified poverty, and an erosion in quality of housing. Evictions also disrupt jobs, and may increase depression and addiction. It’s not only that poverty contributes to housing precarity; housing precarity contributes to poverty. Moreover, a home can spell the difference between stable poverty, in which saving and advancement are possible, and grinding poverty, in which one staggers from crisis to crisis.”
Politics for the People Conference Call
With Matthew Desmond
Sunday, October 23rd at 7 pm EST
Call In Number: 641 715-3605
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