“She was beginning to wonder what was most responsible for keeping them homeless: her drug conviction from several years back, the fact that Ned was on the run and had no proof of income, their eviction record, their poverty, or their children.”
Matthew Desmond’s ‘Evicted’ won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for for non-fiction.
The book is in three parts — an ethnography of eviction, an outline of some solutions, and Desmond’s personal reflections on the years he spent writing the book.
The ethnography is stunning. Beautifully written, with detached observation that is all the more haunting for its objectivity.
“Scott often thought about killing himself. He’d have done it with a monster hit of heroin; but he never could find enough money.”
Through the eyes of tenants and landlords in poverty-stricken areas of Milwaukee, ‘Evicted’ pores over the roots and repercussions of eviction.
“Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.”
The book has two main points to make. First, that society has not examined in sufficient detail the scale or the impact of evictions. And second, that we have not considered the impact these evictions have on society at large.
‘Evicted’ leaves you with the sense that people getting stuck in cycles of eviction are circling the drain — the forces pulling them down are too strong for them to reverse.
“Giving up [is] easier when things seem impossible.”
The housing picture in Milwaukee, and across America, is bleak. 1 in 5 of all renting families in the country spends half of its income on housing. One in four poor renting families dedicates more than 70 percent of their income to paying the rent and keeping the lights on.
Against stagnant income growth, rent and utility prices have increased. 2 of every 3 poor renting families receive no federal assistance.
“In the inner city, much was made of early milestones. Later ones might never come.
It is not the statistics that make ‘Evicted’ compelling. It’s the complexity and humanity of the decisions that each person has to make. It’s not as simple as — bad person doesn’t pay rent, bad person gets evicted.
“Being high was a “mini vacation” from his shame of a life. He took the trip whenever he could afford it.”
The reasoning, the justification, and the nightmarish balancing act of which bill to default on first are all laid bare. For families on the edge of eviction, drugs, prison, violence, an impenetrable court system and the ghoulishly bad infrastructure of social ‘services’ all tangle together to make stable, safe housing a distant dream.
“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.”
The second section of the book is less remarkable. Desmond puts forward two solutions to the eviction crisis:
- Establish publicly funded legal services for low-income families in housing court.
- Expand the housing voucher program to all low-income families.
Right or wrong, the thought of having to wait for government to legislate two expansions to the safety net for the poor (one of them costing $60B) is ultimately an unsatisfying one. Desmond is at his best not on policy, but prose.
“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 value 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.”
The third and final section of the book gives space for Desmond to reveal his personal experiences with the people he writes about. The author himself is a fascinating character — a Macarthur genius recipient, and Ph.D. in sociology — and his empathy for his subjects is visceral.
It’s that empathy that makes this such a powerful book and so deep an insight into a part of our societal machinery gnashing its teeth into millions of lives every year.