I don’t read enough non-fiction, but this came so highly recommended by the world at large that I didn’t hesitate to pick it up, and man, oh man am I equal parts happy to have read it, and completely ruined by it.
Matthew Desmond embedded himself in the slums (if you will) of Milwaukee for a long time, built relationships with a number of people on various sides of the complex polyhedron that is the American landlord/tenant dynamic, and in this book, reports on them in a very compelling and personal way, drawing some devastating conclusions that are also supported by an immense amount of data.
Full disclosure: my dad is a sociologist, as is one of my brothers. I’m not; I’m in the arts. But I’m familiar with data collection, the importance of a rock-solid statistical foundation, and the peer review process.
And this is where we come to what I found most interesting and important about this book, and also the most challenging. The numbers are there. And the personal experience that Desmond brings to the narrative is compelling. But for me, the specific and individual compassion that he inspires by sharing his portraits of the people he gets to know during his time in Milwaukee undercuts the science of it all. And yet, without this compassion and understanding, I don’t think I would have found the science as interesting, and I think the conclusion to which he comes is important.
As Desmond says near the end, “Exploitation. Now, there’s a word that has been scrubbed out of the poverty debate.” I think this is the key to the entire work, and I can’t stop thinking about it. In the most recent season of “Shameless,” for example, Fiona is told by a financial planner that the only way to find stability in America is to own something. It sticks in the craw: that to earn, you must be taking from and taking advantage of someone else. It’s a hard pill to swallow. And how do we solve it? Inconclusive, and upsetting, and something we have got to solve if our country doesn’t want to continue with this ever expanding wealth gap.