In April of 2017 Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction. I am relieved to discover that, because the idea that there was a better, more eloquent, well researched, and presented book released in the competition period I would have eaten my hat. Or your hat, I have trouble finding one that fits me.
Desmond is a Harvard sociologist and a MacArthur “Genius” grant winner, which is shorthand for this dude is awesome (he’s in the same class as Ta-Nehisi Coates). This book is based on his research and creation of the Milwaukee Area Renters Survey where the team he headed examined court records and conducted extensive fieldwork interviews to build a complex picture of what the high rates of eviction do to disrupt the lives of low-income Americans, and specifically African Americans. Desmond is shedding light on how entrenched poverty and racial inequality are built and sustained by housing policies in large American cities.
Evictions used to be rare. But now with many poor families spending more than half of their income on rent (and you can forget owning a home) and evictions becoming an ordinary occurrence for which families plan for which, is demonstrated by the stories of the eight families Desmond highlights in Evicted.
Desmond brought fresh eyes to the survival strategies of struggling families, overturning the longstanding assumption that people in economic disaster turn to their extended family for assistance. Policymakers and pundits have long stated that family and faith should be able to step in, but what if you don’t have the perfect nuclear family they imagine you have? What if your kin or faith family is in no position to help you? Desmond has the answer for that: today, poor families often form intense, but brief relationships with strangers, creating a network of “disposable ties” to meet needs. Near strangers watch over each other’s homes, children, and decide to cohabitate based on need and these relationships come apart as fast as they went together, further destabilizing primary relationships needed for both survival and success.
This is a difficult read, don’t for a minute think it is not. But it is so important. During my childhood my family’s fortunes turned dramatically downward. I remember vividly going on free and reduced lunch, checking the mail to see if the check came so we could go buy new shoes for school, eating meals based more on their price per serving than anything else. The stories told here could have easily been mine if we hadn’t started slightly ahead – if my parents hadn’t been helped with their first home, and then before it all came crashing down sell their next house for enough to be able to buy the house I grew up in outright when we moved states. I think back now that if we’d had a mortgage payment, or a car loan, in those tight years things would have turned out very differently. We are all in good places now, but things are often still tight with my siblings and I often living paycheck to paycheck with very little cushion. Just six months ago I was facing the reality of living on my own in my current city costing me half of my take home income. It would have possibly destroyed me financially. I managed to find another housing solution, only spending a third of my take home on rent, but it was a scary time and balancing student loan debts (hello rising education costs!) as well as other debts and basic cost of living… it is still scary.
But I’m not trying to take care of a family of three with $20 left over after rent. I have it pretty good. There is even now privilege at play in my story, and this book brings it into an even more defined light.
All of this to say – read this book as fast as you can.