Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond


My thoughts:

Living paycheck to paycheck comes with ongoing pressures and struggles, but in Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond introduces us to the poorest of the poor, people lacking basic needs, food, clothing and shelter.  The downward spiral is devastating and our system offers little hope for getting ahead.  Simply stated, when tenants miss work to take care of their children, their pay is docked, and then, unable to afford food and ultimately rent, they get evicted.  From homeless shelters to other dilapidated hovels or trailor parks where the landlord refuses to put money into repairs because tenants are not paying the rent, these people, highest percentage of them black women with children, are constantly struggling as they are thrown out on the streets.

In order to write this book, the author immersed himself into the life of poverty as a tenant in Milwaukee where he studies the trends eviction play in our society. There are many contributors, government subsidized housing, food stamps, shelters, employement opportunities, education, drugs and crime, that all play a part in the successes and failures of the evicted.

When speaking about the tenants:

“Rent was their biggest expense by far, and they wanted a decent and functional home in return.  They wanted things to be fixed when they broke.  But if Sherenna wasn’t going to repair her own property, neither were they.  The house failed the tenants and the tenants failed the house.”

In regard to the nearly hopeless situation for moms with kids searching for housing:

“In 1980…1 in 4 rental units was available to families without restrictions (extra deposit and monthly surcharges per child).  Eight years later Congress finally outlawed housing discrimination against children and families, but…the practice remained widespread.  Families with children were turned away in as many as 7 in 10 housing searches.”

Bravo to Matthew Desmond for tackling this topic with tons of research.  This extraordinarily brutal and honest book is winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction and is a must read in order to understand eviction, the toll it takes on tenants in the downward spiral of poverty, the landlords’ exploitation of the poor, and an economic system that is in desperate need of repair.  Desperation leads to drastic measures for both renters and landlords and our system has not done enough to provide realistic options to protect and nurture human life.

As seen on Goodreads:

In this brilliant, heartbreaking book, Matthew Desmond takes us into the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee to tell the story of eight families on the edge. Arleen is a single mother trying to raise her two sons on the $20 a month she has left after paying for their rundown apartment. Scott is a gentle nurse consumed by a heroin addiction. Lamar, a man with no legs and a neighborhood full of boys to look after, tries to work his way out of debt. Vanetta participates in a botched stickup after her hours are cut. All are spending almost everything they have on rent, and all have fallen behind.

The fates of these families are in the hands of two landlords: Sherrena Tarver, a former schoolteacher turned inner-city entrepreneur, and Tobin Charney, who runs one of the worst trailer parks in Milwaukee. They loathe some of their tenants and are fond of others, but as Sherrena puts it, “Love don’t pay the bills.” She moves to evict Arleen and her boys a few days before Christmas.

Even in the most desolate areas of American cities, evictions used to be rare. But today, most poor renting families are spending more than half of their income on housing, and eviction has become ordinary, especially for single mothers. In vivid, intimate prose, Desmond provides a ground-level view of one of the most urgent issues facing America today. As we see families forced  into shelters, squalid apartments, or more dangerous neighborhoods, we bear witness to the human cost of America’s vast inequality—and to people’s determination and intelligence in the face of hardship.

Based on years of embedded fieldwork and painstakingly gathered data, this masterful book transforms our understanding of extreme poverty and economic exploitation while providing fresh ideas for solving a devastating, uniquely American problem. Its unforgettable scenes of hope and loss remind us of the centrality of home, without which nothing else is possible.

Matthew Desmond

About the Author:

Matthew Desmond is an American sociologist and urban ethnographer. He is currently the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University and Co-Director of the Justice and Poverty Project. The author of several books, including the award-winning book, On the Fireline, and Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Desmond was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” grant in 2015 for his work on poverty in America.


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