Yet another review of a book I’m years late to.
Barbara Ehrenreich wrote the New York Times review to Matthew Desmond’s 2016 ethnography, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. This alone should lead you to pick up the book on your next visit to your bookshop. (Click here to read my review of her seminal work, Nickel and Dimed) But if it doesn’t, hear her high praise: “Desmond is an academic who teaches at Harvard — a sociologist or, you could say, an ethnographer. But I would like to claim him as a journalist too, and one who, like Katherine Boo in her study of a Mumbai slum, has set a new standard for reporting on poverty.” (Emphasis added).
I snagged the copy on impulse at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi. I was in town for graduate school-related reasons, so my field was on the forefront of my mind as a perused the mismatched shelves of the local bookshop: poverty, Southern studies, and that book I heard about by that author whose name I thought might begin with an “L.” The bookstore delivered—I got a copy of Faulkner’s Pylon, Lillian Smith’s Killers of the Dream, Desmond’s work, and I almost got me a husband after running into the man working the cash register that day at one of Oxford’s only non-fratty bars, The Blind Pig.
After I began the book I couldn’t put it down. This is why we do this, I thought. This is the work that will change things. Desmond melds advocacy, sociology, and storytelling so well that the 422-page investigative report feels like reading the heart and soul of a single family. And it isn’t. Desmond follows the lives of multiple people—both single folks and families—through the housing market in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Arleen, a black woman with two children, rents in the inner city of Milwaukee with a yearly government assistance income of $7,536. There’s Scott, a former nurse, who finds himself in a trailer park after succumbing to addiction. There are Sherrena and her husband, Quentin, the landlords of many units in Milwaukee’s inner-city. Desmond delicately intertwines the lives of each owner and renter. Each abstraction we make about the national housing crisis feels insignificant as we watch these people survive, and Desmond clearly acknowledges the voyeuristic position he holds as the mediator between tenants and landlords.
This is a tome. Over twenty-four chapters, Desmond translates the daily chore of living on nothing among families facing the near grips of homelessness. This is not a relaxing read. You will need a pen, two bookmarks, and three days to devote hours to pour into it. The introduction is requisite. The epilogue, “About This Project,” and yes, the footnotes, are each vitally important to become immersed in the lives of tenants. Yet it is unquestionably worth it—this might be the most important book I’ve read since Sing, Unburied, Sing. That’s high praise, because Jesmyn Ward herself described Desmond’s book as “Gripping and moving—tragic, too.”
Desmond never shies away from showing the ugliness of poverty—the dirt, the dilapidated apartments with bugs and lead paint, and the choices that people unfamiliar with “the other half” make. After a woman called Larraine is evicted from her trailer, she uses her food stamps to buy lobster tails, shrimp, king crab legs, salad, lemon meringue pie and Pepsi. This seems so baffling to someone who hasn’t been on food stamps or desperately poor—and Desmond entertains the paradox:
“The distance between grinding poverty and even stable poverty could be so vast that those at the bottom half 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. They would get a little high or have a drink or do a bit of gambling or acquire a television. They might buy lobster on food stamps” (219)
By immersing himself in the occupied inner zones of these tenant’s lives, Desmond demystifies the question of what to do about poverty. We know, he shows us. We choose to allow suffering in “the richest country on Earth” because it keeps us rich. We profit from the poor, causing illness and instability and suffering because it keeps our wealth stratified. We exploit—a powerful term left absent in poverty studies in recent years, Desmond notes—as an abysmally powerful “product of extractive markets.” By following landlords and tenants, Desmond shows this dynamic at work:
“The landlord who evicts Lamar, Larraine and so many others is rich enough to vacation in the Caribbean while her tenants shiver in Milwaukee. The owner of the trailer park takes in over $400,000 a year. These incomes are made possible by the extreme poverty of the tenants, who are afraid to complain and lack any form of legal representation.”
Desmond prescribes several methods to combat the eviction crisis. First, he says, we must provide legal representation for eviction courts. We must shift our thinking to acknowledge that eviction is a cause of poverty as much as it is a product. Housing needs to be considered a right as much as education—expanding housing vouchers and regulating rent prices would make this right a possibility.
Matthew Desmond is a professor of Sociology at Princeton University. Click here to read about his eviction research coalition, The Eviction Lab, and click here to purchase the book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.