Friday, September 9, 2016

Evicted, by Matthew Desmond

I'm not sure I've ever read a more depressing book than Matthew Desmond's Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.  It's so depressing, it made the author depressed.  Desmond, a Harvard sociologist, embedded himself in some of the worst neighborhoods in Milwaukee.  Focusing on the private housing market, he tells the stories of several renters and their troubles with evictions, as well as the landlords and property managers.

Like no other book I've read, Desmond captures the realities of poverty.  He emphasizes the fact that without adequate housing, other issues of poverty domino and exacerbate one another.  Without a stable home, keeping regular income, maintaining family life, keeping a job, succeeding in school all become exponentially more trying.  Desmond's detailed narrative, compiled from years of interviews and first-hand observations, got a bit too detailed for me at times, but realistically portrays the day-to-day struggles.

As his observations in Milwaukee, as well as the broader literature he cites, demonstrate, eviction is a huge problem, especially for black single mothers.  I couldn't help but feel sympathy for their plight.  Desmond writes in such a way that I felt like I could be in their shoes quickly.  A medical crisis, loss of a job, a natural disaster, who knows what, could be all it takes to get an average family evicted and into the cycles he describes.  On the other hand, nearly all of the people he profiles have some history of drug abuse, a criminal record, dropped out of school, had children out of wedlock, or some combination of the above.  While I am a firm believer in second chances in life, you can't ignore the fact that some (many?) who share the struggles of Desmond's subjects are where they are as a result of their poor choices.

I have some sympathy for Desmond's solution: expanding housing vouchers.  He sees housing as a basic human right, and sees the private housing market as the best way to provide it.  People who can't afford housing should have access to vouchers, which would be cheaper than shelters, and certainly cheaper than all of the social costs associated with housing instability.  His policy proposals are the meat of the book, but the bulk of the content is his narrative account of the lives of the poor.  This narrative sets Evicted apart, spotlighting a side of life that few middle-class or upper-class Americans ever see.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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