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A searing portrait of American poverty

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A searing portrait of American poverty
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Kicked out

A searing portrait of American poverty

In Atlanta earlier this year, Melinda and I met a young woman I’ll call Sharon. (That’s not her real name.) Sharon works 12 hours a day, seven days a week. She is a single mom with two sons, including a newborn. While Sharon was in the hospital after the birth of her new son, she missed a single rent payment on her apartment. She came home to discover that she was being evicted.

When we met, Sharon was still fighting the eviction and getting help from a legal aid group. But it was clear she was in crisis. It broke our hearts to hear what she and her boys were going through.

Meeting Sharon put a face and name on an issue I had been thinking about a lot. Just a few days before we met, I finished reading Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond, a sociologist at Princeton University and a grantee of our foundation. I can see why Desmond received one of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grants and won a Pulitzer for his book. His research shows that experiences like Sharon’s are not some aberration. Hundreds of thousands—and maybe millions—of Americans are evicted from their homes every year. In Milwaukee, where Desmond did his reporting, one in eight renters were forced to move in a two-year period.

As stunning as those numbers are, Evicted is primarily about people, not data. Desmond has written a brilliant portrait of Americans living in poverty. I have no personal experience with the kind of crisis faced by Sharon or the people profiled in Evicted, so I can only learn about it by hearing their stories. This book gave me a better sense of what it is like to be very poor in this country than anything else I have read.

Desmond spent 18 months living in two high-poverty neighborhoods in Milwaukee—one mostly white, the other mostly black—getting to know the residents and documenting their lives. You meet both landlords and renters, and he portrays them all without being the least bit judgmental. He just helps you understand why they make the choices they make. Although the specifics of their lives are unlike anything I have experienced, Desmond makes it easy to empathize with them.

True to its title, much of Evicted is about how hard it is to find and keep a home when you live in deep poverty. Most experts agree that the ideal is to spend no more than 30 percent of your income on housing; according to Desmond’s research, most poor families have to spend over 50 percent on housing, and for many it’s over 70 percent.

When you’re paying so much to keep a roof over your head, there’s no room for bad luck. A single bad incident can send you reeling. One woman in the book, Arleen, gets evicted from her apartment after someone breaks down her front door over a minor dispute involving kids throwing snowballs. Another time, she falls irreparably behind on the rent after helping to pay for the funeral of a close friend.

For me, though, Evicted’s biggest contribution isn’t the focus on housing. It’s the dramatic illustration of the ways in which issues of poverty are intertwined. When someone has to search for a new place to live, they miss work, which cuts back on their pay and makes them more likely to get fired. And all this instability has a terrible impact on children. One of Arleen’s sons attends five different schools in a single year.

I also got a glimpse of how gut-wrenching it must be when someone piles up your belongings on the curb and you don’t know where your family is going to sleep that night. It’s no wonder that people who have been evicted experience significantly higher rates of depression and anxiety.

As Desmond puts it: “Eviction’s fallout is severe. Losing a home sends families to shelters, abandoned houses, and the street. It invites depression and illness, compels families to move into degrading housing in dangerous neighborhoods, uproots communities, and harms children. Eviction reveals people’s vulnerability and desperation, as well as their ingenuity and guts.”

Melinda and I have been working for some time to learn more about how Americans move up the economic ladder (what experts call mobility from poverty). Evicted helped me understand one piece of that very complex question, and it made me want to learn more about the systemic problems that make housing unaffordable, as well as the various government programs designed to help.

Desmond briefly goes over the history of public housing. Big government-run projects are largely a thing of the past, and today most poor people live in private housing. But because funding hasn’t kept up with the need, he writes, only about a quarter of families that qualify for help paying their rent actually get any. The wait list for a housing voucher is often measured not in months or even years, but in decades.

(If you’re interested in reading more about how these problems disproportionately affect African-Americans—and in the role that legal segregation has played—I strongly recommended reading The Color of Law, by Richard Rothstein. I was stunned by the huge role that federal policy has played in creating segregated housing patterns.)

Evicted raises one big question that it doesn’t really answer: How can low-income neighborhoods have cheap real estate and vacant houses, but still lack decent affordable homes? As Desmond notes, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Milwaukee’s highest-poverty areas was only $50 less than the citywide median. But he doesn’t say a lot about what causes this, for example how restrictive zoning and strict building codes may drive up the cost of even a modest home.

To be fair, there’s a lot that we simply don’t know about this question. There isn’t good data on this subject. So Desmond has set out to learn more. With support from our foundation, he is calculating eviction rates for every city in the country. He is looking deeper into these market failures to understand why housing prices stay so high even in low-income neighborhoods. (We funded this work long before I read Evicted.)

I am eager to see what Desmond’s research discovers. In the meantime, Evicted is well worth reading for anyone who wants to better understand poverty in America. It is beautifully written, thought-provoking, and unforgettable. 

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