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

EvictedI keep telling myself, “Bookish, you need to lighten up. You need to read more fun and frolic silly chick lit that doesn’t tax your brain or make you feel.” Then you receive a copy of Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, and you just have to read it.

Desmond is a sociologist and professor at Harvard, much like Barbara Ehrenreich tried to live life as a member of the working poor in her classic Nickel and Dimed, Desmond learned about both the lives and struggles of both the poor and the landlords that rent to them by taking up residence in Milwaukee, and letting both sides tell their stories about their struggles and challenges. He focused on two Milwaukee communities, the northwest side, which is prominently black, and a trailer park on the south side where many of the residents are white. Many have made bad choices; they fail to get an education, get hooked on drugs, have children they can’t afford, they party too hard, they blow their allotment of food stamps on expensive food, etc. Needless to say, this often doesn’t leave a whole lot of money to pay the rent, and the landlords had no choice but remit eviction notices. Desmond, for the most part, doesn’t condemn or condone these actions, but makes us question, “Do bad choices lead to poverty or does poverty lead to bad choices?”

And one wonders if these bad choices would lead to so much struggle if they weren’t also poor at this point in their lives. Remember, there are plenty of rich people who make bad choices and their lives are never affected too greatly (or at all). And they certainly don’t face becoming homeless.

But at the same time, many of the residents dealt with issues outside of their control, a loss of a job, stagnating wages, certain benefits not coming through, a serious illness, a death in the family, a car accident or just a really awful winter, which made their heating/electric bills sky rocket. Some of these residents tried to help their lot in life by looking for a second job, selling their belongings (sometimes their plasma); many of them get roommates or bring in extra family members to help pay the rent.

The actual eviction descriptions are exceptionally difficult to read, and often left me queasy. Desmond writes of these passages with the clarity and detail of a film maker, which made me truly see them in my mind’s eye. I kept shaking my head, wanting to get them out of my brain, but to this day, I just can’t let go of the “scenes” of people being thrown from their homes during moments of both fun and frolic and at moments of utter despair and desperation. Where do they go? What do they do? And I can’t fathom how this devastates the children involved, many who via eviction go from home to home, family member to family member, school to school, and shelter to shelter, not knowing any sense of security or stability. If this is difficult for an adult, I can’t even imagine how eviction damages a young child.

Still, I had to keep in mind the landlords are business people, and renting out property is their business they can’t rent out to people who can’t pay up. And though there were times I found the landlords lacking in empathy and some of them verged on being slumlords, I also understand they need to be paid.

What surprised me while reading Evicted is how expensive these places were despite their less than glamorous zip codes and truly detestable conditions, one being a place inhabited by maggots, yes maggots. Many of these places weren’t much cheaper than places found in “better” neighborhoods like Milwaukee’s east side, or places like Bayview. Yes, the rent is “too damn high!”

The best thing about Evicted is how Desmond just lets both the tenants and the landlords speak their truth; like a true reporter, he doesn’t preach or take sides. He lets the reader takes sides…or in this case of this reader, don’t take sides. Evicted is not an easy read, but I can’t recommend it enough.