Monday, September 11, 2017

Evicted by Matthew Desmond



Whatever our way out of this mess, one thing is certain. This degree of inequality, this withdrawal of opportunity, this cold denial of basic needs, this endorsement of pointless suffering--- by no American value is this situation justified. No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching, can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become.


This is how the remarkable and heartbreaking book, Evicted by Matthew Desmond ends. And I open my post about this with the ending because it encapsulates what is really at the heart of this work: inequality and poverty are not issues that belong to third world countries or people you don't know. They are real and urgent problems that are guiding the future of this country and they need to be studied and they need to be addressed now.

Desmond moved to a trailer park in Milwaukee, WI in one of the poorest neighborhoods of the city in the hope of observing first hand the epidemic (which seems like the right word) of evictions that were happening throughout the city. During his stay, he meets and writes about a group of eight families and focuses on two landlords, while living among them and following them through various events in their lives. From evictions, to shelters, to courts, Desmond observes the Catch-22 that evictions put in motion for so many people who often have to make impossible choices to survive. He writes with a gripping and engaging style that reads more like literary nonfiction than the academic work it ultimately is.

The stories of the families and individuals that Desmond highlights are heartbreaking and very human. He writes with an insight that encompasses both his vast academic knowledge of the study of poverty, housing law, psychological effects of poverty, and sociological theory as well as the kind of understanding that comes from knowing these people personally, living with them and sharing their journeys. It is a unique and startling look into the heart of an ugly and unnecessary problem.

 As he writes in his introduction, evictions used to be both rare and cause for alarm throughout communities. When a family or a single individual was evicted, it caused shock and sympathy from neighbors. In recent times, however, as affordable housing dwindles and rents rise and rise and keep on rising, more and more poor people are spending upwards of 70% of their income on housing alone. The ramifications of having nearly all of one's income put toward the sheer necessity of a place to live are seemingly insurmountable. There is little to no money left for food, clothing, utilities, child care...anything else. As we meet the families and individuals who have become trapped in the cage of a system that is seemingly designed to keep everyone in place, it becomes evident that for so many people in Milwaukee and beyond, the struggle for housing is all encompassing and tragic.

Exhaustively researched (check out the massive footnotes and bibliography), Evicted is essential reading, not only for the individual stories of the people involved, but because Desmond also explores ways out that could work. He lends a voice to a population (including both tenants and landlords) that could easily be dismissed or dehumanized and, as we all know from the recent dialogue in this country about the poor and matters of inequality, often are. To wit:

The harder feat for any fieldworker is not getting in; it's leaving. And the more difficult ethical dilemma is not how to respond when asked to help but how to respond when you are given so much. I have been blessed by countless acts of generosity from the people I met in Milwaukee. Each one reminds me how gracefully they refuse to be reduced to their hardships. Poverty has not prevailed against their deep humanity.


Evicted was published in 2016 and has been on my radar for a few years now. There was barely a book event, librarian's book buzz or casual discussion with publisher friends during the last year in which this book wasn't discussed. The author was awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant, and the Pulitzer Prize. This past year at ALA's Carnegie Medal award ceremony, this book took the prize for the year's best non-fiction book, as well as a myriad of awards and mentions for the year's best and it deserves all of the accolades. I had the pleasure of attending that ceremony and of meeting Desmond and receiving a copy of this book. He signed it for me with the note "Home is life." After reading this and crying over it and being angered and outraged and saddened by it, I couldn't agree more. I have never read a book like this before and, from what Desmond discovered in his research, the direct effects of no affordable housing on the endless loop of extreme poverty is an under researched subject, yet one that is vital to our understanding and overcoming the grip of poverty in the United States.

Read. This. Book.



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