Book Review: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

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“Residential stability begets a kind of psychological stability, which allows people to invest in their home and social relationships”. – Matthew Desmond Matthew Desmond, an American sociologist wrote this brilliant book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City whilst living near the families whose lives he wrote about. The book also won the 2017 Pulitzer prize for General Non Fiction. This ethnographic study was an eye-opening read about how tragic our systems are in not giving a helping hand to the poor. From the stories I read, it felt like those being evicted had limited options legally or otherwise and were being ‘kicked when they were down’ – seemingly, everything can be profited from including homelessness. I really enjoyed the humane way in which Matthew Desmond described the Landlords & their own conflicts in choosing to evict their tenants, sometimes during the Christmas season in the freezing cold of Milwaukee.

In my review, I focus on scarcity and “material hardship” and what that does to the decisions, quality of life and stability that low-income families experience.

Some of my favourite lines from the book are below with my thoughts:

On material hardship

 “This – the loss of your possessions, job, home, and access to government aid-helps explain why eviction has such a pronounced effect on what social scientists call “material hardship,” a measure of the texture of scarcity. Evicted families continue to have higher levels of material hardship at least two years after the event.”

Stable housing or shelter is one of our basic human needs. In the stories, the renters could not afford to put their belongings in storage and so ended up losing their possessions too, once evicted. This affected their ability to attend interviews or look for ways to better their life. Sometimes, it was hard to get out of the trap of addiction or slip back into addiction due to sheer hardship and brutality of being homeless. I cannot really even imagine what this does to one’s state of mind.

On residential instability

  • “Residential stability begets a kind of psychological stability, which allows people to invest in their home and social relationships. It begets social stability, which increases the chances that children will excel and graduate. And it begets community stability, which encourages neighbors to form strong bonds and take care of their block.”
  • “Instability is not inherent to poverty. Poor families move so much because they are forced to.”
  • “It takes a good amount of money and time to establish a home. Eviction can erase all that.”

Housing authorities (in the US) count evictions and unpaid debt as strikes – so to read that those with the greatest need are systematically denied help is really sad. It just doesn’t make any sense. Sometimes, tenants were evicted for complaining there was no hot water. Poverty also drowns out your voice.

On opportunities for growth

America is supposed to be a place where you can better yourself, your family, and your community. But this is only possible if you have a stable home.”

“A good home can serve as the sturdiest of footholds. When people have a place to live, they become better parents, workers and citizens.”

This is such an important book which throws light on how the need for housing and the need for profit clash, resulting in much psychological devastation for the poor. While the broad consensus is that families should spend no more than 30 percent of their income on housing,  it is difficult for renting families to meet this goal with rising rents. In London, where I live, rents rise each year and certainly salaries do not keep pace with rising rents. Yet, the public housing situation in the UK seems more humane.

Empathy for the Needy

I recently came across The Core Values of César E. Chávez and this one caught my eye: A Preference to Help the Most Needy – A concerted effort to support programs that reach the most needy, the most dispossessed, the most forgotten people in society no matter how difficult the challenge that choice may bring.

The book enlightened me to the many privileges I take for granted such as knowing where I will sleep at night. I highly recommend reading it. Any book that awakens me towards empathy for the less privileged and gratitude for mine is a great book.

Further reading:

Evictionland - Curbed.com

America’s Insidious Eviction Problem - The Atlantic

Evicted - Matthew Desmond

Nonviolent Communication and Corporations - Medium