Seeking distraction one winter afternoon, a Milwaukee boy takes to some old-fashioned mischief and hurls snowballs at passing cars. A driver gives chase and kicks in the door of the house where the boy lives with his mother and younger brother. The landlord puts the family out. Thus begins an odyssey that in Matthew Desmond’s gripping and important book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, exposes the harrowing world of the ten million or so low-income households that pay half or more of their income for rent and utilities, a long-overlooked population whose numbers have recently soared.
The mother, Arleen, finds a house she likes, and it consumes only 84 percent of her cash income. But the city condemns it. So she moves the teen, Jori, and his brother, Jafiris, to a place she calls “Crack Head City” and then to a duplex where the rent, $550 a month, requires 88 percent of her income. She falls behind and gets evicted two days before Christmas, but the new tenant lets her stay until she finds a place. Living with a stranger causes friction, and Arleen calls ninety landlords before finding a place, from which she is again evicted. The situation worsens. She and the boys double up with a neighbor who is turning tricks. They rent a place where they are robbed at gunpoint. When Arleen’s next apartment takes 96 percent of her welfare check, she can’t keep the lights on. Her worst fear comes to pass: child welfare takes the kids.
Evicted tells this and other disturbing stories in spellbinding detail in service of two main points. One is that growing numbers of low-income households pay crushing shares of their incomes for shelter—50 percent, 60 percent, 70 percent, and more—leaving inadequate sums for items as basic as medicine and food. Their numbers were rising for decades but soared to record levels during the Great Recession. The book’s second point is that the evictions aren’t just a consequence of poverty but also a cause. Evictions make kids change schools and cost adults their jobs. They undermine neighborhoods, force desperate families into worse housing, and leave lasting emotional scars. Yet they have been an afterthought, if that, in discussions of poverty.
Desmond, a Harvard sociologist, cites plenty of statistics but it’s his ethnographic gift that lends the work such force. He’s one of a rare academic breed: a poverty expert who engages with the poor. His portraits are vivid and unsettling. Crystal, who takes in Arleen, had parents on crack and got passed around to two dozen foster homes. She ends up homeless and prostituting herself, but never misses church. Pam has “a midwestern twang and a face cut from…
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