Systemic Eviction

Credit: Matthew Desmond

Credit: Matthew Desmond

My family–like most of the people who (I assume) read Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016) by Matthew Desmond has never been on the verge of being evicted. In Evicted, Desmond tells the stories of impoverished families in Milwaukee and their relationship with their landlords between 2008 and 2009. These stories don’t show me how this poverty feels, but they show the types of environments and struggles that these people face.  

In his narration, which flows seamlessly like a novel, Desmond is forthwith about the very human flaws that these poor people have: Larraine spends her food stamps on a meal of lobster and king crab legs. Ned has his children “march around the house chanting, ‘White Power!’” Arlene escalates conflict with people who have helped her. Scott spends his money on more opioids instead of making rent.  

Of course, Desmond also portrays these peoples’ positive traits: Crystal, a 19 year-old, allows Arlene–a stranger–and her kids to stay with her until they can find a place of their own. Scott, an ex-nurse, offers gentle care to an older man that he shares a trailer with. In sum, Desmond shows the good and the bad.

By honestly depicting these people’s flaws, instead of confirming peoples’ stereotypical concerns with welfare, Desmond uses them to draw our focus towards the systematic institutions that exploit these people. He notes that “screening practices that banned criminality and poverty in the same stroke drew poor families shoulder to shoulder with drug dealers, sex offenders, and other lawbreakers.” In other words, screening practices perpetuate the connection between poverty and crime. Similarly, when Larraine buys lobsters with her food stamps he notes that “the distance between grinding poverty and even stable poverty could be so vast that those at the bottom had little hope of climbing out even if they pinched every penny.” So, they have no incentive to save. In the end, Desmond’s ultimate argument is clear: “poverty is not just a product of low incomes. It is also a product of extractive markets”–the high rents and exploitative housing policies–that need to be checked.

As somebody who will never personally experience the effects of extreme poverty, this focus on systematic exploitation is imperative. It is something that I, a privileged college student, can think about and work towards solving.

His underlying question echoes: Will we recognize that safe and secure housing is a basic right for all Americans? –Sage Marshall

Sage Marshall '19 studies English at Wesleyan University. He is co-founder and editor of Reverberations. 

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
Written by Matthew Desmond
Publisher: Crown Publishers
418 p.