Most Americans hate poverty. The dominant narrative, embraced by the major media and most politicians, tells us that the poor are “welfare queens,” lazy, violent and criminals.
In his unforgettable and personal study, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, sociologist Matthew Desmond has thankfully succeeded in a necessary and almost impossible task: humanizing the poorest Americans.
Imagine that you are a single mother with two young kids paying $500 per month for an apartment with no working fridge, where cockroaches fester in the sink, carpets decay under layers of slimy, black mold and the toilets haven’t flushed in three weeks.
Imagine that you’re ecstatic to live there; You can’t find anywhere else because you keep getting turned down. Your past eviction record or the mere existence of your children allows landlords to deny you housing, even if you have the money.
Imagine that your six-year-old son has severe asthma, and you often have to call an ambulance to get him breathing again. Imagine that, because you made “too much noise” during the incident, your landlord serves you with a legal 28-day eviction notice.
For some families, this is normal. Because of a failing support system, bad luck and/or a history of sexual and physical abuse, the poorest Americans, including many in Baltimore, continue to suffer.
In the neglected Milwaukee neighborhoods where Desmond, a sociologist based at Harvard, lived for years, the poorest Americans — black, white, man, woman, child, senior, addict, ex-convict — struggle to keep a roof over their heads.
It’s disgustingly easy to get evicted, especially if you’re behind on the rent. And when the eviction order is served, your worldly possessions are thrown out on the curb or locked away. Then the search for the next place begins, as you and your children shuffle from homeless shelter to overcrowded apartment, from screaming family members to abusive boyfriends.
Desmond lived in a rooming house on the predominantly black North side of Milwaukee and a rundown trailer park on the entirely white South side. He did something remarkable, what even the best sociologists fail to do: He listened respectfully and deeply engaged with the local community.
He asked how his participants were and what they needed to get by. He asked them about their kids. He wanted to know how and why the government and private landlords had failed them. He wanted to know why they had made bad decisions.
Through pure determination, Desmond compiled 5,000 pages of single-spaced notes and condensed them into 350 pages of readable prose, tactfully interspersing background information and policy into the heartbreaking personal stories of the serially evicted.
When the old, imperfect welfare system, anchored by Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), was dismantled in 1990s and replaced by short-term, work-dependent aid programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), millions of unemployed Americans — and most importantly their children — quickly became destitute. And as the majority of the United States’ poor public housing was demolished, thousands became homeless.
In order to provide their families with a roof, however leaky, the poorest Americans must pay up to 50, 80, even 100 percent of their income, often just small social security payments and food stamps, to their exploitative landlords each month. Desmond artfully exposes why this system must be destroyed.
While Desmond does not support the old welfare system, he firmly rejects the current approach. For him, adequate, safe housing should be a constitutional right. His solution is to give everyone who needs housing support a voucher, which guarantees that they only pay 30 percent of their income in rent.
Private landlords can only charge a locally calculated fair market rent, and if the renter’s income doesn’t cover the full value, the government will pick up the rest.
And while it will cost a few billion dollars, the U.S. currently spends those billions on real estate subsidies for the rich in the form of the home mortgage interest reduction. This policy costs taxpayers $70 billion annually by allowing well-off homeowners to reduce their tax contribution by the amount of interest paid on a loan taken out on their home.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that up to 77 percent of the reduction goes to Americans who make more than $100,000 per year. None of that money goes to help America’s poorest.
If the U.S. nominally guarantees the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, 12 years of education and medical care for our elderly and our poorest, it’s all useless unless beneficiaries have roofs over their heads. I’m with Desmond; Safe housing absolutely should be a guaranteed right for all Americans. It’s an investment worth making.
If you want to know how the U.S. is failing its most at-risk citizens and why renegade landlords must be stopped from exploiting low-income Americans, read Desmond’s moving and rigorous Evicted. It will change your perspective.