A year and a half ago, the Health and Social Policy team at Burness formed a book club to read and discuss the latest non-fiction, and occasional novel, that relates to our work. Since then, we’ve covered a whole lot of books—including The New Jim Crow, Being Mortal, Hatching Twitter, Nation on The Take, and several others—diving deeper into the issues that matter to us on health care, housing, technology, and the economy.
In deciding on what to read for this month, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City seemed like the obvious choice. The critically acclaimed book by Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond follows the lives of low-income families in Milwaukee as they struggle to keep a roof over their heads, and examines the broader national trends in the housing market. Early on, Desmond argues that the lack of access to affordable housing is among today’s most urgent yet unrecognized social crises.
“Eviction affects the old and the young, the sick and the able-bodied. But for poor women of color and their children, it has become ordinary,” he writes.
At Burness, our work with partners such as the Low Income Investment Fund, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Brookings Institution points to the lack of affordable housing as a problem that not only hurts individuals, but has lasting consequences for the economy and our nation’s future. While Evicted confirms many of the grim statistics we already knew—the majority of poor renting families spend at least 50 percent of their income on housing, for example—its firsthand accounts of how people get caught in the web of poverty are eye-opening.
For his research, Desmond embedded himself in Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods to document the lives of people on the edge. They include a couple dealing with job loss and raising three young daughters; a nurse whose opioid addiction cost him his license to practice; a double-amputee war veteran trying to work his way out of debt; and a single mother raising two sons on the $20 a month she has left after she pays for housing. They are all struggling to pay their rent, and they have all fallen behind.
The people that Desmond introduces us to are always one unexpected expense away from homelessness—a single mistake could bring their downfall. Despite this, many of these people inspire with their fortitude and resourcefulness. They continue pressing on after multiple evictions, job losses, personal tragedies, and dead end housing searches. They start over again and again, with each eviction leaving them worse off.
As families are forced into shelters and substandard apartments, we see the domino effect of misfortune that follows loss of a home. Evictions force desperate people into worse housing and leave emotional scars. They cost adults their jobs and make kids change schools. The blemish of an eviction makes it harder to get housing assistance or rent private apartments. One child who Desmond follows, Jori, went to five schools in two years, when he went at all. He once missed seventeen consecutive school days while he and his family searched for shelter.
Eviction isn’t just another hardship or consequence of poverty, Desmond argues, but a cause of it.
Desmond believes that the solution to the eviction crisis is expanding housing voucher programs so that all families below a certain income are eligible. He also proposes solutions that range from publicly funded legal services for the poor in housing court to rent restrictions. While Desmond makes a strong case for reforming today’s rental market, his portrayal of people’s lives leaves the most vivid impression of why the current system is unacceptable.
If you care about the growing inequality and poverty in our country, I highly recommend picking up this book.
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