Author: Matthew Desmond
Genre: Non-Fiction, Social Science
In an interview from Tupac: Resurrection, the late rapper famously proclaimed, “I think that rich people should live like poor people, and poor people should live like rich people, and it should change every other week.” Though impossible to put into practice, this idea sought out a way to engender empathy in a country that tends to ignore its most desperate citizens. Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted, took a cue from Tupac, choosing to live in Milwaukee’s poorest areas for several years as he did research for this book. The result is a work of empathy that those detached from the world of food stamps and rent assistance can connect with–and not in any voyeuristic, urban-decay-vacation kind of way. Instead, Desmond artfully reveals the American relationships that keep our poor on the meandering road of destitution. With these relationships operating primarily in the housing sector, he makes it very clear where the heart of America’s poverty problem lies.
BUT, as Desmond mentions in the “About this book” section, he wrote it in the third person voice for a reason. Eviction isn’t about its author as so many ethnographic studies are–think of a book like Gang Leader for a Day, which is as much about Sudhir Venkatesh’s experience as it is about Chicago’s gang life. Refreshingly, Desmond takes a step back from his own project, and lets the stories of Arleen, Scott, Doreen and others play out before our concerned eyes. And play out they do, as I had to remind myself a few times that I wasn’t reading a novel. If there is any shortcoming here, it is in the book’s marvelously crafted narratives that force the reader to remind his or herself that someone’s belongings really are being piled on the sidewalk–that Vanetta’s son really will have to forge a motherless life while his mom sits in jail–that Arleen is truly out of housing options with two children to take care of–that the stories present a real opportunity for true empathetic understanding. If presented as the author watching people experience poverty rather than people simply experiencing poverty, I think that potential for understanding is somewhat lost, and books like these wind up being mostly entertainment.
But alas, Mr. Desmond allows his subjects to dominate the narrative section, leaving his own experience and thoughts for the epilogue and the “about this book” section. This format worked for me in a rhetorical sense as well, given that the solutions and ideas Desmond presents at the end are preceded by a whole book’s worth of evidence. One of the ideas he has to curb poverty by way of housing is to implement a federal, universal housing voucher for all people under a certain income. This plan sounds costly and idealistic, but when you consider the many costs associated with eviction–homelessness, mental illness, hunger, etc–it actually wouldn’t cost much at all. The real question is, how much do we value our impoverished population and do we want to help them? Up until now, the answer to that two-pronged question is simple–we don’t. At least, we don’t value them as rightful American citizens, but rather as income generators for those opportunistic folks who know there’s plenty of money to be made off the poor. Desmond makes the point that poverty isn’t one-sided, as exploitation of the less fortunate is as much to blame for poverty as anything else. Raising the minimum wage is a cool thing, but it becomes much less cool when rents are rising right with it.
Another idea in this book, this time from the narrative piece, really resonated with me. Larraine, a trailer park resident Desmond follows throughout the book, frequently spends money on frivolous things to the chagrin of her friends and family, who often end up denying her help. At one point in the book, she buys a couple hundred dollar make-up kit instead of paying her utilities bills. In another, she uses the entirety of her month’s food stamp allowance on one meal, featuring lobster tails and other luxury foods, only to eat scraps the rest of the month. To implicate Larraine as her own enemy here, the primary catalyst for her constant struggles, is tempting. But, for Larraine and many others who experience grinding, daily poverty, those infrequent splurges represent perhaps the only material joy they get to have. For someone is born into poverty and remains poor, the horizon is awfully hard to see. Desmond says that for Larraine, poverty is a constant that she has submitted to and doesn’t expect to escape. Those few moments of relative freedom, in being able to buy what one wants, are precious.
And finally, a meta-note for this post. At the various times I was reading this book, I continually found myself without a pen. That is the reason for the lack of quotes here as well as the sort of scatterbrained form. More so than my other posts, which are all essentially reactions, this was a true, gut reaction. Next time, I’ll be sure to have a pen so my thoughts are a little more organized. Nonetheless, I HIGHLY suggest reading this book, regardless of where your interests lie.
Next post: Tinkers by Paul Harding