Book Review: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond

EvictedEvicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by sociologist Matthew Desmond is a non-fiction narrative based on Desmond’s notes (first-hand and second-hand reconstruction accounts) while intentionally living in one of the poorest of areas in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the years of 2008 and 2009. The book follows six families—tenants and landlords—giving the reader a glimpse of some of the difficulties (often perpetual and reoccurring) with almost no hope. It’s sad, tedious, and monotonous. There’s little useful information outside of third-hand experience from simply following along, and most of the footnotes—where some of the real data and statistics may found—are overwhelmingly from sources after 2009. This eight-year project is based solely on Milwaukee and has no current information (a lot has changed in housing markets in the last eight years). I began to wonder if there was a purpose to these 292 pages of depression (another forty-nine of footnotes at this point), and then came the Epilogue, in which Desmond offers his solution to the eviction problem: a nation-wide housing voucher program (308–313).

What?! All the data collected, the depressing stories, and Desmond’s first-hand experience, which caused a significant amount of struggle and depression for himself, demonstrated gross errors on the parts of tenants, landlords, and policies. One of the first things I found to be rather useful information is in note 6 of chapter 12: “Public programs like SSI and food stamps continue to incentivize living alone. If you live under another’s roof and eat at her or his table, your SSI income is reduced by one-third. Larger households receive more food stamps—but not as much as members of that household would receive if they lived separately” (368). Desmond recounts a conversation with a woman (again in the footnotes) where he asks how she thinks people will feel when reading in his book that after just renewing her food stamps she then went and put a fifteen-hundred dollar sixty-two-inch TV on layaway. Her response was, “Well, they don’t have to understand it. … I would say because I wanted to” (n. 4, 377–378). Really? After these accounts and many others that blatantly exploit existing policy and government funds, the answer is another government program that may work “without additional spending if we prevented overcharging and made the [current voucher] program more efficient” (emphasis original, 311)? Why not first attempt to prevent overcharging and make the current program work efficiently before expanding it (if at all) to prove that it can be done before wasting even more money? Granted, there are more circumstances for which one may have more compassion and want to help financially some families as an initial step, especially given Desmond’s experiences in living in this particular environment, but those should not be used as evidence for more nationwide policy that ignores so much else, including already existing policy that needs reform.

The book concludes with another twenty-two-page section entitle “About This Project,” wherein Desomond describes what lead him to pursue it (PhD program), how he made his way into this particular housing area, how he was treated (pros and cons) as a white dude intentionally moving in and taking notes and recording conversations everywhere he went, all the data collected and sifted through thereafter, and the toll it all took on him. The process itself is quite impressive, and kudos to Desmond for being willing to take on such a task. However, the process is not indicative of a similarly impressive conclusion.

I find no reason to read this book, unless one is utterly clueless about eviction processes and desires a lengthy emotional downer to become a bit more aware through a choppy non-fiction narrative.

 

*I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

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