Matthew Desmond spent a year living in a trailer park and a rooming house in an inner-city neighborhood in Milwaukee. He watched as people, unable to pay their rent, were evicted from their apartments. He talked to people who often had to make a choice between eating or paying their utility bills. He accumulated 5,000 single-spaced pages of notes and transcripts, much of it heart-breaking material about being helplessly trapped in poverty.
Yet, at the end of Desmond’s “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” (Crown, $28), there’s a message of hope. “Each one reminds me how gracefully they refuse to be reduced to their hardships. Poverty has not prevailed against their deep humanity,” he writes.
“I think the huge challenge, at least for me, when trying to write about the texture of poverty in America is the temptation to reduce people to the problem,” says Desmond, who appears Aug. 4 at Carnegie Library Lecture Hall in Oakland as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures New & Noted series. “The temptation is to focus only on the negative stuff and not write about the humor or generosity or the courage or ingenuity in the face of this hardship.”
“Evicted” is the story of eight families who try to avoid losing their residences. They range from Lamar, a Vietnam veteran and double-leg amputee, to Scott, a nurse who grew up on a dairy farm in Iowa. Desmond, the John L. Loeb associate professor of the social sciences at Harvard, also features Sherrena, a landlord who takes no pleasure in evicting renters who are habitually late.
“I really wanted to capture the landlords’ perspective as much as possible because I thought we let ourselves off the hook a lot of times with these types of stories,” Desmond says. “We’re just quick to pick a side, saying these tenants are lazy or these landlords are crazy, when it’s way more complicated than that. And you see that in Sherrena, who is just this incredibly honest person, but she didn’t lose sleep at night over her job.”
Desmond admits there were times when he grew frustrated. He became angry with Larraine, a grandmother living at the trailer park who once spent her entire allotment of food stamps on a single, extravagant dinner. But the more Desmond thought about it, the more he understood Larraine’s action.
“What she did, to me anyway, is very human and very relatable,” Desmond says. “We can’t all live by bread alone, and the one thing you can do to survive the emotional or spiritual toll that is deep poverty is to survive a little bit in color. And there’s a bunch of behavioral economics and psychology that backs this up. It shows, for Larraine, that she’s not poor because she makes bad decisions; she makes bad decisions, if that’s what we’re going to call them, because she’s poor.”
Desmond’s research indicates that most American families spend 30 percent of their income on housing. The majority of poor renting families spend at least 50 percent of their wages on utilities and housing, with a quarter of those families spending 70 percent.
The solution, according to Desmond, is a voucher program in which families with the lowest levels of income would pay no more than 30 percent of their wages on housing.
“There’s a huge benefit for addressing poverty in America,” he says. “There’s a clear benefit to children. If we want to give children a fighting shot to reach their full potential, we have to give them stable, affordable housing. There’s a clear benefit to communities. We know that when people work together, they can improve their communities by driving down crime and keeping the streets safer. But not if we’re strangers, not if we allow this massive churning over in poor communities.”
Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.