Title: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
Author: Matthew Desmond
Genre: Nonfiction / sociology
Rating: 4.5 / 5
Well, this book is…intense–and probably made moreso by the speed with which I read it.
This book follows quite a few people who are facing evictions or have been evicted as well as a couple of landlords. The writing is very easy to read–this book is focused on its “characters” and contains lots of their dialogue, interactions, and thoughts. It’s a human-focused narrative, and although there are some facts and statistics thrown in, they are definitely peripheral to the story that unfolds for the people. Because of this, I think many readers who typically don’t go for nonfiction would in fact find this book to their tastes (though maybe not to their enjoyment, because–yikes). We get to know different families, different neighborhoods, different struggles, and get a picture of what poverty and the eviction process looks like in a city like Milwaukee.
Matthew Desmond points out in the “About This Project” at the end of his book that there was no real research on the “dynamics of the private housing market” (cursory searches of a couple journal databases bear this out)–a huge oversight, since over two-thirds of this country’s poor do not get any housing assistance whatsoever. And apparently, this is what has been happening. Although obviously I know evictions happen, I didn’t know it looked like…this. It is an important read for that reason alone.
I did notice some conflicting responses within me. “No one thought the poor more undeserving than the poor themselves,” Desmond writes, and I could feel some of that in myself. Some of the people he follows actually earn more money than I do, and like me are white and don’t have children. And I’ve never paid rent late, much less been evicted. I wondered a lot about the differences between us–but that is outside the scope of this review. And in the end, it doesn’t matter anyway. I do believe that people deserve safe housing. It is a basic right. It should not even be an issue. There was almost nothing any of the tenants did in this book that should deprive them of their homes. I say “almost” because there was one character who stomped on someone’s face, patently making that particular home unsafe for others–however, she had been diagnosed with a mental illness and was not receiving adequate treatment, and if she were the situation would likely be very different. She still deserves safe housing–just not that particular housing. Despite the fact that there are some unflattering portraits in here, how “sympathetic” we find somebody should not determine whether they have a secure, dry place to sleep at night.
I found it distracting that book the author basically wrote himself out of the account. He waited until after the epilogue to share why he made this choice, and I wish he had done it in the preface instead. The reason he gives for not writing it in the first person like most ethnographies is that “the ‘I’ filters all,” that is, readers are always aware that the ethnographer is observing and filtering things through their own experience to write about it. Frankly, I was aware anyway. By leaving himself out of his own narrative completely, he makes it seem omniscient when it’s not. As he himself wrote, his presence did influence things and people behaved differently around him based on his race and gender, among other traits. I don’t know how much the average reader would notice this or mind, but it bothered me–and if he had just moved that explanation up to the front of the book, it would have saved me wondering about it the whole book. (Also, the footnote links were not working in my digital copy from Netgalley, which probably would have cleared the matter up for me as well.)
There were a few moments where it felt a little like highbrow poverty porn, and I wondered how he selected his cases and to what end–but when it comes down to it, it’s an unwarranted charge. This stuff is happening and we should know about. Desmond offers a fair, evenhanded, and compelling look at what is going on; it didn’t seem exploitative or harmful and his agenda merely seems to be to “hey, this shouldn’t be happening”–something I agree with wholeheartedly. The book is geared more than anything to policy changes. The “characters” are complex, both agents and victims. Desmond got it right and I hope this book enjoys a wide readership, because it deserves it. This is an issue whose time has come.