Evicted: Matthew Desmond’s Sociological Imagination

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I can think of few books that better meet Mills’ description of the sociological imagination than Matthew Desmond’s Evicted. C. Wright Mills wrote:
The sociological imagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals. It enables him to take into account how individuals, in the welter of their daily experience, often become falsely conscious of their social positions. Within that welter, the framework of modern society is sought, and within that framework the psychologies of a variety of men and women are formulated. By such means the personal uneasiness of individuals is focused upon explicit troubles and the indifference of publics is transformed into involvement with public issues.
Evicted is gripping journalism, embedded in a deep knowledge of the sociological literature and history, combined with a concrete set of proposals. For his field work, Desmond spent over a year living first in a trailer park, then in a rooming house in an inner-city neighborhood in Milwaukee, getting to know tenants and landlords. His ethnography heartrending, infuriating, and, most importantly, humanizing.
What interests me most about Evicted is the moral framework: how should we think ethically about eviction? Desmond writes:
When I began studying poverty as a graduate student, I learned that most accounts explained inequality in one of two ways. The first referenced “structural forces” seemingly beyond our control: historical legacies of discrimination, say, or massive transformations of the economy. The second emphasized individual deficiencies, from “cultural” practices, like starting a family outside of wedlock, to “human capital” shortfalls, like low levels of education. Liberals preferred the first explanation, conservatives the second (316).
As Desmond points out, the structural vs. individual dichotomy very much frames public discussion. Liberals (as the term is understood in the United States) want to provide public resources to overcome structural barriers, conservatives (again, in the idiosyncratic US sense) think the poor should pull themselves up by their bootstraps. It is hard to fathom anyone could closely read Evicted and continue to believe that all that poor people need is more grit and character. Nonetheless, liberals miss a crucial part of the problem as well.
Desmond continues:
To me, both seemed off. Each treated low-income families as if they lived in quarantine With books about single mothers, gang members, or the homeless, social scientists and journalists were writing about poor people as if they were cut off from the rest of society. The poor were said to be “invisible” or part of “the other America.” The ghetto was treated like “a city within a city.” The poor were being left out of the inequality debate, as if we believed the livelihoods of the rich and the middle class were intertwined but those of the poor and everyone else were not. Where were the rich people who wielded enormous influence over the lives of low-income families and their communities – who were rich precisely because they did so? Why, I wondered, have we documented how the poor make ends meet without asking why their bills are so high or where their money is flowing? (316-7)
What’s missing from both the liberal and conservative frameworks with their mutual eschewal of class as an explanation is exploitation: people are poor in large part because other people are rich. Desperately poor people give over an enormous percentage of their income to landlords who possess every advantage over them – rental units are scarce for people with poor or no credit, a history of eviction, possibly a criminal record, and children (one of the most significant liabilities in finding and retaining a place to live). The result is that landlords exercise enormous power to rent or not to rent and to evict – there are almost no real checks on their discretion.
Desmond notes that “In fixating almost exclusively on what poor people and their communities lack – good jobs, a strong safety net, role models – we have neglected the critical ways that exploitation contributes to the persistence of poverty. We have overlooked a fact that landlords never have: there is a lot of money to be made off the poor. The ‘hood is good.” (306)
Beyond a journalistic and a sociological document of eviction in Milwaukee, Desmond provides a moral vision and policy prescriptions. He rightly sees housing as a basic right for all Americans: “Decent, affordable housing should be a basic right for everybody in this country. The reason is simple: without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.” (300)
Stable housing is also necessary for effective social action. Without a long term prospect of living in a neighborhood, it makes no sense to become involved with one’s neighbors or to take on social or political causes, even if one can find the time and energy. Without stable housing, it becomes difficult for people to organize to pursue their common interests. One of the greatest barriers to social justice are policies that fragment the population, leading them to think that their lives are not entwined.
Desmond writes: “It is only after we begin to see a street as our street, a public park as our park, a school as our school, that we can become engaged citizens, dedicating our time and resources for worthwhile causes: joining the Neighborhood Watch, volunteering to beautiful a playground, or running for school board.” (294)
Housing is also efficient – it saves money in shelter costs, emergency rooms, not to mention the often invisible costs of lost productivity and the criminal justice system. But people who often have the greatest need – those who have been evicted or those who have gone through the criminal justice system – often find themselves barred from housing assistance by law. One of the paradoxes of American public policy is that there is a preference for harsh, punitive approaches to poverty – overcriminalization and prison – that are in fact many times more expensive than protecting the poor from predation and ensuring their basic needs.
Desmond has specific policy prescriptions: a universal housing voucher program that covers all low-income families, combined with mandatory participating and stabilizing rent (to prevent landlords from overcharging). He argues for adequate funding to provide low-income tenants lawyers to represent them in housing court. The prospect of enacting these policies is bleak at the moment. Nonetheless, Evicted has been read widely and discussed (in Multnomah County in Oregon, it is the Everybody Reads 2017 book). It is a powerful invitation to awaken the imagination and indignation needed for change.

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