Evicted. Poverty and Profit in the American City
Crown Publishers, NY
CAN $37.00 hardcover
What a knockout. The more we think about this book the more we have to admire it. Matthew Desmond took on his subject in a way that very few authors can: by going and living it bodily for an extended period of time.
Ethnography is a discipline within anthropology and sociology that involves direct observation of social interaction from within, or very close to, that interaction. Milwaukee’s slum apartments and a large, dumpy (yet lucrative) trailer park are the settings at hand. They are representative ones, unfortunately, in an America still longing for recovery.
Evicted reads often like a novel. Desmond’s presentation of a brace of poor people, and those who make a living off of them, with historical background and socioeconomic data is nearly seamless. Without this phenomenon Evicted would have been pretty tough going. There’s a lot of serious bullshit and misery in America these days.
Indeed, the constant churn of misfortune in this book is awful. Bouncing from one crap apartment in some bad neighbourhood to the next, the individuals Desmond lived beside are constantly stretched, fighting to stay ahead of total disaster. Eviction is something of a new force acting on the lives of America’s poor, falling particularly hard on top of African American lives. Desmond describes eviction as a handmaiden to mass incarceration. The worst part of it all is just how lucrative the poor are for landlords, property owners, moving-and-storage companies.
Eviction’s depressing panorama is contemporary America for a lot of people. Desmond tells us that nearly one third of Milwaukee’s evicted population are black females even though they are only nine percent of the general population (page 98). Stuff like this is crazy. It makes for quite depressing reading.
To be truthful, we nearly gave up a couple of times on all the rough apartments and dodgy building owners that are encountered here. What do you think having your personal effects piled on the curb feels like because you fell behind on the rent? Evicted is important, though. Much of its reality remains unstudied, undocumented and ignored by society at large. This is not good, Americans deserve better.
As optimistic Canadians we would have liked it if half of Evicted had been like the twenty-page epilogue: stronger on solutions and positive statements rather than the narrative of bad luck and systemic grief. We could urge the proactive adoption of specific policies to protect Canada’s post-industrial communities.
Desmond believes an expanded housing voucher program would liberate people like those he wrote about. If such a program were large enough and well-funded it would probably function almost like a universal basic income, helping to reinforce a socio-economic level that nobody need fall below.
Hard reading on an important topic for anyone interested in contemporary American life. Almost made easy by the author’s level of commitment and writing skills. Buy this book.