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From Harvard sociologist and MacArthur -Genius- Matthew Desmond, a landmark work of scholarship and reportage that will forever change the way we look at poverty in America
In this brilliant, heartbreaking book, Matthew Desmond takes us into the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee to tell the story of eight families on the edge. Arleen is a single mother trying to raise her two sons on the $20 a month she has left after paying for their rundown apartment. Scott is a gentle nurse consumed by a heroin addiction. Lamar, a man with no legs and a neighborhood full of boys to look after, tries to work his way out of debt. Vanetta participates in a botched stickup after her hours are cut. All are spending almost everything they have on rent, and all have fallen behind.
The fates of these families are in the hands of two landlords: Sherrena Tarver, a former schoolteacher turned inner-city entrepreneur, and Tobin Charney, who runs one of the worst trailer parks in Milwaukee. They loathe some of their tenants and are fond of others, but as Sherrena puts it, -Love don't pay the bills.- She moves to evict Arleen and her boys a few days before Christmas.
Even in the most desolate areas of American cities, evictions used to be rare. But today, most poor renting families are spending more than half of their income on housing, and eviction has become ordinary, especially for single mothers. In vivid, intimate prose, Desmond provides a ground-level view of one of the most urgent issues facing America today. As we see families forced into shelters, squalid apartments, or more dangerous neighborhoods, we bear witness to the human cost of America's vast inequality--and to people's determination and intelligence in the face of hardship.
Based on years of embedded fieldwork and painstakingly gathered data, this masterful book transforms our understanding of extreme poverty and economic exploitation while providing fresh ideas for solving a devastating, uniquely American problem. Its unforgettable scenes of hope and loss remind us of the centrality of home, without which nothing else is possible.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2016-01-04
- Reviewer: Staff
Gripping storytelling and meticulous research undergird this outstanding ethnographic study, in which Desmond (On the Fireline), an associate professor of sociology at Harvard, explores the impact of eviction on poverty-stricken families in Milwaukee, Wis. Living first in a rundown trailer park with predominantly white tenants and then in an African-American inner-city neighborhood, Desmond conducted fieldwork by observing and asking questions of his neighbors; later, he collected extensive data about eviction specifically in the private rental market. The book reveals the concentrated suffering of people repeatedly faced with the loss of their homes. He shares the stories of Lamar, a double amputee raising adolescent boys; Scott, who tries to conquer his heroin addiction and return to his nursing career; single mom Arleen, her sons, and their cat, Little; and five other families. In one gut-wrenching scene, Desmond shadows a moving crew as they evict numerous households in one day, finding in one tenant’s face “the look of someone realizing that her family would be homeless in a matter of hours.” Desmond identifies affordable housing as a leading social justice issue of our time and offers concrete solutions to the crisis. Agent: Jill Kneerim, Kneerim and Williams. (Mar.)
Inside the rental crisis
Read it and weep. You’ll find it hard not to. Written by a Harvard sociologist, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City has the character development and dramatic drive of a first-rate novel. The core of Desmond’s study was conducted in Milwaukee from 2008 to 2009 and focuses on the day-to-day agonies of specific people who were frequently evicted from their homes by private landlords. In most cases, rent took from 50 to 70 percent of the tenants’ monthly income, a situation that made late payment or non-payment inevitable—and always reason to evict.
What makes Matthew Desmond’s account so compelling is that he lived among the people whose travails he chronicles. Some of the victims—mostly black and often women with children—lived in the inner city; the others, overwhelmingly white, lived in a dilapidated trailer park on the edge of town. He also spent time with landlords to get their sides of the story.
Again and again we witness the tenants’ last-minute attempts to find rent money, negotiating with their landlords, sitting helplessly in court as judges rule against them, watching their possessions being tossed onto the sidewalk and explaining to their kids why they’re moving to yet another school. Desmond is clearly sympathetic, but he is no sentimentalist. He reveals all the blemishes of the dispossessed—their unwise ways with money, addiction to drugs and alcohol and casual attitudes toward birth control. Still, he knows that poverty seldom builds character.
Desmond argues that government-subsidized housing vouchers should be available to low-income families and that landlords should be required to accept them. “Decent, affordable housing should be a basic right for everybody in this country,” he concludes. “The reason is simple: without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.”