hen deputies and movers show up to execute an eviction in Milwaukee, the renter is given three options: His possessions—televisions, books, clothes, mattresses, children’s toys—can either be loaded on a truck for moving, taken to a bonded storage facility that charges hundreds of dollars, or dumped on the curb for garbage collection. Whatever the choice, individuals, families, and neighborhoods are traumatized.
Matthew Desmond captures that trauma convincingly in Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. The book offers a Dickensian portrait of poverty, exploitation, and the kaleidoscopic dysfunction that surrounds eviction in urban America. In 2008 and 2009, Desmond, a Harvard professor and MacArthur “genius,” followed eight low-income Milwaukee families, both black and white. His account of their lives is as sorrowful as it is maddening. There is Lamar, for example, who gets high on crack and sleeps in an abandoned building until his extremities freeze. One day he wakes up legless in a hospital. There is Arleen, who chooses to pay for a relative’s funeral rather than pay her rent. And there are the homeless women who head off to the local casino to wager their last few dollars.
In Desmond’s telling, drugs are omnipresent and intact families are unheard of. Men are either absent or on the way out the door. The disappearance of male wage earners has had a ruinous effect on poor black women in particular. Desmond argues that the epidemic of evictions has become for black women what mass incarceration has become for black men. “No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching,” he writes, “can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become.” According to Desmond, having a home is “the well spring of personhood” and the foundation for stable civic life. Noting that rent can consume as much as 70 percent of a poor person’s income, he makes a powerful case that the matter should be at the top of the nation’s antipoverty agenda.
But while Desmond doesn’t flinch from the harsh details of the lives he writes about it, he is reluctant to confront the larger implications of people’s choices. Take Larraine. Before being evicted from her trailer, she was known to spend $200 on a jar of beauty cream rather than pay her rent. One particular day, after Larraine had received a monthly allotment of food stamps, she went to the grocery store and bought “two lobster tails, shrimp, crab legs, salad and lemon meringue pie. ” And then she immediately ate it all: “everything alone, in a single sitting, washing it down with Pepsi.” Tragically, “the meal consumed her entire monthly allocation of food stamps.” Those closest to Larraine tell Desmond that a string of such choices have kept her poor. But he doesn’t quite see it that way: “The reverse was more true,” Desmond writes. “Larraine threw away money because she was poor.” (Emphasis added.)
Desmond argues that poor people in Larraine’s position had already lived with so many limitations and roadblocks that it had become “difficult to imagine the amount of good behavior or self-control that would allow them to lift themselves out of poverty.” They had come around, therefore, to a different approach. “They tried to survive in color, to season the suffering with pleasure,” he writes. “They would get a little high or have a drink or do a bit of gambling or acquire a television. They might buy lobster on food stamps.” And they might just eat it in a single day without thinking of how they’ll eat for the rest of the month.
Arthur Brooks has described Desmond’s brand of nonjudgmentalism well: “It says that the ethical standards to which we should be held scale up or down according to our salaries….In other words, if you are poor, you can’t be held to the same standards as the well-off.” As Brooks understands, this is the soft bigotry of low expectations. “Creating a separate set of moral standards according to socioeconomic status is not an act of mercy,” he writes. “It is a crime against the poor. It is an abdication of our moral duty to hold one another accountable.”
This abdication notwithstanding, Evicted is already being treated as a Big Book. Lest its importance be missed, the New York Times has written three different reviews. Pamela Paul, of the Times Book Review, declared that Evicted is the sort of book that “changes the national conversation,” while the Times’s Jennifer Senior wrote that “it’s sure to capture the attention of politicians. (Hillary, what are you reading this summer?)”
So it is especially unfortunate that the solutions Desmond offers seem so inadequate to the problem he describes. Indeed, his policy prescriptions—more guaranteed government entitlements and legal representation—are in tension with his narrative. He describes the unintended consequences of government programs, such as nuisance abatement, that force the poor into even poorer neighborhoods. Then he proposes more government programs.
Desmond calls for a “collective” commitment to making housing a “basic right for everybody in this country.” He also suggests taking the right of legal representation granted to indigent defendants and extending it to renters facing eviction. Desmond freely admits that this would mean more tenant lawyers, more judges, more clerks and commissioners. But he seems to believe in the perfectibility of bureaucracy.
Desmond wants a dramatically expanded housing-vouchers program so that low-income households would have to spend no more than 30 percent of their income on housing. He acknowledges that a universal housing entitlement could be a disincentive to work but nevertheless sees it as a miracle policy. The housing vouchers “would change the face of poverty in this country,” he writes. “Evictions would plummet and become rare occurrences. Homelessness would almost disappear.” Just like that.
The key, he suggests, is the wisdom of the central planners and bureaucrats who would run the program. “Administrators could develop finely grained analyses,” he predicts, “borrowing from algorithms and other tools commonly used in the private market, to prevent landlords from charging too much and families from selecting more housing than they need.” This means cost controls enforced by the government. Nor would government enforcement end there. Desmond declares that “discrimination against voucher holders would be illegal under a universal voucher program.” Landlord participation would be mandatory.
This sounds very close to nationalizing a massive chunk of the private rental-housing market. Well, Desmond argues, the matter is just too crucial to leave in the hands of the private sector. “Housing is too fundamental a human need, too central to children’s health and developments, too important to expanding economic opportunity,” he writes, “to be treated simply as a business, a crude investment vehicle, something that just ‘cashes out.’” He is apparently unaware of the work of nonprofit groups, such as those in Milwaukee, that get the poor into owner-occupied homes.
Desmond casually insists that “we have the money” for this grand undertaking and suggests that we might tap home-mortgage deduction funds to get more of it, although he offers no insight on how that might be accomplished. He devotes less than a single page to the question.
And that is more than he devotes to addressing the panoply of problems that fill his book. In his proposals he says nothing about the role of the underlying culture; nothing about the need to address broken schools or self-destructive personal choices; nothing about alcohol and drug abuse; nothing about families or fathers, faith, philanthropy, crime, or even jobs.
Having read his riveting account of life among the poor, the omissions are striking. But expecting less of ordinary people ultimately means expecting more of bureaucrats. And so long as there is another program or entitlement to tweak or expand, the Lamars and Larraines will be ensured an ever-widening array of deplorable options come eviction day.