August 04, 2017

Book Review - Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Matthew Desmond)

In this post, I review Evicted by Matthew Desmond, a work that explores the housing problem in America by closely following the lives of tenants and landlords in Milwaukee.

Book cover of Evicted

Summary

Evicted narrates the lives of the American poor—specifically, the people who cannot afford stable housing due to various circumstances. It is a work of nonfiction compiled from over 18 months of firsthand research by Desmond, a Harvard sociologist. Through living in the most poverty-stricken communities in Milwaukee, he gains insight into the everyday experiences of both home seekers and landlords, and based on his observations, reveals flaws in the policies currently imposed on these parties.

My thoughts

An invaluable work of journalism

It is hard to imagine the amount of work and personal sacrifice Desmond went through while conducting the research behind the book. He explains a bit of the process in his About This Project section at the end, revealing that he had moved into a trailer park and an inner-city house; he had gained the trust of struggling families and recorded their opinions also while shadowing their everyday lives; he even became an “apprentice” to landlords to observe how they collected rent from their tenants.

The result of his efforts is an invaluable ethnographic work, one that surpasses mere interviews and surveys to provide a visceral glimpse into the lives of a demographic that otherwise would have scarcely have a voice in modern politics and society.

Narrow-scoped

However, I did not find the book to contain comprehensive analyses of the economic and political contexts behind the housing problem. While Desmond does briefly outline problems, citing from an abundance of sources, he rarely goes beyond stating statistics to explain why such inefficient policies were set in the first place, and why additional remedies were not made.

It may very well be that the entire housing problem is a consequence of bureaucratic carelessness and evil; however, Desmond refrains from taking a strong stance in criticism of any specific organization or individual. In effect, he left me indignant about the sheer unreason behind the situation, but also skeptical for the same reason.

The one-sided portrayal of the subjects did little to curb my skepticism. The struggles of evicted tenants are often depicted in a noble light—such as a single mother trying to remain stoic in front of her two children while her belongings are being thrown out of the front door; or a drug addict who constantly seeks a responsible life, but is hindered by eviction and the lack of social support. However, landlords are the embodiment of greed itself, unmoved by a crying mother begging for an extension on her rent, and in one extraordinary depiction actually chanting “This is myyy property!” at a landlords’ gathering.

I concede that Desmond does occasionally provide explanations to justify both positions; however, while reading, I could not help feeling that he was clearly on the side of the tenants. This to me undermined the objectivity of the book, and lead me to take in every detail with a grain of salt.

Conclusion

As an economics student, I am often intrigued about dilemmas involving public policy. In my courses, I learnt that all decisions have tradeoffs involving different groups of people, values, and philosophies. Evicted by Matthew Desmond was a thought-provoking read because it allowed me to peer into a facet of society that I would otherwise never encounter; however, one thing I yearned for while reading was some more in-depth analysis of the housing problem exposed in the book.