Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

Matthew Desmond

Book cover

This book is a sociologist’s study of eviction and its role in the lives of poor people, both black and white, in Milwaukee. As you might expect, it ends up being more or less a book about poverty in general, since it’s not really possible (or probably desirable) to separate eviction from all of its causes and consequences.

In general, I would say Desmond argues successfully for the idea that housing insecurity is a major stumbling block in the lives of the poor in America, making it more difficult for people to get their lives together in other ways. I was surprised by many of the observations in the book. For one, the extent to which “low income housing” rents are not proportionally that much lower than average rents–even really crappy places rent for a significant fraction of decent places. This of course makes economic sense in a free market, because people’s willingness to pay is going to be pretty high when the alternative is homelessness. It was also incredible how many apartments the people in the book had to visit before finding a place that would rent to them–I’m talking like 80 or 90. Finally, I was surprised at what a non-factor both public housing and subsidy programs like Section 8 are. Their supply is so limited that they are effectively not an option for the people in Desmond’s book–for example, public housing is more or less limited to seniors at this point.

The ending section on the research methodology was also extremely interesting to me. It certainly made me feel like I could never do ethnographic research of this kind! The total immersion it requires in the lives of others is really impressive.

When this book came out earlier this year, I read a review that compared it to Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” in terms of significance. I can’t really say that it lived up to that standard for me, though a very high standard it is. I suppose this is mainly because the issues that Alexander outlines are sins of commission, whereas the issues in this book are more like sins of omission–America could be doing a lot more to help people with housing security, but it seems more pressing to stop actively ruining people’s lives by throwing them in jail.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars