Poverty and Profit in the American City

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From Princeton sociologist 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.


Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction Finalist
Winner of the 2017 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award
Winner of the 800-CEO-READ Book Award — Current Events & Public Affairs
Winner of the American Bar Association's 2017 Silver Gavel Award
Shortlisted for the 2017 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction
One of The Los Angeles Times' 10 Most Important Books of 2016
New York Times Editors' Choice
One of Wall Street Journal's Hottest Spring Nonfiction Books
One of O: The Oprah Magazine's 10 Titles to Pick Up Now
One of Vulture's 8 Books You Need to Read This Month
One of BuzzFeed's 14 Most Buzzed About Books of 2016
One of The Guardian's Best Holiday Reads 2016

iTunes Best Book of the Month
Amazon Best Book of the Month
Google Play Best Book of Spring
Goodreads "Mover and Shaker" 

“An exhaustively researched, vividly realized and above all, unignorable book—after Evicted, it will no longer be possible to have a serious discussion about poverty without having a serious discussion about housing.”
—Jennifer Senior, New York Times

"Astonishing...Desmond is an academic who teaches at Harvard—a sociologist or, you could say, an ethnographer. But I would like to claim him as a journalist too, and one who, like Katherine Boo in her study of a Mumbai slum, has set a new standard for reporting on poverty."
Barbara Ehrenreich, New York Times Book Review

“Written with the vividness of a novel, [Evicted] offers a dark mirror of middle-class America’s obsession with real estate, laying bare the workings of the low end of the market, where evictions have become just another part of an often lucrative business model.”
—Jennifer Schuessler, New York Times

"It doesn't happen every week (or every month, or even year), but every once in a while a book comes along that changes the national conversation... Evicted looks to be one of those books."
—Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review

“Thank you, Matthew Desmond. Thank you for writing about destitution in America with astonishing specificity yet without voyeurism or judgment. Thank you for showing it is possible to compose spare, beautiful prose about a complicated policy problem. Thank you for giving flesh and life to our squabbles over inequality, so easily consigned to quintiles and zero-sum percentages. Thank you for proving that the struggle to keep a roof over one’s head is a cause, not just a characteristic of poverty... Evicted is an extraordinary feat of reporting and ethnography. Desmond has made it impossible to ever again consider poverty in America without tackling the role of housing—and without grappling with Evicted.”
Washington Post

“Powerful, monstrously effective…[Evicted] documents with impressive steadiness of purpose and command of detail the lives of impoverished renters at the bottom of Milwaukee’s housing market…In describing the plight of these people, Desmond reveals the confluence of seemingly unrelated forces that have conspired to create a thoroughly humiliated class of the almost or soon-to-be homeless…But the power of this book abides in the indelible impression left by its stories.”
—Jill Leovy, The American Scholar

“Gripping and important…Desmond, a Harvard sociologist, cites plenty of statistics but it’s his ethnographic gift that lends the work such force. He’s one of a rare academic breed: a poverty expert who engages with the poor. His portraits are vivid and unsettling…It’s not easy to show desperate people using drugs or selling sex and still convey their courage and dignity. Evicted pulls it off.” 
—Jason DeParle, New York Review of Books

“[Desmond] tells a complex, achingly powerful story… There have been many well-received urban ethnographies in recent years, from Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day to Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Desmond’s Evicted surely deserves to takes [its] place among these. It is an exquisitely crafted, meticulously researched exploration of life on the margins, providing a voice to people who have been shamefully ignored—or, worse, demonized—by opinion makers over the course of decades.” 
The Boston Globe

"[An] impressive work of scholarship... novelistically detailed... As Mr. Desmond points out, eviction has been neglected by urban sociologists, so his account fills a gap. His methodology is scrupulous."
Wall Street Journal

“Like Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, this brilliant book is reportage with the depth and force of fiction. Its eye-opening details and data offer a new way to look at the affordable-housing crisis, the forces that perpetuate poverty and the policies we need to fix a crazily stacked deck.”
MORE Magazine

"[Evicted] is harrowing, heartbreaking, and heavily researched, and the plight of the characters will remain with you long after you close the book's pages... Desmond's meticulousness shows how precision is not at odds with compassionate storytelling of the underprivileged. Indeed, [it] is the respect that Evicted shows for its characters' flaws and mistakes that makes the book impossible to forget."
Christian Science Monitor

"Evicted is a rich, empathetic feat of storytelling and fieldwork."
Mother Jones

Evicted is that rare work that has something genuinely new to say about poverty. Desmond makes a convincing case that policymakers and academics have overlooked the role of the private rental market, and that eviction 'is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty'...Evictions have become routine. Desmond’s book should begin to change that."
San Francisco Chronicle

"[A] carefully researched, often heartbreaking book."
Chicago Tribune

"Evicted should provoke extensive public policy discussions. It is a magnificent, richly textured book with a Tolstoyan approach: telling it like it is but with underlying compassion and a respect for the humanity of each character, major or minor."
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"By immersing himself in the everyday lives of poor renters, Desmond follows in the tradition of James Agee, whose monumental 1941 book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men pounded the reader with clear-eyed and brutal descriptions of rural poverty in the Deep South."
Minneapolis StarTribune

“Desmond seems to be that rare person who is a dedicated and careful researcher and a phenomenal writer. The stories he tells in Evicted are gripping and intimate, at the same time as compelling as a novel and painstakingly illustrating how people are trapped and what the systemic implications are of that. I literally could not put it down… [Evicted] feels like it has the potential to catalyze a movement.”

“A groundbreaking work… Desmond delivers a gripping, novelistic narrative… This stunning, remarkable book – a scholar’s 21st-century How the Other Half Lives – demands a wide audience.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“Gripping storytelling and meticulous research undergird this outstanding ethnographic study… Desmond identifies affordable housing as a leading social justice issue of our time and offers concrete solutions to the crisis.”
Publishers Weekly (starred)

"Highly recommended."
Library Journal (starred)

"It’s hard to paint a slumlord as a sympathetic character, but Harvard professor Desmond manages to do so in this compelling look at home evictions in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, one of America’s most segregated cities... [Desmond] does a marvelous job telling these harrowing stories of people who find themselves in bad situations, shining a light on how eviction sets people up to fail... This is essential reading.” 
Booklist (starred)

Evicted is astonishing—a masterpiece of writing and research that fills a tremendous gap in our understanding of poverty. Taking us into some of America’s poorest neighborhoods, Desmond illustrates how eviction leads to a cascade of events, often triggered by something as simple as a child throwing a snowball at a car, that can trap families in a cycle of poverty for years. Beautiful, harrowing, and deeply human, Evicted is a must read for anyone who cares about social justice in this country. I loved it.”
Rebecca Skloot
, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

“This story is about one of the most basic human needs—a roof overhead—and yet Matthew Desmond has told it in sweeping, immersive, heartbreaking fashion. We enter the lives of both renters and landlords at shoulder height, experiencing their triumphs, struggles, cruelty, kindness, loss, and love. One hopes that Evicted will change public policy. It will certainly change how people respond to the world and those who inhabit it.”
Jeff Hobbs, author of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace

"This sensitive, achingly beautiful ethnography should refocus our understanding of poverty in America on the simple challenge of keeping a roof over your head."
Robert D. Putnam, Professor of Public Policy, Harvard University, and author of Bowling Alone and Our Kids

"This is an extraordinary and crucial piece of work. Read it. Please, read it.”
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, author of Random Family

“Matthew Desmond tells stories of people at their most vulnerable. The characters that populate this lyrical book, many of whom are women and children, are our true American heroes, showing great courage and mythic strength against forces that are much larger than the individual. Their stories are gripping and moving—tragic, too. It’s a wonder and a shame that here, in the most prosperous country in the world, a roof over one’s head can be elusive for so many.”
Jesmyn Ward, author of Men We Reaped and Salvage the Bones

Evicted is a striking account of a severe and rapidly developing form of economic hardship in the U.S. Matthew Desmond’s riveting narrative of the experiences of families in Milwaukee embroiled in the process of eviction will not only shock general readers, but it will broaden the perspective of experts on urban poverty as well. This powerful, well-written book also includes revealing portraits of profit-seeking landlords, as well as important findings from comprehensive surveys to back up the ethnographic research. Evicted is that rare book that both enlightens and serves as an urgent call for action.”
William Julius Wilson, Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor, Harvard University, and author of When Work Disappears

"Sociology’s next great hope… [Desmond] is positioned to intervene in the inequality debate in a big way.”
Chronicle of Higher Education

"The extent of Desmond’s research is truly astonishing. More astonishing still is the fact that he’s able to condense all of his observations and data into a single nonfiction volume that is both unsettling and nearly impossible to put down."
Chicago Review of Books

“Desmond’s acute observational skills, his facility with reported dialogue and his ability to wrench chaotic stories into clear prose make Evicted a vivid, if sometimes grueling, read.”
The Independent

“Desmond, a young sociologist whose fieldwork in Milwaukee was the subject of ‘Disrupted Lives,’ this magazine’s January-February 2014 cover article, here details several of those lives in painful, novelistic detail. But it is all fact—and all twenty-first-century American.”
Harvard Magazine

“[Evicted] could do more than anything written in years to get fixing welfare reform and addressing urban poverty back on the national agenda. It will be hard for anyone to read Evicted and not be outraged over this nation’s treatment of millions of low-income Americans. That is a huge accomplishment, and Desmond deserves high praise.”
Beyond Chron

"Desmond's important book might set out practical prescriptions for solutions such as improving the size of the housing voucher program, but the deeply touching portraits are what really make Evicted the heavyweight that it is. It should be mandatory reading for everyone, especially politicians and others who walk the corridors of power. That such bruising poverty can exist in the world's richest country is a scathing indictment of our regulatory policies."
Poornima Apte, BookBrowse.com

Q & A

A conversation with Matt Desmond,
author of

Why did you choose to write about this aspect of poverty in America?
If I had to answer this question in a word, it would be Arleen. When I first met Arleen, she was living in a small apartment in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Her rent took 88 percent of her income. I watched Arleen try to raise two boys and confront impossible choices: Should I help pay for my sister’s funeral costs or pay the rent? Should I buy my children school clothes or pay the rent? I saw Arleen get evicted several times. She lost her possessions. Her children lost their schools and communities. Landlords wouldn’t rent to the family because of Arleen’s eviction record. People like Arleen forced me to see poverty in a whole new way. I used to think eviction and homelessness were the result of poverty. But I came to recognize that eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty in America. The lack of affordable housing is driving families to financial ruin and is one of the most important drivers of inequality in the nation today.
How did you research EVICTED?
I began the old-fashioned way. I moved into a poor trailer park nicknamed “The Shame of the Southside” by the news media. I lived there for about five months before moving into a rooming house in the middle of the inner city, where I’d live for nine months. Living in those neighborhoods, I met families facing eviction and began spending my days with them. I sat beside families at eviction court, followed them into shelters, slept at their houses, and joined them at births and funerals.

As I spent more time with tenants, as well as with landlords, I found myself needing answers to basic questions that were beyond the reach of my fieldwork. How prominent is eviction? What are its consequences? Who gets evicted? So I went looking for studies that answered these questions. Surprisingly, I found no study—and no readily available data—that adequately addressed my questions. So I decided to gather the data myself. I interviewed 250 tenants in eviction court, surveyed over a thousand renters in Milwaukee, and analyzed hundreds of thousands of eviction court records. This research showed how common eviction is, and some of the most important findings had to do with the consequences of eviction. The data linked eviction to heightened residential instability, substandard housing, declines in neighborhood quality, depression, and even job loss.

EVICTED draws on all these endeavors while letting people’s stories drive the narrative. Working in concert with one another, each method I used enriched the others. And each kept the others honest.

Why did you choose to include landlords’ stories in your book, too?
Landlords literally own poor communities. They decide who gets to live where. They choose which families to evict and which to spare. They set rents, buy property, and make or neglect repairs. They are major players in the urban housing market. I realized early on that, if I really wanted to understand the dynamics of eviction and the link between housing and poverty, it was essential to capture landlords’ perspectives.

There is a larger point here about the way we think about poverty. With books about single mothers, gang members, or the homeless, social scientists and journalists have a tendency to write about poor people as if they are cut off from the rest of society. These accounts exclude rich people—or, at least, non-poor people—who wield enormous influence over the lives of low-income families and their communities. I’ve always wondered why we have documented how the poor struggle to make ends meet without asking why their bills are so high or where their money is flowing. With EVICTED, I wanted to try to write a book about poverty that didn’t focus exclusively on poor people or poor places. If poverty is a relationship, involving poor and rich people alike, I wanted to plumb that relationship.
Why did you choose Milwaukee?
Milwaukee moved me. I felt drawn to the place and its people, history, and culture. I am from a small town in northern Arizona, but there is something familiar to me about the Rust Belt. Cities like Milwaukee, Buffalo, Detroit—which have lost their economic base and are working to reinvent themselves—fascinate me, and I feel, in some way, at home in them.

But there was something else, too. Wisconsin’s largest city is not every city, but it is considerably less unique than the small clutch of iconic but exceptional places that have come to represent the American urban experience. Every city creates its own ecosystem, but in some cities this is much more pronounced. Milwaukee was far better suited to represent the experiences of those living in Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Baltimore, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Gary, Raleigh, Utica, and other cities generally left out of the national conversation. As for America’s large, global cities—San Francisco, New York, Seattle—they are where the lack of affordable housing is felt most acutely. New York City processes 80 eviction cases a day. There is nothing special about Milwaukee when it comes to eviction. The numbers are similar in Kansas City, Cleveland, Chicago, and other cities.

In 2013, 1 in 8 poor renting families nationwide were unable to pay all of their rent, and a similar number thought it was likely they would be evicted soon. This book is set in Milwaukee, but it tells an American story.
How did you gain the trust of those whose stories you tell in the book?
Living in the community helped. Many evicted families I met were my neighbors, and daily interactions helped us establish a foundation of trust. Some people opened up immediately. The first day we met, Scott told me that he was a fired nurse, consumed by a heroin addiction. Others took things more slowly. At first, Arleen suspected I worked for Child Protective Services and kept her distance. But with enough time, I was able to earn her trust. Showing her my previous work helped clarify what I did. Many of the landlords, too, were eager to talk. Arleen’s landlord, Sherrena Tarver, was in love with her work and proud of it. She told me that she wanted people to know “what landlords had to go through.” After a while, both tenants and landlords began to accept me and get on with their lives. They had more important things to worry about.
Most people think that eviction is the result of poverty, but you say above that eviction can actually cause poverty. Can you elaborate?

Eviction causes loss. Families lose their homes, schools, and neighborhoods—but also their possessions: furniture, clothes, books. It takes a good amount of money and time to establish a home. Eviction can erase all that. It also comes with a court record. Many landlords won’t rent to recently evicted families, and housing authorities treat eviction as a strike against those applying for public housing. The result is that evicted families often relocate to worse housing in more distressed neighborhoods. Eviction can cause workers to lose their jobs, because the stress and consuming nature of being forced from their homes wreaks havoc on people’s work performance.

Then there is the toll eviction takes on a person’s spirit. The violence of displacement can drive people to depression and, in extreme cases, even suicide. One study I published found that two years after their eviction, mothers still reported higher rates of depression than their peers. When you add all this up, the evidence is overwhelming. The lack of affordable housing the gap between the need and the amount of housing aid offered, and the resulting common occurrence of eviction in struggling communities—these are main causes of poverty in America. We can’t fix poverty without fixing housing.

If people are evicted, isn’t it their own fault, because they didn’t pay their bills? If they can’t afford their rent, why not just live in public housing?
I think the first thing we need to understand about this issue is that, today, the majority of poor renting families in America are spending more than half of their income on housing, and at least 1 in 4 dedicate over 70 percent to paying the rent and keeping the lights on. These families have watched their incomes stagnate, or even fall, while their housing costs have soared. But at a time when more and more families are in need of government support to afford housing, fewer and fewer are getting it. Today, only about 1 in 4 families who qualify for housing assistance receive it. The need far outpaces the aid. In larger cities like Washington, DC, the wait for public housing is counted in decades. There, a mother of a young child who put her name on the list for public housing might be a grandmother by the time her application is reviewed.

When we imagine where the typical low-income family lives in America, we should not picture a public housing complex or a subsidized apartment. Instead, we need to recognize that the typical low-income family doesn’t receive any government housing assistance and tries to make ends meet in the private housing market, where they spend most of what they have on rent. Under these conditions, eviction is more an inevitability than the result of personal irresponsibility. Between 2009 and 2011, 1 in 8 Milwaukee renters were involuntarily forced from their homes. A few generations ago, eviction used to be rare enough to draw crowds; today, eviction has become a way of life for many poor American families.
You spent a year living with people going through this experience. How did that change you?
It shook me to my core. I saw mothers trying to decide between feeding their children and paying the rent. I saw children so used to being batted around from one place to the next that they gave off no emotion during an eviction: no tears, no running to grab a favorite possession, nothing. I remember meeting Larraine, a grandmother who endured a winter in Milwaukee without heat because she simply couldn’t afford her gas bill.

I will never forget one eviction I saw. The sheriff and movers showed up to a house and found only kids inside, the oldest one a teenager. Their mother had died two months earlier, and the children had simply gone on living in the house by themselves. Inside, the house looked like a house run by children. It was raining. The deputies went ahead with the eviction, moving the children’s toys and mattresses onto the wet sidewalk.

It’s depressing to see this degree of inequality, this denial of basic needs. But I also saw a lot of spunk and brilliance and strength. I heard a lot of laughter. It was humbling to see families confronting huge, exhausting challenges and refusing to be reduced to their hardships.

I remember one day I was with Crystal and Vanetta, who were both homeless at the time. We were eating lunch at a McDonald’s and a boy walked in. He was maybe nine or ten, in dirty clothes and with unkempt hair. One side of his face was swollen. The boy didn’t approach the counter. Instead, he wandered slowly through the tables, looking for scraps. Crystal and Vanetta noticed him at the same time. “What you got?” Crystal asked, riffling through her pockets. The women pooled what they had to buy the boy dinner. Staring up at the menu, Crystal wrapped her arm around the boy as if she were his auntie or big sister. She made sure he was okay, handed him the food, and sent him on his way with a hug. Moments like this remind me that poverty has not prevailed against people’s deep humanity.

How can we fix this problem?

The good news is that much has already been accomplished. America has made impressive strides over the years when it comes to housing. In generations past, the poor crowded into wretched slums, with many apartments lacking toilets, hot water, heat, or windows. But over the generations, the quality of housing improved dramatically. And today, there are nonprofit and community-based organizations all around this country working hard to keep people in their homes and to promote affordable housing initiatives. I’ve built a website called justshelter.org that allows you to search over 600 organizations from all 50 states. So if you want to get involved in the work of decreasing homelessness, preventing eviction, and alleviating housing poverty, go there and see how you can get involved in your community.

And yet, it has become more and more difficult just to keep a roof over your head. Powerful solutions are within our collective reach. But those solutions depend on how we answer a single question: do we believe that the right to a decent home is part of what it means to be an American? We have affirmed provision in old age, twelve years of education, and basic nutrition to be the right of every citizen because we have recognized that human dignity depends on the fulfillment of these fundamental human needs. And it is hard to argue that housing is not a fundamental human need. Decent, affordable housing should be a basic right for everybody in this country. The reason is simple: without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.

America is more than capable of delivering on this right. And I think the most effective way to do that would be to expand our current housing voucher program so that all low-income families could benefit from it. Universal housing programs have been successfully implemented all over the developed world. The idea is simple: every family below a certain income level receives a voucher, so that instead of paying 60 or 80 percent of their income to housing, they now pay 30 percent. A universal voucher program would change the face of poverty in this country. Evictions would plummet. Homelessness would almost disappear. Families would immediately feel the income gains and be able to buy enough food, invest in themselves and their children through schooling or job training, and start modest savings. They would find stability and have a sense of ownership over their home and community. We can do this. We can make our cities livable again.
What do you hope readers will take away from your stories of Vanetta or Arleen or the others? What do you want us to understand about them?

I want them to remember how Vanetta organized an Easter egg hunt in a homeless shelter, bringing her children joy in the midst of a despairing time. I want them to remember how much satisfaction Arleen took when she caught a break and was able to buy her thirteen-year-old a new pair of shoes, a beautiful smile flashing across his face. People like Vanetta and Arleen, all they want is to provide for their children.

The faces of America’s eviction epidemic are the faces of mothers and children. The majority of households evicted in Milwaukee have children living in them. If mothers like Arleen and Vanetta didn’t have to dedicate 70 or 80 percent of their income to rent, they could keep their kids fed and clothed and off the streets. They could settle down in one neighborhood and enroll their children in one school, providing them the opportunity to form long-lasting relationships with friends, role models, and teachers. They could start a savings account or buy their children toys and books, perhaps even a home computer. The time and emotional energy they spent making rent, delaying eviction, or finding another place to live when homeless could instead be spent on things that enriched their lives: community college classes, exercise, finding a good job.

When families finally receive housing vouchers after years on the waiting list and only have to spend a third of their income on rent and utilities, the first place many take their freed-up income is to the grocery store. They stock the refrigerator and cupboards. Their children become stronger, less anemic, better nourished. But the majority of poor families aren’t so lucky, and their children—Vanetta’s kids, Arleen’s—are not getting enough food, because the rent eats first.


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