Evicted, Matthew Desmond
"I wanted to try to write a book about poverty that didn't focus exclusively on poor people or poor places. Poverty was a relationship, I thought, involving poor and rich people alike. To understand poverty, I needed to understand that relationship. This sent me searching for a process that bound poor and rich people together in mutual dependence and struggle. Eviction was such a process."
"This book is set in Milwaukee, but it tells an American story."
"The poor did not crowd into slums because of cheap housing. They were there--and this was especially true of the black poor--simply because they were allowed to be."
"If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out."
"In Milwaukee, renters with housing vouchers were charged an average of $55 more each month, compared to unassisted renters who lived in similar apartments in similar neighborhoods. Overcharging voucher holders cost taxpayers an additional $3.6 million each year in Milwaukee alone--the equivalent of supplying 588 more needy families with housing assistance."
"The same thing that made homeownership a bad investment in poor, black neighborhoods--depressed property values--made landlording there a potentially lucrative one. Property values for similar homes were double or triple in white, middle-class sections of the city; but rents in those neighborhoods were not. A landlord might have been able to fetch $750 for a two-bedroom unit in the suburb of Wauwatosa and only $550 for a similar unit Milwaukee's poverty-stricken 53206 zip code. But the Wauwatosa property would have come with a much higher mortgage payment and tax bill, not to mention higher standards for the condition of the unit. When it came to return on investment, it was hard to beat owning property in the inner city."
"They say the foreclosure crisis started on Wall Street, with men in power ties trading toxic assets and engineering credit default swaps. But in the ghetto, all you needed was a rapid rescore coach and a low-income tenant hungry for a shot at the American Dream."
"In the 1960s and 1970s, destitute families often relied on extended kin networks to get by. Poor black families were "immersed in a domestic web of a large number of kin and friends whom they [could] count on," wrote the anthropologist Carol Stack in All Our Kin. Those entwined in such a web swapped goods and services on a daily basis. This did little to lift families out of poverty, but it was enough to keep them afloat. But large-scale social transformations--the crack epidemic, the rise of the black middle class, and the prison boom among them--had frayed the family safety net in poor communities."
"Mass resistance was possible only when people believed they had the collective capacity to change things. For poor people, this required identifying with the oppressed, and counting yourself among them--which was something most trailer park residents were absolutely unwilling to do."
"Most renters in Milwaukee thought highly of their landlord. Who had time to protest inequality when you were trying to get the rotten spot in your floorboard patched before your daughter put her foot through in again? Who cared what the landlord was making as long as he was willing to work with you until you got back on your feet? There was always something worse than the trailer park, always room to drop lower. Residents were reminded of this when the whole park was threatened with eviction, and they felt it again when men from Bieck Management began collecting rents."
"In the last decades of the twentieth century, as the justice system was adopting a set of abrasive policies that would swell police forces and fuel the prison boo, it was also leaving more and more policing responsibilities to citizens without a badge and gun. What about the pawnshop owner who sold the gun? Isn't he partially responsible for the homicide? Or the absentee landlord who failed to screen his tenants? Didn't he play a role in creating the drug house? The police and courts increasingly answered yes. It was in this context that the nuisance property ordinance was born, allowing police departments to penalize landlords for the behavior of their tenants. Most properties were designated "nuisances" because an excessive number of 911 calls were made within a certain timeframe. In Milwaukee, the threshold was three or more calls within a thirty-day period. The ordinances pushed property owners to "abate the nuisance" or face fines, license revocation, property forfeiture, or even incarceration"
"And yet there she stood alone, in an empty apartment. Crystal picked through the things Arleen had left behind. When she wandered into the kitchen, she discovered that Jori hadn't been able to remove the stove piece, but he did cut the electrical cord. Crystal told herself she wasn't planning on eating that day anyhow. Pastor had called a fast."
"The distance between grinding poverty even stable poverty could be so vast that those at the bottom had little hope of climbing out even if they pinched every penny. So they chose not to. Instead, they tried to survive in color, to season the suffering with pleasure. 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."
"When Arleen was alone, she sometimes cried for Little. But she was teaching her sons to love small, to reject what they could not have. Arleen was protecting them, and herself. What other self-defense was there for a single mother who could not consistently provide for her children?"
"Most Milwaukeeans believed their city was racially segregated because people preferred it that way. But the ghetto had always been more a product of social design than desire. It was never a by-product of the modern city, a sad accident of industrialization and urbanization, something no one benefited from nor intended. The ghetto had always been a main feature of landed capital, a prime moneymake for those who saw ripe opportunity in land scarcity, housing dilapidation, and racial segregation."
"Eviction itself often explained why some families lived on safe streets and others on dangerous ones, why some children attended good schools and others failing ones. The trauma of being forced from your home, the blemish of an eviction record, and the taxing rush to locate a new place to live pushed evicted renters into more depressed and dangerous areas of the city."
"Substandard housing was a blow to your psychological health: not only because thing like dampness, mold, and overcrowding could bring about depression but also because of what living in awful conditions told you about yourself."
"Arleen smiled at Jori. "I wish my life were different," she said. "I wish that when I be an old lady, I can sit back and look at my kids. And they be grown. And they, you know, become something. Something more than me. And we'll all be together, and be laughing. We be remembering stuff like this and be laughing at it.""
"The home is the wellspring of personhood. It is where our identity takes root and blossoms, where as children, we imagine, play, and question, and as adolescents, we retreat and try. As we grow older, we hope to settle into a place to raise a family or pursue work. When we try to understand ourselves, we often begin by considering the kind of home in which we were raised."
"Until recently, we simply didn't know how immense this problem was, or how serious the consequences, unless we had suffered them ourselves. For years, social scientists, journalists, and policymakers all but ignored eviction, making it one of the least studied processes affecting the lives of poor families. But new data and methods have allowed us to measure the prevalence of eviction and document its effects. We have learned that eviction is commonplace in poor neighborhoods and that it exacts a heavy toll on families, communities, and children."
"All this suffering is shameful and unnecessary. Because it is unnecessary, there is hope. These problems are neither intractable nor eternal. A different kind of society is possible, and powerful solutions are within our collective reach."
"Poverty is two-faced--a matter of income and expenses, input and output--and in a world of exploitation, it will not be effectively ameliorated if we ignore this plain fact."
"Whatever our way out of this mess, one thing is certain. This degree of inequality, this withdrawal of opportunity, this cold denial of basic needs, this endorsement of pointless suffering--by no American value is this situation justified. No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching, can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become."
"To me, ethnography is what you do when you try to understand people by allowing their lives to mold your own as fully and genuinely as possible. You do this by building rapport with the people you want to know better and following them over a long stretch of time, observing and experiencing what you do, working and playing alongside them, and recording as much action and interaction as you can until you begin to move like they move, talk like they talk, think like they think, and feel something they feel. In this line of work, living "in the field" helps quite a lot. It's the only way to have an immersive experience; and practically speaking, you never know when important things are going to happen."
"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. I sat beside tenants at eviction court, helped them move, followed them into shelters and abandoned houses, watched their children, fought with them, and slept at their houses. I attended church with them, as well as counseling sessions, AA meetings, funerals, and births. I followed one family to Texas. I visited Iowa with Scott. As I spent more time with people, something like trust emerged, even if it remained a fragile, heavily qualified trust. Years after meeting, Arleen would still ask me, during a quiet moment, if I worked for Child Protective Services."
"A white person living in and writing about the inner city is not uniquely exposed to threats but uniquely shielded from them. And inner-city residents sometimes stiffened in my presence. People often started cleaning up and apologizing after meeting me for the first time."
"I've always felt that my first duty as an ethnographer was to make sure my work did not harm those who invited me into their lives. But this can be a complicated and delicate matter because it is not always obvious at first what does harm. Especially in poor neighborhoods, nothing is free. People get compensated for favors one way or another. Ned and Earl figured that if I was giving their girlfriends rides as they looked for housing and went about their business, I must be getting something in return. I was, of course: stories. That was the strange thing. Their accusations were perfectly valid, and I took them seriously."
"Everything about you--your race and gender, where and how you were raised, your temperament and disposition--can influence whom you meet, what is confided to you, what you are shown, and how you interpret what you see. My identity opened some doors and closed others. In the end, we can only do the best we can with who we are, paying close attention to the ways pieces of ourselves matter to the work while never losing sight of the most important questions."
"The guilt I felt during my fieldwork only intensified after I left. I felt like a phony and like a traitor, ready to confess to some unnamed accusation. I couldn't help but translate a bottle of wine placed in front of me at a university function or my monthly daycare bill into rent payments or bail money back in Milwaukee. It leaves an impression, this kind of work. Now imagine it's your life."
"Whenever possible, I subjected my ground-level observations to a kind of statistical check, which determined whether what I was seeing on the ground was also detectable within a larger population. When an idea was clarified or refined by aggregate comparisons, I would return to my field notes to identify the mechanisms behind the numbers. Working in concert with one another, each method enriched the others. And each kept the others honest."
"This study took place in the heart of a major American city, not in an isolated Polish village or a brambly Montana town or on the moon. The number of evictions in Milwaukee is equivalent to the number in other cities, and the people summoned to housing court in Milwaukee look a lot like those summoned in Charleston and Brooklyn. Maybe what we are really asking when we ask if a study is "generalizable" is: Can it really be this bad everywhere? Or maybe we're asking: Do I really have to pay attention to this problem?"
"Ethnographers shrink themselves in the field but enlarge themselves on the page because first-person accounts convey experience--and experience, authority."
"The harder feat for any fieldworker is not getting in; it's not leaving. And the more difficult ethical dilemma is not how to respond when asked to help but how to respond when you are given so much. I have been blessed by countless acts of generosity from the people I met in Milwaukee. Each one reminds me how gracefully they refuse to be reduced to their hardships. Poverty has not prevailed against their deep humanity."