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by Dusty Sklar
Discussed in this essay: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond. Crown, 2016, 432 pages.
AMERICA HAS BEEN transformed into a country of shrinking opportunity for all except the smallest proportion of fortunate ones. Despite the 14 million jobs and radical lowering of the unemployment rate in the past six years, decent wages are hard to come by for millions of Americans — including, disproportionately, many black Americans. It’s a most propitious time, then, for a book like Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.
Desmond, a Harvard sociologist and 2015 MacArthur “Genius” award winner, chose eight Milwaukee families, black and white, to live among and chronicle for a year.
Before the second half of the 20th century, Milwaukee was a town where you could find a good job. That was before plants went overseas or to the Sunbelt, where unions were weaker or simply didn’t exist. Between 1979 and 1983, Milwaukee’s manufacturing sector lost more jobs than during the Great Depression.
Most affected were black households. By 1990, the poverty rate among them rose to 42 percent. In the 1980s, Milwaukee had been instrumental in deindustrialization. In the 1990s, it had become instrumental in the antiwelfare crusade. There was money to be made in housing poor people. Desmond describes an evening when Milwaukee landlords came to hear a woman from the Lead and Asbestos Information Center, Inc., who announced, “There is money to be made on lead” — after which one landlord asked if he was bound to report the presence of asbestos to the city or the tenants if he tested for it. “No, you don’t,” the woman answered.
Desmond moved to College Mobile Home Park on the South Side, a place where white people live, run and owned by a man named Tobin, in May, 1980, after reading in a newspaper that its residents could all be evicted. From there, he moved to a boarding house on the North Side, for black tenants, run by landlords Sherrena and Quentin. With a powerful novelist’s eye, Desmond describes
Arleen, a single mother suffering from chronic depression, moves into Sherrena’s bottom duplex unit with her two young sons, Jori and Jafaris. There’s a fist-sized hole in the living room window which Arleen stuffs with a cloth, a filthy carpet, and a front door that has to be locked with an ugly wooden plank inserted into a metal bracket. The rent is $550 a month without utilities. It takes 88 percent of her $628-a-month welfare check. There are crack addicts in the neighborhood. In the coldest Milwaukee winter on record, Arleen is evicted, and eventually loses custody of Jori and Jafaris. Sherrena felt bad. Quentin was more realistic. “Story of they life,” he said.
After Scott slipped a disc working as a night-shift nurse and became a heroin addict, he lost his license, his lifestyle, and moved into one of the worst trailer parks in Milwaukee, where it was as easy to get drugs as to borrow a cup of sugar. He sometimes scrapped metal or collected cans to raise money for dope. Black-tar heroin went for $15 or $20 for a tenth of a gram. When he was finally evicted, all that was left was a plastic container stuffed with photographs, diplomas and memories, a Polaroid camera and a pile of books.
“Scott,” the author tells us, “sat down on his empty floor, in his gutted-out trailer, and wept.”
A DECENT PLACE to live is such a basic human need. Desmond believes that when people have that, they can be “better parents, workers and citizens.”
Near the end of the book, he writes: “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.”
In the last chapter, “About This Project,” Desmond reveals something I did not expect: that he grew up poor. His father, a preacher, urged him to go to college, which he did, through loans and scholarships. The bank took possession of his childhood home, which filled him with sadness and embarrassment. Back on campus, he started hanging out with homeless people, and he graduated wanting to deepen his understanding of poverty in America, which he took to be the root of other calamities.
That led him to want “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.”
Reader, he has written that book.
Dusty Sklar is a contributing writer to our magazine and the author of Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, as well as numerous stories and articles. Her recent articles for us dealt with American corporate collaboration with Nazism, the American eugenics movement’s influence upon Nazism, Mahatma Gandhi’s views on Zionism and the Holocaust, and other subjects.