Exploitation at Home: Matthew Desmond’s Evicted
If you have not yet heard of the sociologist Matthew Desmond, you probably should. In the relatively anonymous world of professional sociology, Desmond is making quite a name for himself, and deservedly so. He has been dubbed sociology’s next great hope, he was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant, and his new national best-selling book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, has been hailed as “astonishing,” “remarkable,” and “monumental.”
Evicted tells the story of poverty in America from the perspective of eight families who are struggling to keep a roof over their heads. Instead of focusing on traditional topics such as jobs, public assistance, the family, and mass incarceration, Desmond shifts our attention to housing so that we may better understand “how deeply [it] is implicated in the creation of poverty.”
At the same time that these families are struggling to stay afloat, the landlords who rent them their apartments, mobile homes, and houses are making significant amounts of money. As Desmond reminds us, “there is a lot of money to be made off the poor” and the landlords know it. Due to a combination of legislative policies, lack of legal counsel, and a dwindling supply of low-cost rentals, poor people desperate for housing are easy prey for savvy landlords who know how to work the system in their favor. As one of the landlords that Desmond profiles is fond of saying, “The ‘hood is good.”
To understand how it is possible to reap large profits from those living in abject poverty Desmond asks us to consider two words: exploitation and home. Regrettably, the word “exploitation” has “been scrubbed out of the poverty debate” even though it “speaks to the fact that poverty is not just a product of low incomes. It is also a product of extractive markets.” In other words, poverty persists not only because people’s earnings are low but also because their expenses are unnecessarily high. Sociologists and economists have long demonstrated that the “poor pay more.” For Desmond, this is a basic example of exploitation:
If the poor pay more for their housing, food, durable goods, and credit, and if they get smaller returns on their educations and mortgages (if they get returns at all), then their incomes are even smaller than they appear. This is fundamentally unfair.
Nowhere does this exploitation play out more obviously than in people’s search for a place to call home. Desmond makes the compelling argument that if the United States is really founded on the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and if all three of these rights require a stable home, then shouldn’t housing be a basic right? But instead of offering everyone the right to safe, decent, and affordable housing, we only offer landlords the right to “profit excessively from the less fortunate.” This, too, is fundamentally unfair and exploitative.
Given the enormity of the affordable-housing crisis, and the extent to which it “is driving poor families to financial ruin,” Desmond argues that it should be “at the top of America’s domestic-policy agenda.” He offers two specific proposals to help turn things around for poor families.
First, we need to increase legal aid for the economically disenfranchised. Since the 1980’s, poor families have seen a drastic reduction in free legal services. As a result, when landlords and tenants appear in court for eviction hearings almost all of the landlords have legal counsel whereas almost all of the poor tenants have no one to advise them. When tenants do have a lawyer assisting them, they are much less likely to lose their housing. Consequently, if everyone in housing court were afforded free legal services, “it would be a major step on the path to a more fair and equitable society.”
The second proposal Desmond makes is to expand the housing voucher program so that it is available to every low-income family. A housing voucher would cap the percentage of income a family can dedicate to rent (at around 30%, like most financial analysts recommend) and it would prevent landlords from exploiting poor families with inflated rental costs. Knowing that universal housing vouchers have been implemented with great success in other developed countries, Desmond is confident that such a program in the United States “would change the face of poverty.” All we need is the political will to implement such changes and shift the housing subsidies that are offered from wealthy families with six-figure incomes to poor families struggling at the poverty line.
It is easy to refer to Desmond’s ethnography as a “story”—the story of poverty in America, the story of these eight families, the story of the landlords who reap huge profits. However, we should resist the urge to use this language because the experiences Desmond recounts are not fictionalized. These are not made up stories of people’s unfortunate experiences; this is real life. For the eight families that are portrayed in Evicted, and the millions of other poor families across the country that are similarly marginalized, the harsh reality in which they live continues long after one finishes reading the book.
This point is one that Desmond does not want us to forget. In my previous post, I wrote about the compassionate sociologist and I made a brief reference to Evicted. There is no doubt that Desmond embodies the compassionate sociologist. At the end of the book, he instructs readers that the focus of the book should not be about him (“I don’t matter”) but instead should be on the families in Milwaukee or in your own community that are facing eviction every day. When we contemplate the plight of these poor families, this final message of compassion is what Desmond urges us to consider:
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.