June 28, 2016

Exploitation at Home: Matthew Desmond’s Evicted

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

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.”

The basic premise of Evicted is both simple and seemingly irrational: individuals who are poor find it increasingly difficult to pay for housing, and yet many of their landlords are profiting handsomely off of their poverty. The typical poor family in the United States spends well over half of their income on housing. Not only does this leave them with little money to pay for other basic necessities such as food, clothing, utilities, child care, and transportation, it also makes them highly susceptible to forced relocations such as evictions, foreclosures, and building condemnations.

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.

Comments

In response to Peter Kaufman’s blog “Exploitation at Home: Matthew Desmond’s Evicted”. I would have to ask, is Matthew Desmond’s book “Evicted” factual? I chose this article because I have seen and experienced different levels of the U.S. social class ladder, such as the underclass, the working poor and the upper-middle class. This article is of sociological interest because poverty is home to 25% of U.S. citizens. It is also the result of social stratification and social inequality. The things that play into poverty make intergenerational and intragenerational mobility nearly impossible.

I completely agree with Peter Kaufman’s blog the class system in america is like a food chain. The upper class feeds from the middle class while the middle class takes from the working poor and underclass. Being that cultural capital is different between each class, it’s hard for individuals of different class to be relatable to one another. I experience the awkwardness of interacting with someone with different cultural capital as me everyday. If all social classes were roughly similar in income I feel that the cultural capital of each group would become increasingly similar as well. Ultimately this would create a healthier social environment. Kaufman’s article gives viewers a sense of how the social class ladder works and presents them the idea of everyday class consciousness making it extremely important to the social world. I completely agree that this topic needs to be more widespread, seen as a topic of importance and accepted from this view point.

I can relate to this article because growing up I lived in the projects of San Francisco with a low-income family. My mom was a single mother of eight and it was hard for her to pay the rent and bills alone but somehow she managed to do it working three jobs throughout the day even at dusk. After a few years we had to move due to the fact that gentrification was beginning to occur in San Francisco. The prices of everything skyrocketed because of tourist and higher-class people wanting to move to San Francisco.

My mom is currently still in the low-income class spectrum and she is being exploited by her current landlord. Similar to what Peter Kaufman mentioned, a couple of months after my mom was settled into her new home her landlord began increasing the cost of the rent without hesitation. Currently my mom is enrolled in the section 8-program meaning that she is already paying what she can afford to pay, but now she has to work longer hours in order to afford to pay the monthly rent bill. Leaving her with a small amount of money to provide for herself and my siblings. This article related to my social world because I have always been in the lower class and have always felt like people with more money think less of us poor people. Peter Kaufman makes a valid point when he mentions that most either lose a court case against their landlord or that they don’t even bother going to court at all because they cant afford a lawyer and they already know that they will most likely lose the case. For example, my mom could take her landlord to court for what she is doing to her but isn’t because she knows she will most likely lose due to the fact that her landlord can probably afford a very good lawyer. Furthermore, I agree with this article because it depicts the daily lives of people in the lower class and brings attention to how they are exploited on a regular basis.

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