Having just finished DREAMLAND, about the opioid crisis, I turned to EVICTION, the 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winner subtitled Poverty and Profit in the American City. You could say I’m a glutton for bad news, but it’s more like I’m trying to understand our country’s biggest problems in order to figure out how we could solve them.
While many things in this book surprised me, perhaps most surprising was that no one knew much about eviction much until Matthew Desmond came along. Not long after he moved to a trailer park in Milwaukee in 2008 to begin his research, he discovered that no one had previously studied eviction enough to answer the most basic questions, such as: “How prominent is eviction? What are its consequences? Who gets evicted? If poor families are spending so much on housing, what are they going without?” Poverty researchers had focused on public housing or other housing policies, he noted, “And yet here was the private rental market, where the vast majority of poor people lived.” Desmond dug in, and in addition to conducting the hundreds of interviews and observations that enabled him to tell the stories of the people he describes so compellingly in this book, he created systems for data collection so that people could understand the scope of the problem. He won a well-deserved “Genius Grant” from the MacArthur Foundation for his work.
Millions of people in this country—millions—are evicted every year. Some lose their jobs, can’t pay rent, and are evicted; some are evicted and then lose their jobs while they try to figure out where to live next and how to feed their children. As Desmond notes, “Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.” He explains the interconnectedness of housing, family stability, schooling, and community stability; when people don’t have stable shelter, he notes, “everything else falls apart.”
This book should be required reading for high school students, as part of a very robust class on civics.