Benjamin Markovits

Onwards and downwards

Matthew Desmond’s account of the relentless downward spiral of America’s dirt poor — and the greed of their ruthless evictors — makes for devastating reading

Onwards and downwards
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Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

Matthew Desmond

Allen Lane, pp. 418, £

This is a very upsetting book. The Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond spent a year and a half living in low-income housing in Milwaukee — first in a trailer park on the mostly white South Side and later in a rooming house in the black inner city. Desmond himself plays no part in the body of the story, but he reports what he saw and heard, using a digital recorder and filling in the rest with double-sourced eyewitness accounts and official documents. And what he saw was upsetting, though not always, or not particularly, in a dramatic way. The things that happened to the people he lived among happened too often and routinely to seem extraordinary to them. For the two or three weeks I was reading the book, it formed my topic of conversation with friends, and at night, when I went to sleep, it filled my thoughts. Apart from anything else, it makes you aware of how complicated the webs holding you up are.

Evicted follows roughly a dozen people as they struggle to find a permanent place to live. They settle in an apartment, in a neighbourhood, make friends, send their children to the local school, fall behind on the rent (which often accounts for 70 or 80 per cent of their welfare payments or other income) and get kicked out. Removal companies haul their furniture and all of their possessions on to the pavement or deposit them into private storage, whose monthly rent keeps increasing. Since the charge in any case is more than they can afford, they pay what they can for a while, fall short and lose their money; their stuff gets sold off anyway. Then they start the process again, with fewer belongings, this time with another eviction on their record, which means they have to find a worse and smaller apartment, in a worse neighbourhood, near a worse school. On and

on and on.

Desmond is mostly writing about single black women with small children (in America, ‘poor black men are locked up. Poor black women are locked out’), but he also hangs out with a white former nurse, a married table-dancer, a black ex-soldier who lost both of his legs to frostbite coming off a drug high in an unheated house. (By the time Desmond meets him, he has cleaned himself up and serves as a mentor to local kids.) He also writes about two of the landlords: Tobin, the white owner of the trailer park, who is eventually investigated by the city for repeated code violations and forced to sell it, and Sherrena Tarver, a black businesswoman who has learned that you can make money buying up the inner-city properties that white landlords are too scared to get involved with.

Nobody in the book is evil; nobody is flawless. Scott, the former nurse, got hooked on Percocet after slipping a disc in his back. Then, after two of his close friends died from Aids, he started stealing Fentanyl from his patients. When the Wisconsin Board of Nursing suspended his licence, he lost the self-respect that had given him a reason not to become a junkie. ‘I really cared about my nursing licence. When they took it away, I was like, fuck it.’ Getting high is a holiday from his shitty life; the other steps he takes to improve it end up nowhere. Another woman blows her food-stamp ration on a lobster dinner; just because she’s poor doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to live like other people once in a while. If you don’t have long-term prospects, if you don’t have a home, it’s hard to make long-term decisions.

The general thrust of Desmond’s argument is that people on both sides of the inequality divide are making reasonable decisions, given the incentives that motivate them. So you have to change the incentives. Landlords want to make money, and there’s a lot of money to be made in housing the poor. In one of the most striking scenes in the book, Sherrena tries to evict Arlene, a woman with two small boys, just after Christmas. If Arlene doesn’t show up, Sherrena wins her case, but she offers to give Arlene a ride back to her apartment if she can make it to court. Approaching the bench, landlord and tenant look like ‘old friends or even sisters, with one reflecting life’s favour’.

Both women resent attempts by the well-intentioned commissioner (a white woman) to interfere in their lives. ‘I’m not trying to be in her money,’ Arlene protests at one point. Afterwards, Sherrena drives her home, complaining most of the way about how hard it is to be a landlord: ‘And some of these tenants . . . they nasty as hell. They bring roaches with ’em. They bring mice with ’em.’ ‘Merry Christmas,’ Arlene says to her evictor, stepping out of the car. It’s snowing. She has a couple of days to find another place for herself and her boys to live.

Desmond writes clear, vivid prose and has a great ear for editing what he hears. I might have wished he had incorporated one of the appendices (in which he describes his own role) into the book itself. Generally, he acts like a camera in a documentary, not a witness, and I sometimes felt the writer was missing. But I can see why he didn’t want to include himself: he’s not the issue here. In his conclusion, he tries to offer solutions to the problems he describes, and a few crumbs of hope (Scott, for example, finds some stable subsidised housing and gets his life together), but the real strength of the book lies in the stories he tells: about people who, in the face of unrelenting pressure on their sense of home and self, still refuse, as Saul Bellow once put it, to lead disappointed lives.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £20 Tel: 08430 600033. Benjamin Markovits is a former professional basketball player and the author of The Syme Papers and You Don’t Have to Live Like This.