Chosen by the All-nonfiction Group as the selection for March, I likely would have passed on this book because, although I’m interested in the subject, i feel kind of burned out on reading bad stuff about life in the US. That said, the book received many important awards and accolades including the Pulitzer Prize.
I’ve personally lived and worked among people who get evicted and move and end up in shelters and jail, who have to choose between a jacket for the child or medicine for grandma. I’ve dealt with them for over 25 years as their social worker and as their child’s school teacher. I know there are many, many good people stuck in tough situations where folks who are not so good take advantage of them or simply can’t help. Bless them and bless the ones who do (including Matthew Desmond). I’m fully aware that my experience may have colored my review.
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
by Matthew Desmond
2017 / 448 pages
read by Dion Graham – 11h 10m
rating: 8/ nonfiction – current events (policy analysis?)
(both read and listened)
The book was pretty much as I expected. It’s basically the sad (heartbreaking, really) stories of several lower class families or individuals in the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin juxtaposed with the story of one of their landlords. The problems seem overwhelming and beyond the ability of any one person or agency or group to fix. Meanwhile, however, some of them are in the position of making a profit off of the situation and they don’t really want it fixed. The landlords are stuck in the middle and although they sometimes try to help the individual tenants their underlying motive is the profit part of the story while the motive of the tenants is survival.
The ultimate point of the book is to encourage the use of a “voucher” system of housing for the poor ensuring that all who want it are able to have a home. Desmond doesn’t get to this until the last chapter – the Epilogue, actually. That point is certainly not set out in the Prologue which is set at the beginning of Arleen’s story with authorial comments interspersed along the way.
What happens to the tenants when the city powers decide to shut down a trailer park which is plagued with drugs and prostitution? We’re never told how large this place is – 10 units, 200? Most of the residents are already strapped between utility bills and still can’t pay for their medicines, to say nothing of back-rent and family funeral expenses. Some landlords know exactly what the profit lines are – when to help and when to evict.
The people Desmond follows are black and white, single and “married,” of various ages and with children or without. The black women with children have it roughest – the single white male probably the easiest.
I wonder about the “nonfiction” aspect. I wonder how honest Desmond is being about the alcohol, tobacco, pets, drugs and crime (including domestic violence) in his “memoir” (which is really what it turns out to be as discovered in the Epilogue and “About This Project” sections.
The bulk of the book follows eight families as they get evicted and try to find alternative housing when the whole system seems set up to thwart them. It includes a lot of blow-by-blow action with dialogue as remembered I suppose as the research was done by living side-by-side with them for awhile and doing interviews. The narrative is probably quite “creative” with the dialogues. (NOT saying it’s not all basically true.)
It’s a shame the US is such a disaster when it comes to providing health, education and welfare for its citizens (and non-). That is truly tragic. Other countries seem to do a lot better – I don’t know if I see vouchers as being the answer, but there are certainly alternatives which would improve the situation. We can’t even get half the homeless shelters we need in L.A. It’s about making the middle class pay more taxes when they’re strapped between good schools and insurance and “getting ahead.” It’s a given that the rich will create loopholes in whatever tax law is passed – or maintain off-shore accounts.
In the housing issue, I’m blaming neither landlord nor tenant for the issues (non-payment of absurdly high rents or upkeep of dilapidated units plus mortgages and seriously objectionable neighbors/tenants). But I don’t think scamming the system and trying to get by or being disorderly is likely to stop no matter what “system” is put in place.
Bottom line I suppose it’s a very eye-opening book for those who don’t know the way it is for people who are always on the verge of being evicted and having their entire lives up-rooted. It’s interesting.