Review | Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City – Matthew Desmond

About the Book

In Evicted, Princeton sociologist and MacArthur “Genius” Matthew Desmond follows eight families in Milwaukee as they struggle to keep a roof over their heads. Evicted transforms our understanding of poverty and economic exploitation while providing fresh ideas for solving one of 21st-century America’s most devastating problems. Its unforgettable scenes of hope and loss remind us of the centrality of home, without which nothing else is possible.

418 pages (Hardcover)
Published on March 1, 2016
Buy the book

This book was a library loan.

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.

I’m starting out with that quote because, while it is at the end of the book, I feel as though it summarizes both the tone and the subject of this work as a whole. This is not a happy read. It feels, in fact, incredibly hopeless, and it left me pretty emotionally exhausted. That being said, poverty is something that is so easy for so many of us to turn our eyes away from. We don’t see, we don’t hear, we don’t know, and that is a huge issue. 

Evicted is a book that is equal parts tragic and shocking. I do not live anywhere near the place or the situations the people featured in the book live. The result is, I felt, almost like I was reading about life in another country. Through devastating honesty, Desmond exposes the often-ignored crisis at the center of our American way of life: poverty, and how profound the housing crisis really is. Laws surrounding evictions, the landlords who profit off the very squalor they force people to live in, the people who are stuck in this merciless, grinding poverty—these are all things that I may have known about on the periphery, but I never quite understood, neither the dynamics of it nor the personal toll of it until I read this book. 

The writing, it should be said, is absolutely out of this world. People say, a lot, “this book reads like a novel” and in nonfiction, I understand that to mean, “this book does not read like a textbook.” However, this book really does read like a novel. Important information is spliced in here or there, so subtly you don’t even really notice it is happening. Mostly, this is a story of people, told by people, and written by a man who was on the ground, experiencing all of this alongside them. Desmond’s research is fantastic, but it really was his humanity, his respect for those whose stories he was telling, and his unflinching honesty that made this book land as hard as it did. In fact, the only other nonfiction book I’ve read that, I feel, can rival this one in the quality is Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (this is also one of my favorite books). 

This isn’t an easy book to read. I never quite understood how grinding the cycle of poverty is, nor how completely, absolutely impossible it is to get out of it. I also never realized how some landlords often take so much advantage of those very people they are supposedly meant to be helping, or at least working with. Some of these houses would be determined unfit for human habitation if they were inspected. Landlords commonly don’t repair properties, neither if something is broken, nor to bring it up to “fit for human habitation.” Some of these places are routinely rented out without stoves, electricity, plumbing, etc. When things are broken, they are rarely fixed (and that’s often used as an excuse to kick people out). Evictions cost money, so landlords will often just take the front door off the unit until the people move out on their own. If you get evicted, you get to either pay for the city to put your stuff in storage (you probably won’t have money for that), or they just move it out of the unit and pile it on the street, leaving all your belongings at the mercy of people who will likely come and take what they want.

“Every condition exists,” Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote, “simply because someone profits by its existence. This economic exploitation is crystallized in the slum.” Exploitation. Now, there’s a word that has been scrubbed out of the poverty debate. 

On the reverse side, these people who are relegated to this inner-city squalor are usually behind before they’ve even had a chance to catch up, and it is nearly impossible to work their way out of their situations. Frequent relocations and evictions put strain not just on the people themselves, but on their relationships and family dynamics as well. Kids move from school to school to school, and have a higher risk of dropping out before graduation. Violence fills some of these streets. Abuse and drug issues abound. People take opportunities where they can get them. When the law and the landlords aren’t on their side, they make their own way, and that often requires an iffy relationship with all things law and order. Ultimately, when I read this book, I found myself wondering, “Can I really blame them?” 

It took Desmond, a sociology professor at Harvard, years to write this book, and it is obvious not only from his meticulous research, but his unflinching, boots-on-the-ground telling of these tales. This is a topic that is easy for people to speak about, from a distance. You can make anything look however you want it to look when you’re far enough away from it. It is very rare that we, out here in the suburbs, get a true look at poverty, at the housing crisis, at the rampant exploitation of impoverished people. At how our system is broken enough for people to make money off of the very individuals who have literally nothing left to give. Somehow, this book manages to give readers both vignettes of these individuals lives, while making everything feel so vivid and in depth, a real sucker-punch to the emotions.

Milwaukee is nowhere near where I live, but I ultimately feel that this book, while it is located in one place, could probably be easily told about nearly any inner city in America, which is part of why it hit me so hard. This is not a Milwaukee-central issue, this is a United States issue. It says something profound about our society that this happens all around us, and so many of us know so little about it. We, in a country who pride ourselves on being able to do anything, be anything we want if we are willing to work hard enough for it, have completely overlooked and ignored everyone in this book, and everyone like them, who never had a chance to reach for that American ideal we so cherish. Ground down. Stuck. Exploited. Sure, some people work their way out of poverty, but for the vast number of people in inner cities, this is all they will ever know, and there is really something about that which needs to be examined. 

This book is hard. It is difficult to read. It forces a certain level of self and social evaluation I don’t think many of us spend a whole lot of time partaking in. While this is largely about the housing crisis in America, it is also about America itself. It’s about segregation, and pain. It’s about unflinching exploitation, and people trying to make it in substandard living conditions. It’s about all those people who are generally easier to look away from, than help. It’s about people who never got a chance.

Ultimately, it’s about how good we are at not hearing those who are crying out for help.

And I will absolutely never forget it. 

5/5 stars


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.