Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (New York: Crown Publishers 2016).
While serving on the Consumer Advisory Council of the Federal Reserve Board I was frequently informed that the only way to move the Fed was with numbers, meaning sophisticated econometric models. Stories were nice but they have no influence. Lost in this mindset is the power of stories to change hearts and minds. As Jim Hightower sardonically observed, when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his most famous speech he did not begin with “I have a policy paper.”
Matthew Desmond’s Evicted tells stories of the incredible hardships eight families endured facing eviction in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. One reviewer compared this book to Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, Barbara Ehrenrreich’s Nickel and Dimed, and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. The primary lesson is that eviction is not simply a symptom of poverty but is a fundamental cause of poverty. The solution is to make housing a right.
The time and stress of looking for a home when you literally do not know where your children are going to sleep that night or later that week drain energy that could be spent job-hunting, getting training to increase one’s human capital, or helping children with homework. The challenge is to stabilize the housing situation for poor families. His two policy recommendations are to provide legal assistance to poor families that are exploited by eviction and create a universal voucher so all families can have decent housing paying no more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
These would be two steps in the right direction, but alone they would not make housing the effective right he proposes. However, Desmond is not a policymaker. He is a scholar whose stories have exposed a devastating phenomenon that has long been hidden in plain sight.
Look for the full book review in JUA Early View soon!
Gregory D. Squires is a Professor of Sociology and Public Policy & Public Administration at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.