Matthew Desmond’s Evicted and the Necessity of Stories to Illuminate Data
To every person, the word “home” evokes a different world. For some it is a world of sorrow and fragmentation while for others home manifests memories of laughter, warm meals, and sliding across worn wood floors in equally worn socks. For others still, the concept of home is simply non-existent.
The majority of people, however, probably experience a world in between these extremes—a conglomeration of light and dark, a watercolor of varying shades and colors in coherent disarray.
What if, though, as those translucent colors bleed across the white space, blending and pooling into each other, they begin to run off or leak through onto the floor?
What if the canvas intended to serve as the piece’s foundation is flawed? Cracked? Marred beyond functionality?
Whether it be a mansion, an apartment, or a trailer, the physical structure of a house creates a stable location where life (as we each understand and experience it) has the opportunity to unfurl with quiet confidence.
Without this stability, those watercolors will run off the canvas and the possibility of home will remain elusive and difficult to capture. What ruptures the stability and safety provided by four walls and a roof? Many might be inclined to instinctively point at poverty.
Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond would have agreed with this sentiment until 2009 when he moved into and lived among two low-income communities in Milwaukee. As fourteen months passed by, a new picture emerged. Desmond realized homelessness, specifically as the result of eviction, was a critical cause of poverty in America.
Dismantled homes perpetuate poverty’s insidious cycle.
In Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Desmond’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning book of stories and research following his time in the North and South Sides of the city, he writes,
The home is the center of life…Whatever [the common good]’s name, its foundation is the home. What else is a nation but a patchwork of cities and towns; cities and towns a patchwork of neighborhoods; and neighborhoods a patchwork of homes?1
A home provides the cohesion for everything else. And yet, Desmond reports,
In Milwaukee, a city of fewer than 105,000 renter households, landlords evict roughly 16,000 adults and children each year. That’s sixteen families evicted through the court system daily.2
When trying to better understand the deep pervasive nature of eviction in America, Desmond was met with large gaps and blanks; eviction was a largely under-researched process.
The numbers were not telling the whole story.
He realized the key to uncloaking eviction went beyond the numbers; it was relational. So for five months he lived in the College Mobile Home Park located in the Milwaukees predominantly-white South Side. Then he spent another nine months in the city’s majority-black North Side. He listened to the stories of tenants like Arleen, Lamar, Vanetta, Scott, and landlords Sherrena Tarver and Tobin Chaney.
When asked during a book interview why he chose to focus on eviction, Desmond said,
If I had to answer this question in a word, it would be Arleen…People like Arleen forced me to see poverty in a whole new way. I used to think eviction and homelessness were the result of poverty. But I came to recognize that eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty in America.3
When Desmond met Arleen she was living in a duplex on Thirteenth Street and Keefe in Milwaukee’s North Side. A single mother, Arleen worked tirelessly to support her two boys, Jafaris and Jori, but chronic depression following the early walkout of Jori’s father and the later death of her mother made holding a job difficult.4
Her family was eligible for federal Supplemental Security Benefits through W-2 T (Wisconsin Works Transition) and she began receiving a stipend of $20.65 daily. While her stipend remained the same, the costs of housing continued to climb.5 Arleen’s rent consumed 88 percent of her $628-a-month welfare check.6
The time and emotional energy [Arleen and Vanetta, another tenant] spent making rent, delaying eviction, or finding another place to live when homeless could instead be spent on things that enriched their lives: community college classes, exercise, finding a good job, maybe a good man too.7
Arleen’s situation is not an anomaly. Based on studies of the American Housing Survey from 1991–2013, Desmond estimates that roughly 50 to 70 percent of low-income families spend 50 percent of their income on rent and, furthermore, that 25–50 percent of low-income renting families spend 70 percent of their income, at minimum.8
These numbers didn’t really hit home for Desmond until he spent time with and learned these families’ stories.
In order to comprehend the devastating and poverty-inducing effects of eviction, he needed to see them first-hand through the lives of North and South Side residents. He needed to turn to story.
The Guardian journalist Aditya Chakrabortty commented,
U.S. intellectuals and politicians on both left and right are starting to talk seriously about the gulf between the rich and the rest of us. But just as with their counterparts in Britain, this conversation is overly fond of generalisations and stylised facts, and happier talking about the poor, rather than to them. Desmond’s method is the opposite.
Similar to Chakrabortty both Bill Gates and Barack Obama praised Desmond’s approach by listing Evicted on their best books of 2017. The book has sold countless copies and stands as a widely acclaimed New York Times bestseller. It has opened the eyes of many to the true underlying currents of poverty as well as giving faces and names to statistics and numbers.
The numbers started Desmond’s quest to understand eviction and poverty. The stories of people like Arleen and Sherrena brought it into the light.
2 Desmond, 4.
4 Desmond, 58.
7 Desmond, 294
8 Desmond, 344 (see note 3).