Matthew Desmond’s book, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” like Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed,” is a heartbreaking snapshot of the rapacious exploitation and misery we inflict on the most vulnerable, especially children. It is a picture of a world where industries have been created to fleece the poor, and destroy neighborhoods and ultimately lives. It portrays a judicial system that has broken down, a dysfunctional social service system and the license in neoliberal America to carry out unchecked greed, no matter what the cost.
“Her face had that look,” Desmond wrote. “The movers and the deputies knew it well. It was the look of someone realizing that her family would be homeless in a matter of hours. It was something like denial giving way to the surrealism of the scene: the speed and the violence of it all; sheriffs leaning against your wall, hands resting on holsters; all these strangers, these sweating men, piling your things outside, drinking water from your sink poured into your cups, using your bathroom. It was the look of being undone by a wave of questions. What do I need for tonight, for this week? Who should I call? Where is the medication? Where will we go? It was the face of a mother who climbs out of the cellar to find the tornado has leveled the house.”
Being poor in America is one long emergency. You teeter on the edge of bankruptcy, homelessness and hunger. You endure cataclysmic levels of stress, harassment and anxiety and long bouts of depression. Rent strips you of half your income—one in four families spend 70 percent of their income on rent—until you and your children are evicted, often into homeless shelters or abandoned buildings, when you fall behind on payments. A financial crisis—a medical emergency, a reduction in hours at work or the loss of a job, funeral expenses or car repairs—can lead inexorably to an eviction. Creditors, payday lenders and collection agencies hound you. You are often forced to declare bankruptcy. You cope with endemic violence, gangs, drugs and a judicial system that permits brutal police abuse and ships you to jail, or slaps you with huge fines, for minor offenses. You live for weeks or months with no heat, water or electricity because you cannot pay the utility bills, especially since fuel and utility rates have risen by more than 50 percent since 2000. Single mothers and their children usually endure this hell alone, because the men in these communities are locked up. Millions of families are tossed into the street every year.
We have 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its prison population. More than 60 percent of the 2.2 million incarcerated are people of color. If these poor people were not locked in cages for decades, if they were not given probationary status once they were freed, if they had stable communities, there would be massive unrest in the streets. Mass incarceration, along with debt peonage, evictions, police violence and a judicial system that holds up property rights, rather than justice, as the highest good and that denies nearly all of the poor a trial, forcing them to accept plea bargains, is one of the many tools of corporate oppression.
The working poor, now half of the country, have fallen to levels of misery unseen since the Great Depression. One in eight renting families in the United States was unable to meet rent payments in 2013, Desmond writes. Lamar, a double amputee profiled in Desmond’s book (whose name, like all he wrote about, is a pseudonym), lived on $2.19 a day once he paid his $550 in rent. He was a single father and recovering addict responsible for two teenage boys. He desperately attempted to stay in his home by doing odd jobs for his landlord, propelling himself with his hands across the floor, but even this did not save him and his sons from eviction.
“These days, there are sheriff’s squads whose full-time job is to carry out eviction and foreclosure orders,” Desmond wrote. “There are moving companies specializing in evictions, their crews working all day, every weekday. There are hundreds of data-mining companies that sell landlords tenant screening reports listing past evictions and court filings. These days housing courts swell, forcing commissioners to settle cases in hallways or makeshift offices crammed with old desks and broken file cabinets—and most tenants don’t even show up. Low-income families have grown used to the rumble of moving trucks, the early-morning knocks at the door, the belongings lining the curb.”
We get the New Deal. A few decades later we get neoliberalism. Up and down we go on the capitalist seesaw. It is a long and honored tactic of the capitalist class—concessions in times of unrest and then reversals—one amply illustrated by the labor history of the United States and illuminated by revolutionary theorists such as Rosa Luxemburg.
Everyone suffers. But poor people of color, trapped in the internal colonies Desmond wrote about, suffer more.
“Between 2007 and 2010, the average white family experienced an 11 percent reduction in wealth, but the average black family lost 31 percent of its wealth,” Desmond noted. “The average Hispanic family lost 44 percent.”
Mass incarceration and evictions destroy the cohesion of poor communities. The oppressed are never permitted to congregate long enough in one place to organize. It is, I believe, one of the reasons families that visit incarcerated loved ones in prison are treated so brutally by prison guards. While they wait for hours—sometimes in the rain—outside the prison gate, they often have no access to a bathroom. Once in the visitor’s area, they and their children are shouted at, searched and traumatized to the point of tears, as if they were prisoners. The idea is to make it so unpleasant they do not come back. And many do not. Once the oppressed gather together often enough to realize that their story is shared by millions of others, there will be hell to pay. In the 1930s, community groups blocked sheriffs from carrying out evictions, moved belongings from the street back into the house or organized rent strikes. But this takes solidarity.
“The public peace—the sidewalks and street peace—of cities not is not kept primarily by the police, necessary as the police are,” wrote Jane Jacobs in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” “It is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves.”
Desmond, who follows the plight of eight families in impoverished neighborhoods in Milwaukee, registered the citywide devastation of constant evictions.
“A single eviction could destabilize multiple city blocks, not only the block from which a family was evicted but also the block to which it begrudgingly relocated,” he wrote. “In this way, displacement contributed directly to what Jacobs called ‘perpetual slums,’ churning environments with high rates of turnover and even higher rates of resentment and disinvestment.”
“The key link in a perpetual slum is that too many people move out of it too fast—and in the meantime dream of getting out,” Jacobs observed.
There is a lot of money to be made off the poor. They are defenseless. And the law is on the side of the predators. As Desmond noted in his book, in “many housing courts around the country 90 percent of landlords are represented by attorneys, and 90 percent of tenants are not.” Slumlords, who usually own numerous properties, use the courts and sheriffs as their enforcers. “Most tenants taken to eviction court were sued twice—once for the property and a second time for the debt—and so had two court dates,” Desmond wrote. And as long as the debt goes unpaid, the slumlord can slap on a 12 percent interest rate.
“For the chronically and desperately poor whose credit was already wrecked, a docketed judgment was just another shove deeper into the pit,” Desmond wrote. “But for the tenant who went on to land a decent job or marry and then take another tentative step forward, applying for student loans or purchasing a first home—for that tenant, it was a real barrier on the already difficult road to self-reliance and security.”
Corporations such as Rent Recovery Service are hired by landlords to hound evicted tenants for their debts. These corporations monitor tenants’ financial lives for years without their knowledge. They never close an unpaid file, waiting patiently for someone to become financially solvent to strike. Those few who begin to recover financially are forced to pay ancient debts, swelled by high-interest rates, and pushed swiftly back into economic distress.
Desmond profiled Tobin Charney, who made close to half a million a year running College Mobile Home Park, with its dilapidated 131 trailers and leaking raw sewage. Charney seized the trailers of those he evicted as “abandoned property” and rented or sold them to someone else. Larraine Jenkins, one of his tenants Desmond followed, was paying Charney 77 percent of her income until she was evicted.
“She knew the ghetto’s value and how money could be made from a property that looked worthless to people who didn’t know any better,” Desmond wrote of a slumlord named Sherrena Tarver, who made about $10,000 a month from her dozens of rental properties. She earned more in a month than most of her tenants earned in a year. And like many slumlords, “her worst properties yielded her biggest returns.”
A life of dead ends led many in Desmond’s book to make decisions that, on the outside, could be seen as irresponsible or foolish: withholding rent payments, or as Larraine Jenkins did, blowing her monthly allocation of food stamps on a dinner of lobster tails, shrimp, crab, lemon meringue pie and Pepsi. But the present is unbearable, and the future, they know, is grim. So they block the future out and seek, for a moment, to make the present endurable. It is why so many of the poor turn to drugs or alcohol. Jenkins, as Desmond wrote, was not “poor because she threw money away.” She “threw money away because she was poor.”
“People like Larraine [Jenkins] lived with so many compounded limitations that it was difficult to imagine the amount of good behavior or self-control that would allow them to lift themselves out of poverty,” Desmond wrote. “The distance between grinding poverty and even stable poverty could be so vast that those on the bottom had little hope of climbing out even if they pinched every penny. So they choose not to. Instead, they tried to survive in color, to season the suffering with pleasure. They would get a little high or have a drink or do a bit of gambling or acquire a television. They might buy lobster on food stamps.”
The powerlessness of poverty evokes a protective emotional callousness that diminishes or blunts the capacity for empathy and feelings of self-worth. Arleen Belle, who battles depression and lives on welfare, struggles to raise a teenage boy, Jori, and his 5-year-old brother, Jafaris, who has severe asthma. The book opens with Jori and his cousin throwing snowballs at cars on Milwaukee’s South Side. An angry driver stops his vehicle, chases the boys to their apartment and kicks down the front door. The family is evicted because of the incident and moves to a homeless shelter. They had lived in the apartment for eight months. Jori was forced to change schools five times in the seventh and eighth grades because of repeated moves. Later in the book, after Jori kicks a teacher in the shin, the police show up at the door and the family, which had just moved into the apartment after a lengthy and exhausting search, is given a week to leave. The string of evictions and length of the waiting list—3,500 names—means Belle and her boys will never receive housing assistance. Three-quarters of families that qualify for housing assistance nationally never obtain it.
Several of those in the book, including Scott, a gay nurse who loses his license after he becomes addicted to opiates, were sexually abused. Most of those Desmond interviewed grew up in violent households or suffered domestic abuse from partners. Nearly all of the fathers were in prison or had disappeared.
Poverty robs children of their childhood. Jori, at 14, attempted to be his mother’s protector. “If Arleen needed to smile, Jori would steal for her,” Desmond wrote. “If she was disrespected, he would fight for her. Some kids born into poverty set their sights on doing whatever it takes to get out. Jori wasn’t going anywhere, sensing he was put on this Earth to look after Arleen and Jafaris. He was, all fourteen years of him, the man of the house.” He tells his mother he wants to become a carpenter so he can build her a house.
Belle’s family ends up living with Crystal Mayberry, who was 18 and had an IQ of about 70, and who had been “born prematurely on a spring day in 1990 shortly after her pregnant mother was stabbed eleven times in the back during a robbery.” The stabbing induced labor. Crystal, the daughter of parents addicted to crack, grew up in 25 foster homes. When she aged out of the system, she became homeless.
Belle and Mayberry engaged, Desmond wrote, in “a popular strategy poor people used to pay the bills and feed their children. Especially in the inner city, strangers brushed up against one another constantly—on the street, at job centers, in the welfare building—and found ways to ask for and offer help. Before she met Arleen, Crystal stayed a month with a woman she had met on a bus.”
But the relationship soured, in part because of tensions between Jori and Mayberry. Jori threatened Mayberry and called her a “bitch” when she attempted to put his little brother outside of the house with no shoes or coat.
“You don’t know what it’s like,” Belle shouted at Mayberry as the relationship unraveled. “You don’t know what I been through. You don’t know what it’s like to have your father molest you and your mother not care about it!”
“Oh, yes I do,” Mayberry, answered. “Yes, I do! I know exactly what that’s like ‘cause my stepfather molested me when I was just a little girl, and that’s why they sent me to foster care.”
The world is too much for Jori, as it is for his mother and little brother, as it is for most of the poor who are hemmed in by the unforgiving walls of poverty. After their eviction, Jori leaves his black and white cat, Little, with a neighbor. When he comes back to collect Little, one of his few sources of joy, Jori finds “a car had ground him into the pavement.” He fights back tears. He takes a foam mannequin’s head, turns it face up and begins to repeatedly hit the face with his fist until his mother screams at him to stop. By the end of the book, Belle loses her two children to Child Protective Services.
Desmond captures the stress and shame that makes it difficult to have empathy and that creates disconnected and alienated individuals. He wrote:
Arleen’s children did not always have a home. They did not always have food. Arleen was not always able to offer them stability; stability cost too much. She was not always able to protect them from dangerous streets; those streets were her streets. Arleen sacrificed for her boys, fed them as best she could, clothed them with what she had. But when they wanted more than she could give them, she had ways, some subtle, others not, of telling them they didn’t deserve it. When Jori wanted something most teenagers want, new shoes or a hair product, she would tell him he was selfish, or just bad. When Jafaris cried, Arleen sometimes yelled, ‘Damn, you hardheaded. Dry yo’ face up!’ or ‘Stop it, Jafaris before I beat yo’ ass! I’m tired of your bitch ass.’ Sometimes, when he was hungry, Arleen would say, “Don’t be getting in the kitchen because I know you not hungry’; or would tell him to stay out of the barren cupboards because he was getting too fat.
You could only say ‘I’m sorry, I can’t’ so many times before you began to feel worthless, edging closer to a breaking point. So you protected yourself, in a reflexive way, by finding ways to say ‘No, I won’t.’ I cannot help you. So, I will find you unworthy of help.
There are generations being sacrificed to emotional and cognitive dysfunction because of poverty. They lack a basic education. They are rendered numb by trauma. They are crushed as human beings. The rage Jori exhibited when his cat was killed grows and blossoms into a terrifying violence. I see it among my students in the prison. As adults, those raised like Jori explode with an inchoate fury at the slightest provocation, often something banal or trivial. If a gun is available—and in America, guns are almost always available—they shoot. If they are caught, they spend the decades locked in a cage, where there are no more opportunities for education, vocational training, counseling or redemption than in their blighted slums. There are numerous corporations and individuals that make money off this human sacrifice inside and outside prison walls. They have a vested interest in keeping the system intact. These moneyed interests use their power and their lobbyists to prevent rational and humane reform. Desmond captures the true face of corporate America. It is ugly and cruel.