Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, should be for poverty what Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was to the meat industry, or what Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was to the Civil War. Whether it attains this status depends, in Desmond’s words, if “we believe that the right to a decent home is part of what it means to be an American.”
By combining ethnography with research and narrative with analysis, Desmond unravels the previously unstudied causes and effects of eviction. The author, a Princeton sociologist (formerly at Harvard), chose to focus this nonfiction book on Milwaukee. But the patterns prevail around the nation, including Cleveland. Every indication suggests that the destructive consequences of eviction are not an accident, nor are they just the consequence of ill-conceived policies. There is instead, Desmond suggests, every indication that the housing markets are, to borrow a phrase from a recent series on Cleveland, “divided by design.”
Desmond wisely brings us into the lives of both landlords and tenants. Though there are some remarkably extreme moments – the woman struggling to find housing who spends her entire month’s allotment of food stamps to treat herself to a lobster dinner or the landlord who vacations in Jamaica one week and schemes to evict a wheelchair-bound tenant the next – Desmond refrains from passing judgment. We are drawn into the lives of these individuals not so we focus on them. To blame them would be part of the argument that the author wants us to resist because they are not the problem. It’s the system. Desmond concludes:
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.
Chosen for Greater Cleveland’s One Community Reads, there will be a series of discussions about Evicted, and the author will visit Cleveland in March. There also will be a remarkable series of events related to Desmond’s book. The City Club of Cleveland, Playhouse Square and all nine local public library systems collaborated to bring this shared reading experience to the community. If you want a more Cleveland-specific look at the issues Desmond explores in his book, I recommend Derelict Paradise by Daniel Kerr.