Matthew Desmond had little to distinguish himself from other applicants when applying to Ph.D. programs in sociology. As he remembers it, only one acceptance letter arrived at his door — from UW-Madison.
But soon after moving here in 2002, Desmond’s untapped potential began to reveal itself in his work at the Institute for Research on Poverty. Growing up in Winslow, Ariz., in a family that struggled financially, Desmond was intimately familiar with the lives of the poor. His curiosity about why some people become locked into a cycle of poverty expanded into a life mission.
During the time he spent working on his doctorate, and in the years since, Desmond has drafted a small library’s worth of articles about poverty and eviction, co-edited several anthologies on the subject and published two book-length works.
After graduating in 2010, Desmond was snapped up by Harvard and is now the co-director of the school’s Justice and Poverty Project. In 2015, he received a MacArthur “Genius Grant.”
His second solo-author book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, was published this March. A raw and harrowing read, it follows the lives of tenants and landlords who live in some of Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods.
The critically acclaimed book landed on The New York Times bestseller list and was named one of the most important books of 2016 by the Wall Street Journal, O: The Oprah Magazine and The New York Times.
In April, UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank chose Evicted as this year’s Go Big Read, which means 7,000 incoming freshman and transfer students will receive copies at the fall convocation welcoming event. The entire law school will also be reading the book this fall, and 60 classes in a range of fields will be using Evicted in their curriculums, says Blank. Desmond will return to Madison in November to speak at the Memorial Union Theater.
“The book itself is about a major social question about community and how you treat those who are more marginalized,” Blank says. “It has a broad interest for students from a wide variety of backgrounds.” It’s also meaningful that Desmond produced the research for the book while he was a grad student in Madison. “Evicted is written by one of our own,” says Blank. “It began as Desmond’s dissertation at UW, and bringing back one of your own is a nice bit of symbolism for our students.”
To conduct his research Desmond lived for a year in Milwaukee trailer parks and in crumbling homes where the heat didn’t work and the floor sagged because of leaky plumbing. His words ring true because he lived alongside the individuals whose lives he chronicles. His masterful storytelling and innate sense of pacing evoke an excellent novel, but the reader is challenged with the knowledge that these heartbreaking stories don’t come from the imagination of a gifted writer but from the streets of a city close to home.
I spoke with Desmond on the phone from his office in Boston. Though a forceful writer, Desmond speaks in a gentle voice. And while his research yields bleak findings, he still finds cause for hope.
A woman in Milwaukee sits on her stoop as a sheriff’s eviction is underway.
Why did you choose Milwaukee as the location of your research?
I wanted to set the book in a city, a city on a bit bigger scale than Madison, to give me a shot at representing the experiences of low-income folks in cities like Cleveland and Indianapolis and Houston and St. Louis.
What was it like moving between Madison’s academic community and inner-city Milwaukee?
There is a big group of folks in Madison that wants to apply the skills and perspectives of social science to some of the most morally urgent questions of the day. I tried to take the training that I had been offered in grad school and apply it to the things I was seeing in trailer parks and the inner city on the north side of Milwaukee. The thing that was tough is going from someone who is facing homelessness or maybe has had a tragedy or experienced violence, to communities that don’t have to think about those two things. I think that was existentially challenging.
Did you have any experience with eviction or poor neighborhoods in Madison?
It’s a different kind of poverty — or, it’s poverty on a different kind of scale. My wife and I lived on the south side of Madison, off South Park. We loved that community. It was a mixed-income, multi-ethnic community. There were pockets of poverty, but it was a tight-knit, on-the-sidewalk community. I remember there was this huge snowstorm, and everyone was out shoveling. No one had a snow blower. So we were all just workin’ it, you know, with a shovel. We teamed up with the other folks and we all pitched in and made a neighborhood breakfast. Fisher Street, to some folks in Madison, is considered to be a low-income community, but it’s almost a different species, in terms of a trailer park on the far south side of Milwaukee, or some neighborhoods in the inner city of the north side of Milwaukee.
What does chronic eviction do to a community?
Eviction is an acutely stressful, drawn-out process. It can really take a toll on family life. Moms who are evicted experience high rates of depression, and that has to affect relationships. It has to affect kids. We know that when neighbors work together to confront issues on their block they can make huge differences. They can drive down crime and can improve their neighborhood. But, for that to happen, we have to give them the opportunity to be a community. And some neighborhoods in Milwaukee have 15%-20% eviction rates, people constantly shuffling in and out. Under those conditions, we kind of ensure that neighbors remain strangers. And we dilute the power of local citizen engagement. I think the lack of affordable housing in our cities is the wellspring for so many problems we care about.
Keys belonging to Quentin, a former gang member who became a landlord.
In Evicted, you follow white families and you follow black families, all of whom are poor, but it’s clear that there’s still a hierarchy. How are race and poverty connected?
There are things that you can’t understand about the eviction crisis without recognizing the saliency of racial discrimination and the legacy of racial disadvantage. The fact is that low-income African American women are evicted at startlingly higher rates. Among Milwaukee renters, one in five black women reports being evicted sometime in her life, compared to one in 15 white women. Low-income black women are disproportionately affected by the eviction epidemic, and it’s especially true of mothers. Moms with kids — that’s really the face of this problem. If you go to any housing court in the country, you just see just a ton of kids running around. Today, the majority of white folks in America own their homes; that’s not the case for the majority of African American folks, and that’s the result of a certain historical legacy.
And then there’s the saliency of discrimination in the housing market. We surveyed folks that live in cities like Milwaukee, and most people think that the city’s still segregated because of personal choice, but the research is not supportive of that idea. It’s supportive of the idea of the prevalence of housing discrimination and the housing market. It’s also important to recognize that this isn’t a problem that’s just concentrated in low-income communities of color — that’s why it was important to write about folks in the trailer parks. It’s in immigrant communities, it’s in expensive cities like Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. But it’s also in the middle of the country. It’s in Madison and St. Louis and Houston.
The parts where landlords are featured prominently were some of the most upsetting for me, but you never come across as saying, “These are bad people.”
Yeah, I never felt it was my job to say that. Also, saying that lets ourselves off the hook. It allows us to just stereotype certain kinds of folks as bad or greedy, or, if we had different politics, we might stereotype the tenants as irresponsible or lazy. If we get down to the ground level and really look at what’s going on, we realize it’s a lot more complicated. I think you do see the landlords in the book take an emotional hit by being up close and personal with the wreckage that we permit, with respect to the level of poverty in America.
And the fact is that today, most poor families are spending most of what they have on housing. So, when Katrina has to evict Lamar (all names were changed to protect privacy), she doesn’t just do it, and she doesn’t shrug it off. She really wrestles with it. And you can see [her] delaying and negotiating, and she finally has this amazing conversation with her husband, Quentin, when she says, “I love Lamar, but love don’t pay the bills.” I think that was important to capture, because we see these kinds of things in other areas of life too. We see the effect of incarceration on prison guards. We see the effect of eviction on landlords. We see the effect of failing schools on burned-out teachers. We see the reverberations, the effects, not only in local families and communities but in a lot of other folks engaged in these issues as well.
There’s a section of the book where one of your central figures, Larraine, uses her food stamps to go buy lobster tail, shrimp, crab legs, salmon, lemon merengue.
When Larraine did that, I was really angry at her, and flabbergasted. And I think I responded to it in a way that a lot of other folks would respond to it. But Lorraine didn’t apologize for it, and I thought, “Well, gosh, if she doesn’t, it’s not my job to either.”
You say in a footnote related to that passage, “There are two ways to dehumanize: the first is to strip people of all virtue, the second is to clear them of all sin.”
I felt that I could identify with what Larraine did, and I felt it was a very human thing for her to do. We can’t live by bread alone, and that goes for folks like Lorraine, too. I guess my wager with the universe is that, by telling this story, I encourage a few of us to think a little harder about the lives of the poor, and really try to understand how we might blow a monthly allotment of food stamps on lobster too — if we were living so far below the poverty line that no amount of good behavior would lift us above it.
Distraught over her eviction, a woman is comforted by her 11-year-old nephew.
I think we forget, possibly, that a necessary part of existing is to do things that are not “necessary.”
There is a whole literature now, behavioral economics, that shows that a lot of folks behave like that. It shows that someone like Larraine is not poor because she makes bad decisions — if that’s what we want to call that — she makes those kinds of decisions because she’s poor. We do know that things like stress and poverty tax the brain. It’s also important to point out that she’s kind of the oddball on this one, right? You don’t see lot of folks in the book doing that. When Eileen gets a little bit of extra money, she buys sneakers for her son; she invests it in her kids. Most of the folks in the book are just trying to make it, and do right by their kids. But I also thought it was important to write about moments like the one with Larraine, because it does teach us something about the texture of poverty today.
Another individual you follow wins a small amount of money at a casino. But instead of using it on her own pressing needs, she uses it to help a friend pay the rent.
There’s this other thing there, the incredible generosity you sometimes witness among folks who are facing truly difficult situations. There’s a little mention of this moment in the fieldwork where I was spending time with the Hinkston family, which lives in a really terrible house. It was February, and Doreen asked me to go downstairs to look at the furnace. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I came back up and they had bought me a birthday cake and they wanted to surprise me. Their heat was off, but they were focused on this moment of generosity. It was just a powerful moment for me — and those are all over the book — because it reminds us how people refuse to be reduced by their poverty; they refuse to be defined by their hardship.
It’s challenging in discussions like this to avoid reducing people to their poverty.
I knew that people in the book would read the book. I gave it to them long before it went to the publisher. And I knew that if I did reduce them, and they didn’t recognize themselves in the story, I would be doing them an injustice. So I did try to write about their full selves, even parts of them that are hard to read.
How do scholars doing this kind of work retain the humanity of their subjects?
I think you have to put in the work, you have to spend a lot of time on the ground. If you can, you want to live in the communities. And when you start writing and thinking about this, you want to spend a lot of time with people’s words and experiences. It’s a heck of a responsibility to write about someone’s life. When I left the field, I would be constantly listening to recordings from Milwaukee over and over and over again, while I was walking to work or rocking my kid to sleep. I’d be listening. And I had all these field notes, like 5,000 single pages, that I just read and reread and reread because I wanted to make sure people’s stories really got under my skin. When I started writing, I felt I had a completed picture of their situation. That kind of work takes a lot of time, and it takes a bit of commitment to the field, and commitment to people’s lives.
Reading your book made me want to take action. What can we do next?
I started this foundation that preceded the book called Just Shelter. You can go to justshelter.org to see organizations in your community that are working on these issues, preventing family homelessness and eviction. The good news is that there are a lot of people working really hard on these issues, and a lot of cool stuff getting done block by block, in our cities.
How do you feel about Evicted being chosen for Go Big Read?
It is an enormous honor. I am a proud alum of the University of Wisconsin and am forever indebted to that great university — and to its Department of Sociology in particular. My book bears witness to the lack of affordable housing in America and the persistence of poverty in our cities. That incoming freshmen will be reading Evicted makes me hopeful that Wisconsin will help lead the nation in a national conversation about these morally urgent issues — and that that conversation will spur us to act. Which, after all, is the Wisconsin Idea.
What does it mean to have an academic work cross over into the popular conversation in this way?
It means that we are ready to have a public conversation about the fact that the high cost of housing is crushing families of moderate means, and eviction is transforming the face of our cities, destabilizing homes and entire communities. It means that we are growing intolerant of the fact that we are the richest democracy in the world with the worst poverty. It means that we are ready to allow our children — no matter where they are born or what their parents do — a real shot at reaching their full potential.