Evicted by Matthew Desmond is in many ways a model of what a scholarly, opinionated book should be.
Desmond, a Harvard social scientist, provides two major pieces of evidence in this book on the toll that evictions take on poor people.
One is that he spent several years living in poor Milkwaukee neighborhoods, developing incredibly close ties to poor renters and studying first hand how housing scarcity affects poor people.
The other is that he helped run a survey that includes new information about evictions that aren’t available anywhere else. Most importantly, it counts not just people who were forcibly evicted by law enforcement but everyone pushed out by landlords.
Both approaches suggested that eviction is a much more frequent and damaging experience for poor Americans than commonly appreciated. Desmond reports in incredibly detail how evictions come at the worst possible times for poor families, adding just one more source of desperation and compounding difficulty into their lives. And the survey showed that, in the past two years prior, more than 1 in eight Milwaukee renters were forced to move.
The anecdotes are especially impressive because you get the sense that Desmond is trying to present a comprehensive picture of the forces at work in people’s lives that lead to evictions, rather than stacking the deck in one way or another.
He makes it clear that many of the problems that his subjects encounter are their own doing. He doesn’t gloss over drug use, shortsightedness, laziness, negligence, violence, and all the other mistakes that the people make. At times, Desmond describes the interior thought processes and feelings of his subjects in greater detail than I would be comfortable writing.
At the same time, he manages to touch on a simply astonishing number of different traps and dead-ends that poor people encounter at work, in their family lives, and especially in contact with government programs. He runs down how some families use disability payments as a substitute for welfare, and how doing so discourages them from working and saving in some circumstances. He explains how slumlords profit off of poorly designed voucher programs.
After assembling all this evidence that evictions are a regular source of trauma that leads to cascading problems for poor families, Desmond concludes that people should have a government-guaranteed right to housing.
It’s an argument that is very appealing to me in many ways. As I went to write this post, though, Kevin Corinth wrote a piece laying out the opposite perspective that is worth taking note of. Corinth argues that housing programs should be limited to short-term housing to prevent homelessness and programs for the mentally ill or other people who can’t find their own way, and otherwise the goal should be cash assistance.
Also, a few notes on where Desmond’s perspective, I thought, was not fully fleshed out. As Desmond has noted, only about a quarter of the people eligible for federal housing assistance receive it, because of supply problems. That, to me, is an argument for supply-side reforms rather than for government subsidies. Desmond’s case that evictions are particularly harmful suggests that providing for very cheap construction, even if it’s low-quality and cramped, would be better than the current system, in which evictions are frequent.
At different times, Desmond briefly touches on arguments that I think turn the economics of housing on its head. At one point, he suggests that construction of luxury apartments bids up rents, worsening affordability for poor families. Outside of rare exceptions, I think the opposite is true: More supply means lower prices throughout the market. Elsewhere, he creates a narrative that there is a proliferation of slumlords who evict and abuse tenants because it’s profitable and economically efficient in equilibrium. My guess is the far more efficient use of that urban land would be for high-quality housing for high-earners, and that what’s going on here is something else.
That’s not to diminish that this is an eye-opening book, definitely worth the attention and praise it’s been given.
$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, by the sociologists Kathryn Edin of Johns Hopkins and Luke Shaefer of Michigan, is structured similarly to Desmond’s book in that it draws on both one major datapoint -- that the number of families surviving on just $2 a day or less has doubled since the 1990s welfare reform -- and a wealth of anecdotes taken from first-hand observation of poor families. The authors argue that a lack of cash, as opposed to in-kind benefits like food stamps, creates scarcity and compounds problems for poor families. Cash, unlike in-kind benefits, allows families the flexibility to stave off short-term crises that might arise. They conclude that the the minimum wage should be raised, housing should be subsidized more, and that states should be required to promote cash welfare more.
The anecdotes are incredible and sometimes heart-rending, as they narrate families trying to get cash by auctioning off food stamps, selling blood, engaging in prostitution, and more.
The big issue with this book, though, is that the case that extreme poverty has risen in the U.S. since welfare reform, based on the data, is not conclusive. The evidence Scott Winship has assembled appears to indicate more strongly that, based on cash alone, $2-a-day poverty probably hasn’t risen significantly since welfare reform. Taking into consideration the in-kind benefits that expanded after welfare reform, it seems virtually nonexistent.