When I saw reviews of Matthew Desmond's recent title Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, I thought, there's a title that I have to get. But then I remembered that Mr. CR has been very strenuously suggesting to me that I should start bringing home some lighter nonfiction, you know, "nonfiction that doesn't make you want to kill yourself."
But then I was in the library with the CRjrs, and I saw Evicted sitting out in the library's "Serendipity" collection, which is a collection of readily available, shorter-term-than-usual, titles for which there is usually a waiting list. Nicely played, library. So I gave in and brought it home.
And, depressingness notwithstanding, it was a really good read. In the course of doing graduate work in sociology, Desmond attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison, but lived and did his field work in Milwaukee. The experiences he had living there and research he has done on the subject of poverty and housing form the backbone of his book. He provides a window into the worlds of the truly horrifically poor, whether they are black and white, working or not, drug-addicted or elderly (and many times some combinations of those and more attributes). They are worlds of trailer parks with substandard trailers, and inner-city rental properties and homes with substandard everything. And for the honor of living in homes with backed-up toilets, insect infestations, no appliances, and many other problems, Desmond found that many residents paid 70-80% of whatever income they could accumulate, whether it was work salaries, government assistance, or a combination of both, to rent alone.
Now I don't care, really, what kind of "lifestyle choices" these people are making. But I can see and do that math and know that if you are paying 80% of your income to rent, that leaves you very little to buy food and other necessities (completely forget about health care). Desmond himself points that out, and backs up his numbers in lengthy endnotes. His style is good investigative writing; descriptive, but not overwrought, and clean but not really clinical prose:
"Lenny knew the druggies lived mostly on the north side of the trailer park, and the people working double shifts at restaurants or nursing homes lived mostly on the south side. The metal scrappers and can collectors lived near the entrance, and the people with the best jobs--sandblasters, mechanics--congregated on the park's snobby side, behind the office, in mobile homes with freshly swept porches and flowerpots. Those on SSI were sprinkled throughout, as were the older folks who 'went to bed with the chickens and woke up with the chickens,' as some park residents liked to say. Lenny tried to house the sex offenders near the druggies, but it didn't always work out. He had had to place one near the double shifters. Thankfully, the man never left his trailer or even opened the blinds." (p. 32-33.)
Yeah, Mr. CR has a point. But it was a interesting book.* And I think Desmond did a good job with it. He not only details the problems of the renters; he shadowed a landlord and showed the many challenges of that lifestyle (although it comes with a bit more money) as well. He also provides a simple epilogue in which he suggests there would be plenty of money in this country to start to address this very basic problem (and ways it has been addressed thus far, neither effectively nor cost-effectively), but we just have to decide that this is what we WANT to spend our money on. I for one think it would be a good idea. Because the thought of people raising babies in apartments with stopped-up toilets AND sinks is just too ridiculous for words.
*Although this reviewer didn't think it was depressing. Trust me: it's depressing.