There have been two dominant approaches to explaining poverty: a liberal approach that emphasizes structural economic and historical causes of poverty, and a conservative approach that emphasizes cultural factors and individual failings.
In 1890, Jacob Riis’ How The Other Half Lives shocked readers with its detailed descriptions of squalid living conditions of New York’s poor. Made vivid by Riis’ account of the situations of particular families and photographs of squalor, Riis’ book changed the general public’s understanding of how the working poor lived—and it changed in the conditions of the working poor too. By galvanizing public opinion in favor of reform, Riis’ book shaped the climate of opinion in which new housing laws were passed, fire codes were tightened, the worst housing tenement razed, new public parks and new shelters for the homeless were built.
More than 125 years later, Harvard professor Matthew Desmond just-published book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City echoes many of the themes of How The Other Half Lives. Desmond focuses households who have not qualified for public housing but whose resources limit their negotiating power in the private rental market. He follows eight households as they find struggling to reestablish themselves after eviction, as well as two landlords who rent to these poor families.
Desmond demonstrates that evictions are common occurrences, and he makes vivid the terrible suffering caused by evictions and poor housing conditions, from the small heartbreak of finding a half-eaten birthday cake among an evicted household’s detritus to the wrenching story of a baby’s death in a house fire. He documents the economic losses suffered when families lose their household possessions because they have nowhere to take them and no money to store them, which makes eviction not just a consequence of poverty, but yet deeper poverty a consequence of eviction.
How The Other Half Lives had a huge policy impact, and Evicted aims to have a similar impact. Desmond’s policy suggestions include the expansion of housing voucher programs and a guarantee of right to council in eviction court. Desmond challenges those who would say that these reforms are unaffordable by noting that taxpayers subsidize homeownership—as by letting homeowners deduct mortgage interest from their taxable income—to the tune of $171 billion annually.
There’s much to consider in these policy suggestions.
But, as Desmond himself notes, there have been two dominant approaches to explaining poverty: a liberal approach that emphasizes structural economic and historical causes of poverty, and a conservative approach that emphasizes cultural factors and individual failings. Desmond writes that he found both of these approaches inadequate to explaining poverty and the particular problem of eviction.
However, these policy suggestions that Desmond advances arise mostly from the liberal approach to poverty, and neglect the contributions that follow from the conservative approach.
It is also the case that cultural factors and individual choices exacerbate the circumstances of the poor, as Desmond surely recognizes: he doesn’t hold back his own frustration when one of the women he follows in Evicted spends her entire month’s food stamps on a single lobster dinner.
And, while the lobster dinner example is a single poor choice, one of Evicted’s understated themes is how the breakdown of the family has contributed to the tumult in the lives Desmond portrays. It’s not just that most of the people he portrays aren’t in stable married households—marriage isn’t even a state to which they aspire. One single mother rejected an offer of marriage from the father of four of her children, but then despairs when he leaves her. A young woman who found herself pregnant was positively discouraged by her mother and older sister from embracing her boyfriend’s efforts to act like a father by working double shifts so he could afford an apartment for the three of them; as she was told by her sister: “We didn’t have a daddy. My kids don’t have no daddy. And your kids don’t need no daddy.” In these cases and others, it seems nearly a sure bet that marriage (or at least cohabitation by the parents) would have warded off the likelihood of eviction—and improve the household’s situation in other ways too.
The eviction crisis Desmond describes calls for both for a governmental policy response but also a (difficult) discussion about how culture factors and individual choices can be reshaped to help stabilize households. It’s here that philanthropy and nonprofits may be able to help fill a role that government cannot.