The College of Education and Human Services was honored to present an evening with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Matthew Desmond lecturing on and signing copies of his bestselling book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City on Thursday, March 1. The program was the culmination of a series of events that included panel and classroom discussions surrounding the issues of poverty, eviction and homelessness that are pervasive across the country, especially in large urban areas. Desmond spent extensive time living among the families, landlords and members of law enforcement that are profiled in the book in order to give readers an unadulterated, first hand perspective on a complicated problem in the hope of influencing thought towards a solution.
Desmond termed the research done for the book as a study in inequality. He opened the program by stating that "America is weird. We're the richest democracy with the worst poverty." He then described the process by which he spent seven months living in a Milwaukee trailer park and a rooming house that allowed him to compile his source material. Throughout the evening, he offered observations and posed questions that allowed the auditorium of students, faculty and other Seton Hall Community members to better understand the complexity of how the process of eviction actually pushes people deeper into disadvantage.
According to Desmond, it is a case of "inevitability over irresponsibility" that causes an individual's circumstances to worsen when faced with eviction. He also declared that "without stable housing, everything else in a person's life falls apart." The story of Arlene, one of eight families profiled in the book, was used to illustrate this point. Arlene was already living in lower-income, yet reasonably stable housing when a simple mischievous incident involving her fourteen-year-old son caused them to be evicted. What followed was a series of migrations to vastly different locations around the city in shelters and various condemned houses that transpired to produce a multitude of unforeseen hardships, driving them into increasing poverty. Among their many compounding issues was having their eviction made public through notices, thus, preventing many landlords from granting a lease and forcing them to continually move into poorer, substandard housing. Some landlords did not, furthermore, want to rent to children or teens; they are liabilities for property and legal issues. Instability increased as the emotional and mental states of the family continued to deteriorate through constant moving to different schools, dealing with the uncertainty of future shelter, or the very real obstacle of the bitter Milwaukee cold on the street. As Arlene states in the book, all of this "affects the soul." Job loss, or the inability to maintain stable employment by moving from place to place is just another of many by-products that contribute to an inevitable downward trajectory.
Exacerbating the problem is that rents have steadily increased by approximately 70% for the poor since 1995, while income has stagnated or been reduced. In addition, the prospect of making more money encourages property owners to forcibly vacate low-income renters in favor of attracting middle class, stable tenants through gentrification. The result for some is that they simply have limited options for where to go next.
A common misconception is that most poor people receive government subsidies when, in fact, only 6% of this population are given public assistance and live in Section 8 housing. The sobering reality is that most people in-need receive nothing. Waiting lists for government subsidized housing are often frozen, and even then will take decades before eligible people are granted availability. For those receiving nothing, up to 88% of their income is spent on rent and utilities, leaving what little is left for the month to be spread between food, clothing and other expenses.
Milwaukee is but one example of what occurs virtually every day in cities across the country. According to the author, one in eight people were involuntarily displaced in Milwaukee in the last two years. There are literally thousands of evictions per day in this city alone, and some moving companies have profited by working exclusively on evictions and lockouts. Desmond also cites the fact that many of the evicted are African-American women, proclaiming, "black men get locked up, black women get locked out."
Desmond ended his presentation by stating that "when we as a nation take on huge problems, there are huge solutions," and proceeded to offer some options for the audience to consider. According to national data, homeowner tax subsidies totaled $171 billion dollars in 2008, with the largest portion going to mortgage interest deduction. This amount is equal to budgets for the departments of Veteran Affairs, Homeland Security, Justice, and Agriculture combined. He suggests that expanding housing vouchers would allow more people to pay 30% of their income on rent instead of 88%, thus, increasing stability through fewer evictions. He points to the fact that once Arlene became stable as a result of the book, she began to place her focus on looking for jobs instead of looking to keep her family off the street.
"If poverty persists, it's not for lack of resources. We lack something else," said Desmond. "This degree of inequality, this blunting of human potential. There is no code, no American or Christian value that says it's justified, that says it should be allowed to happen."
The audience for the evening was deeply affected by what they had experienced. When one woman was asked what she thought of the program, she stated that she didn't like it. She thought Matthew Desmond was wonderful, but she didn't like that the wealth of additional knowledge she gained only further solidified thoughts she had about racial and economic inequalities in America. Gianna Gentile, a senior majoring in special education and speech pathology remarked that, "hearing firsthand what I had read by the author really made an impact on me." Anthony Tokarz, a junior diplomacy and economics major asked Desmond to consider what the forefathers meant by right balanced by responsibility. Desmond answered that a person simply cannot work if there is no job. After a lengthy conversation at the book signing table, Tokarz stated that the entire night definitely was useful in broadening his perspective. "It [the lecture and private discussion with Desmond] really contributed to my analytical toolbox."