Mathew Desmond, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, recently gave a talk at University of Arkansas at Little Rock, thanks to the sponsorship of the Winthrop Rockefeller Distinguished Lecture Series. A professor at Princeton, his book is about the practice of evicting people from their residences. He spoke about the emotions and hardships of being evicted and gave detailed and personal accounts of evictions from a variety of perspectives--the evicted and the evicting.
I sat in the audience, impressed with his presentation. Not only did he ground his remarks in his two-year experience living among the evicted, but his newly founded Eviction Lab at Princeton provided a national context for an appreciation of the scope and seriousness of the problem for those who experience it and those who profit from it.
In our city, the sight of household belongings stacked at the curb is common in low-income neighborhoods. Desmond relates how this happens. In one example, he documents the consequences of Wisconsin Works (sounds familiar) which requires able-bodied recipients to work for assistance. This program and others like it often have unintended consequences which can exacerbate the problems that they are supposed to solve.
Wisconsin Works is unable to discriminate between those able to work and those with emotional and behavioral disorders who fail at employment and end up evicted and homeless. Profiteers sell lists of the names of people who have been evicted to landlords, who refuse to rent to those with a past eviction, just as employers shun felons.
Desmond writes on the Eviction Lab website that "most poor renting families spend at least half of their income on housing costs, with one in four of those families spending over 70 percent of their income just on rent and utilities."
Wages for poor families, particularly those headed by a single mother, have been nearly flat for several decades, while rents have risen. Furthermore, only one in four low-income families qualifies for affordable housing programs. After paying the rent, there is not enough money to budget or spend wisely.
Desmond's conclusion is that eviction drives those who experience it deeper into a cycle of hopelessness and homelessness. Poor families are often just one major car repair, medical expense or run-in with the law away from disaster.
The author discussed ways to ameliorate and even eliminate the necessity for evictions. His proposal focuses on expanding rent subsidies. While political will would be required to enact his proposal of more comprehensive aid for paying rent, his analysis left his audience informed and hopeful that political solutions might be forthcoming.
What a jolt to compare Desmond's approach to what we just witnessed in the last midterm elections. I could not help but compare his description of evictions as a social problem to how similar problems are discussed in the political arena. Candidates from both major parties relied on emotional and rhetorical appeals for votes. How much different our political campaigns would be if politicians would run for office by detailing actual facts, trends and interpretations of issues. Instead, they run elections that assume voters are either incapable or unwilling to understand the complexities of problems in contemporary society.
While we are not surprised to learn that politicians believe that elections can only be won by persuading voters with emotional appeals, it might be time to try another approach. Instead of politicking with emotional appeal and ideological rhetoric, wouldn't it be a wondrous change to have politicians and political parties campaign on evidence and informed understandings of issues like poverty and the role that evictions play in that depressing cycle of "for want of a nail the horse was lost"?
Likewise, our elected officials should be more open to detailed letters from their constituents. Now, political action groups encourage letter writers to state a position briefly. While we are wishing for change, how about television pundits and news organizations providing information on issues as thoroughly as Desmond's on eviction?
Professor Desmond reminds us that the social sciences can contribute to public discourse by describing the nature of social problems. Carefully documented understandings of a particular social problem and how that problem connects to economic and social forces can inspire searches for solutions.
Evictions, the professor tells us, are part of a larger problem of poverty and profit in American cities. Evictions do not solve the problems of poverty, nor do they ensure the value of rental property. Instead they worsen poverty and contribute to the decline of property value.
While there are many solutions for keeping people's belongings off the curb, acting to solve or lessen the consequences of that problem often has political implications. Voter and candidate should understand issues in their social and economic contexts. While voters have obligations, so do candidates. We should demand that they inform us, not just appeal to us. Professor Desmond's impassioned book on evictions can serve as a model.
Jeff Nash, who lives in Maumelle, is a retired sociologist.
Editorial on 12/23/2018
Print Headline: Keep belongings off the curb