Poverty and Profit in the American City
Trade Paperback

Add Evicted to Goodreads

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER KIRKUS PRIZE FOR NONFICTION FINALIST | LONGLISTED FOR THE PEN/JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH AWARD FOR NONFICTION NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR by The New York Times Book Review • The Boston Globe •  The Washington Post  NPR • Entertainment Weekly  The New Yorker • Bloomberg •  Esquire • San Francisco Chronicle • Milwaukee Journal Sentinel  St. Louis Post-Dispatch •  Politico •  Bookpage • Kirkus Reviews •  Amazon •  Barnes and Noble Review •  Apple •  Library Journal Chicago Public Library • Publishers Weekly • Booklist  Shelf Awareness

From Princeton sociologist and MacArthur "Genius" Matthew Desmond, a landmark work of scholarship and reportage that will forever change the way we look at poverty in America
In this brilliant, heartbreaking book, Matthew Desmond takes us into the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee to tell the story of eight families on the edge. Arleen is a single mother trying to raise her two sons on the $20 a month she has left after paying for their rundown apartment. Scott is a gentle nurse consumed by a heroin addiction. Lamar, a man with no legs and a neighborhood full of boys to look after, tries to work his way out of debt. Vanetta participates in a botched stickup after her hours are cut. All are spending almost everything they have on rent, and all have fallen behind.

The fates of these families are in the hands of two landlords: Sherrena Tarver, a former schoolteacher turned inner-city entrepreneur, and Tobin Charney, who runs one of the worst trailer parks in Milwaukee. They loathe some of their tenants and are fond of others, but as Sherrena puts it, “Love don’t pay the bills.” She moves to evict Arleen and her boys a few days before Christmas.

Even in the most desolate areas of American cities, evictions used to be rare. But today, most poor renting families are spending more than half of their income on housing, and eviction has become ordinary, especially for single mothers. In vivid, intimate prose, Desmond provides a ground-level view of one of the most urgent issues facing America today. As we see families forced  into shelters, squalid apartments, or more dangerous neighborhoods, we bear witness to the human cost of America’s vast inequality—and to people’s determination and intelligence in the face of hardship.

Based on years of embedded fieldwork and painstakingly gathered data, this masterful book transforms our understanding of extreme poverty and economic exploitation while providing fresh ideas for solving a devastating, uniquely American problem. Its unforgettable scenes of hope and loss remind us of the centrality of home, without which nothing else is possible.


Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction Finalist
Winner of the 2017 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award
Winner of the 800-CEO-READ Book Award — Current Events & Public Affairs
Winner of the American Bar Association's 2017 Silver Gavel Award
Shortlisted for the 2017 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction
One of The Los Angeles Times' 10 Most Important Books of 2016
New York Times Editors' Choice
One of Wall Street Journal's Hottest Spring Nonfiction Books
One of O: The Oprah Magazine's 10 Titles to Pick Up Now
One of Vulture's 8 Books You Need to Read This Month
One of BuzzFeed's 14 Most Buzzed About Books of 2016
One of The Guardian's Best Holiday Reads 2016

iTunes Best Book of the Month
Amazon Best Book of the Month
Google Play Best Book of Spring
Goodreads "Mover and Shaker" 

“An exhaustively researched, vividly realized and above all, unignorable book—after Evicted, it will no longer be possible to have a serious discussion about poverty without having a serious discussion about housing.”
—Jennifer Senior, New York Times

"Astonishing...Desmond is an academic who teaches at Harvard—a sociologist or, you could say, an ethnographer. But I would like to claim him as a journalist too, and one who, like Katherine Boo in her study of a Mumbai slum, has set a new standard for reporting on poverty."
Barbara Ehrenreich, New York Times Book Review

“Written with the vividness of a novel, [Evicted] offers a dark mirror of middle-class America’s obsession with real estate, laying bare the workings of the low end of the market, where evictions have become just another part of an often lucrative business model.”
—Jennifer Schuessler, New York Times

"It doesn't happen every week (or every month, or even year), but every once in a while a book comes along that changes the national conversation... Evicted looks to be one of those books."
—Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review

“An essential piece of reportage about poverty and profit in urban America.”
Geoff Dyer, The Guardian’s Best Holiday Reads 2016

"Should be required reading in an election year, or any other."
—Entertainment Weekly

“Thank you, Matthew Desmond. Thank you for writing about destitution in America with astonishing specificity yet without voyeurism or judgment. Thank you for showing it is possible to compose spare, beautiful prose about a complicated policy problem. Thank you for giving flesh and life to our squabbles over inequality, so easily consigned to quintiles and zero-sum percentages. Thank you for proving that the struggle to keep a roof over one’s head is a cause, not just a characteristic of poverty... Evicted is an extraordinary feat of reporting and ethnography. Desmond has made it impossible to ever again consider poverty in America without tackling the role of housing—and without grappling with Evicted.”
Washington Post

“Powerful, monstrously effective…[Evicted] documents with impressive steadiness of purpose and command of detail the lives of impoverished renters at the bottom of Milwaukee’s housing market…In describing the plight of these people, Desmond reveals the confluence of seemingly unrelated forces that have conspired to create a thoroughly humiliated class of the almost or soon-to-be homeless…But the power of this book abides in the indelible impression left by its stories.”
—Jill Leovy, The American Scholar

“Gripping and important…Desmond, a Harvard sociologist, cites plenty of statistics but it’s his ethnographic gift that lends the work such force. He’s one of a rare academic breed: a poverty expert who engages with the poor. His portraits are vivid and unsettling…It’s not easy to show desperate people using drugs or selling sex and still convey their courage and dignity. Evicted pulls it off.” 
—Jason DeParle, New York Review of Books

“[Desmond] tells a complex, achingly powerful story… There have been many well-received urban ethnographies in recent years, from Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day to Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Desmond’s Evicted surely deserves to takes [its] place among these. It is an exquisitely crafted, meticulously researched exploration of life on the margins, providing a voice to people who have been shamefully ignored—or, worse, demonized—by opinion makers over the course of decades.” 
—The Boston Globe

"[An] impressive work of scholarship... novelistically detailed... As Mr. Desmond points out, eviction has been neglected by urban sociologists, so his account fills a gap. His methodology is scrupulous."
Wall Street Journal

"A shattering account of life on the American fringe, Matthew Desmond’s Evicted shows the reality of a housing crisis that few among the political or media elite ever think much about, let alone address. It takes us to the center of what would be seen as an emergency of significant proportions if the poor had any legitimate political agency in American life."
—The New Republic

“Wrenching and revelatory… Other sociologists have ventured before into the realm of popular literature… but none in recent memory have so successfully bridged in a single work the demands of the academy (statistical studies and deep reviews of the existing literature) and the narrative necessity of showing what has brought these beautiful, flawed humans to their miseries… A powerfully convincing book that examines the poor’s impossible housing situation at point-blank range.”
—The Nation

“Extraordinary… I can’t remember when an ethnographic study so deepened my understanding of American life."
Katha Pollitt, The Guardian

Evicted stands among the very best of the social justice books… The book is meticulously reported and beautifully written, balancing statistics with family stories that draw you in and keep you there. I hope that all the people who read and loved Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity will give Evicted a chance.”
—Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto

“I thought I had a sense of the breakdown and despair in America’s poorest communities. I didn’t… Searing… [and] critical.”
Roger Altman, founder and chairman of Evercore and former United States Secretary of the Treasury; Wall Street Journal’s Best Books of 2016

“In this astonishing feat of ethnography, Desmond immerses himself in the lives of Milwaukee families caught in the cycle of chronic eviction. In spare and penetrating prose, this Harvard sociologist chronicles the economic and psychological toll of living in substandard housing, and the eviscerating impact of constantly moving between homes and shelters. With Evicted, Desmond has made it impossible to consider poverty without grappling with the role of housing. This pick [as best book of 2016] was not close.”
—Carlos Lozada, Washington Post

“Like Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, this brilliant book is reportage with the depth and force of fiction. Its eye-opening details and data offer a new way to look at the affordable-housing crisis, the forces that perpetuate poverty and the policies we need to fix a crazily stacked deck.”
—MORE Magazine

"[Evicted] is harrowing, heartbreaking, and heavily researched, and the plight of the characters will remain with you long after you close the book's pages... Desmond's meticulousness shows how precision is not at odds with compassionate storytelling of the underprivileged. Indeed, [it] is the respect that Evicted shows for its characters' flaws and mistakes that makes the book impossible to forget."
Christian Science Monitor

“A superb new book.”
—Nicholas Kristof, New York Times

"The poverty of others brings up terrible questions of there-but-for-the-grace-of-God and what if, were your circumstances or skin color or gender different, that could be you. Your gaze pulls away. But Desmond writes so powerfully and with such persuasive math that he turns your head back and keeps it there: Yes, it could be you. But if home is so crucial a place that its loss causes this much pain, Evicted argues, making it possible for more of us might change everything.”

"Evicted is a rich, empathetic feat of storytelling and fieldwork."
Mother Jones

"Evicted successfully interweaves the narratives of white characters living in a trailer park at the most southern point of Milwaukee with landlords and tenants in the sprawling black ghetto of the city’s North Side... Desmond’s book manages to be a deeply moral work, a successful nonfiction narrative, and a sweeping academic survey—all while bringing new research to his academic field and to the public’s attention."

“I love books that devastate me… I won’t soon forget [Desmond’s] description of a family moving in and out of homeless shelters. [Evicted] was heartbreaking.”
Imbolo Mbue
, author of Behold the Dreamers; The Millions Best Books of 2016 

Evicted is that rare work that has something genuinely new to say about poverty. Desmond makes a convincing case that policymakers and academics have overlooked the role of the private rental market, and that eviction 'is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty'...Evictions have become routine. Desmond’s book should begin to change that."
—San Francisco Chronicle

“Matthew Desmond’s new book makes an undeniable case that we need to fix this all-American tragedy.” 
—Huffington Post

"[A] carefully researched, often heartbreaking book."
Chicago Tribune

"Evicted should provoke extensive public policy discussions. It is a magnificent, richly textured book with a Tolstoyan approach: telling it like it is but with underlying compassion and a respect for the humanity of each character, major or minor."
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"By immersing himself in the everyday lives of poor renters, Desmond follows in the tradition of James Agee, whose monumental 1941 book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men pounded the reader with clear-eyed and brutal descriptions of rural poverty in the Deep South."
Minneapolis StarTribune

“Desmond seems to be that rare person who is a dedicated and careful researcher and a phenomenal writer. The stories he tells in Evicted are gripping and intimate, at the same time as compelling as a novel and painstakingly illustrating how people are trapped and what the systemic implications are of that. I literally could not put it down… [Evicted] feels like it has the potential to catalyze a movement.”

"[A] masterful, heartbreaking book… The stories in Evicted are a haunting plea for us to do the right thing by families who ache for the simple routines that build a life – evening baths in a working tub for the kids, dinner cooked in one’s own kitchen, windows and doors that keep cold and danger out, a place to call home.”

“[An] unflinching, richly detailed narrative… Evicted is an important book that provides an unvarnished account of the lives of the troubled and disorganized – some would say vulnerable – poor. It is thick with detail … and represents a new installment in a tradition dating back to Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives (1890)… One can find passages to admire on almost every page of Desmond’s book.”
—City Journal

“An intimate and beautiful work as poignant as it is insightful… Often you hear that an author writes well for an academic, as if he were being graded on a curve. But Desmond is a good writer, period. His prose is vivid and energetic; his physical descriptions can be small gems.”

“A groundbreaking work… Desmond delivers a gripping, novelistic narrative… This stunning, remarkable book – a scholar’s 21st-century How the Other Half Lives – demands a wide audience.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“Gripping storytelling and meticulous research undergird this outstanding ethnographic study… Desmond identifies affordable housing as a leading social justice issue of our time and offers concrete solutions to the crisis.”
Publishers Weekly (starred)

"Highly recommended."
Library Journal (starred)

"It’s hard to paint a slumlord as a sympathetic character, but Harvard professor Desmond manages to do so in this compelling look at home evictions in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, one of America’s most segregated cities... [Desmond] does a marvelous job telling these harrowing stories of people who find themselves in bad situations, shining a light on how eviction sets people up to fail... This is essential reading.” 
Booklist (starred)

“Evicted is astonishing—a masterpiece of writing and research that fills a tremendous gap in our understanding of poverty. Taking us into some of America’s poorest neighborhoods, Desmond illustrates how eviction leads to a cascade of events, often triggered by something as simple as a child throwing a snowball at a car, that can trap families in a cycle of poverty for years. Beautiful, harrowing, and deeply human, Evicted is a must read for anyone who cares about social justice in this country. I loved it.”
Rebecca Skloot
, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

“This story is about one of the most basic human needs—a roof overhead—and yet Matthew Desmond has told it in sweeping, immersive, heartbreaking fashion. We enter the lives of both renters and landlords at shoulder height, experiencing their triumphs, struggles, cruelty, kindness, loss, and love. One hopes that Evicted will change public policy. It will certainly change how people respond to the world and those who inhabit it.”
Jeff Hobbs, author of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace

"This sensitive, achingly beautiful ethnography should refocus our understanding of poverty in America on the simple challenge of keeping a roof over your head."
Robert D. Putnam, Professor of Public Policy, Harvard University, and author of Bowling Alone and Our Kids

"This is an extraordinary and crucial piece of work. Read it. Please, read it.”
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, author of Random Family

“Matthew Desmond tells stories of people at their most vulnerable. The characters that populate this lyrical book, many of whom are women and children, are our true American heroes, showing great courage and mythic strength against forces that are much larger than the individual. Their stories are gripping and moving—tragic, too. It’s a wonder and a shame that here, in the most prosperous country in the world, a roof over one’s head can be elusive for so many.”
Jesmyn Ward, author of Men We Reaped and Salvage the Bones

“Evicted is a striking account of a severe and rapidly developing form of economic hardship in the U.S. Matthew Desmond’s riveting narrative of the experiences of families in Milwaukee embroiled in the process of eviction will not only shock general readers, but it will broaden the perspective of experts on urban poverty as well. This powerful, well-written book also includes revealing portraits of profit-seeking landlords, as well as important findings from comprehensive surveys to back up the ethnographic research. Evicted is that rare book that both enlightens and serves as an urgent call for action.”
William Julius Wilson, Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor, Harvard University, and author of When Work Disappears

"Evicted paints a detailed and heartbreaking portrait of the country’s eviction problem, and how it feeds into a cycle of poverty."

"Sociology’s next great hope… [Desmond] is positioned to intervene in the inequality debate in a big way.”
Chronicle of Higher Education

"The extent of Desmond’s research is truly astonishing. More astonishing still is the fact that he’s able to condense all of his observations and data into a single nonfiction volume that is both unsettling and nearly impossible to put down."
Chicago Review of Books

“Remarkable… [Desmond] has a novelist’s eye for the telling detail and a keen ear for dialogue… [His] book is a significant literary achievement, as well as a feat of reporting underpinned by statistical labour, with details provided in copious endnotes. It is eloquent, too, on the harm eviction does — not just to individuals but also to communities and to the quality of civic and urban life.”
—The Financial Times

“Desmond’s acute observational skills, his facility with reported dialogue and his ability to wrench chaotic stories into clear prose make Evicted a vivid, if sometimes grueling, read.”
The Independent

“A monumental and vivid study of urban poverty in America… Evicted demands attention.”
—The Sunday Times

“By exposing the difficulties these families face in obtaining and keeping decent and affordable shelter, Desmond illuminates, as few others have recently done, the lives of America’s poor and, by extension, that of the country as a whole.”
Times Literary Supplement

"This combination of novel, experience-driven academic research and reportage is part of what makes Evicted such a valuable contribution to non-fiction literature about the lived experience of poverty."

“Desmond, a young sociologist whose fieldwork in Milwaukee was the subject of ‘Disrupted Lives,’ this magazine’s January-February 2014 cover article, here details several of those lives in painful, novelistic detail. But it is all fact—and all twenty-first-century American.”
Harvard Magazine

Evicted is more than good journalism. While Desmond’s skill as a writer creates a narrative pull, his training as a sociologist forces him to ask why we haven’t had more data on perhaps our most pressing domestic crisis.”
—Christian Century

“[Evicted] could do more than anything written in years to get fixing welfare reform and addressing urban poverty back on the national agenda. It will be hard for anyone to read Evicted and not be outraged over this nation’s treatment of millions of low-income Americans. That is a huge accomplishment, and Desmond deserves high praise.”
Beyond Chron

"Desmond shines as an ethnographer, providing rich description and engaging accounts of the daily struggles of people attempting to find some kind of stability amidst the chaos, powerlessness, and uncertainty of poverty... The combination of rigorous research and important policy recommendations makes this work valuable to a wide audience; it is a must-read.”
—Journal of Children and Poverty

Evicted presents a passionate, intricately crafted argument that access to stable housing makes or breaks a person’s life. Desmond weaves these human stories together with years of additional research… to build a compelling case for drastic overhauls in how the country approaches public housing. He even offers a solution to the problem he describes.”
—Progressive Magazine

"For the two or three weeks I was reading this book, it formed my topic of conversation with friends, and at night, when I went to sleep, it filled my thoughts."

“Riveting… [the stories] bring to mind characters from Dickens and Steinbeck.”
—America Magazine

“Desmond does more than paint a haunting picture of the poverty and instability created by housing insecurity. He tears past market ideology to show the power of landlords and the way they decide who the city will work for and how… [A] masterpiece of sociological ethnography.”
—Dissent Magazine

"It is impossible to fully convey the subtlety and energy of [Evicted]... a tour de force."
—Books and Ideas

“A compelling and compassionate ethnography… [this book] demands being read cover to cover. Matthew Desmond’s Evicted is a moving, insightful, and deeply moral text that captures powerful, devastating scenes and draws much-needed attention to the brutal and beautiful lives at the intersection of American capitalism and poverty.”

"Desmond's important book might set out practical prescriptions for solutions such as improving the size of the housing voucher program, but the deeply touching portraits are what really make Evicted the heavyweight that it is. It should be mandatory reading for everyone, especially politicians and others who walk the corridors of power. That such bruising poverty can exist in the world's richest country is a scathing indictment of our regulatory policies."
Poornima Apte, BookBrowse.com

Reader's Guide

1. Have you ever been evicted or do you know anyone who has? If the answer is yes, what was your/their experience like, and how has it affected your/their life?

2. What was your experience reading Evicted? Were you surprised by what you learned? Was any particular scene or character’s story emotionally painful for you to witness?

3. Many people have very codified perceptions of “people who get evicted” and suspect that those people are largely responsible—through bad decision making—for their circumstances. Did you feel this way before reading Evicted? Why or why not? Did your opinions change after reading the book? If so, how?

4. In Evicted, author Matthew Desmond takes a narrative approach to an important topic and follows the stories of several real people. Which person’s story were you most drawn to and why?

5. Sherrena Tarver claimed to have found her calling as an inner-city entrepreneur, stating, “The ’hood is good. There’s a lot of money there” (page 152). How did Sherrena profit from being a landlord in poor communities? Do you think her profits were justified? What responsibilities do landlords have when renting their property? What risks do they take? Do you sympathize with Sherrena or not?

6. On Larraine and her late boyfriend Glen’s anniversary, she spends her monthly allocation of food stamps on “two lobster tails, shrimp, king crab legs, salad, and lemon meringue pie” (page 218). Can you relate to her decision? How might you have judged her differently without knowing the backstory that Desmond provides?

7. Because they have children, Arleen, Vanetta, and Pam and Ned frequently find themselves shut out of available housing and resort to lies in order to secure a place to live. Are these lies justified? If you have children, how far would you go to shelter your family?

8. Although eviction is the central issue in Evicted, affordable housing interacts intimately with many other social issues. For example: Do parents who have trouble finding/providing safe housing for their children deserve to have their children taken away and put in foster care? Would affordable housing make it easier for addicts and recovering addicts (such as Scott) to enroll in programs that increase chances of rehabilitation? What other major issues can you think of that eviction affects, whether in this book or in the world in general?

9. How does race factor into the types of struggles faced by the individuals profiled in Evicted? What about being a woman? Or a single parent?

10. Did reading Evicted inspire you to want to help others in positions similar to those of the people in the book? If so, how do you think you might get involved? (Hint: Visit JustShelter.org to learn more about groups and organizations in your local area who are already fighting the good fight!)

11. Why do you think Crystal made the decision to let Arleen and her sons stay until they found another residence? How did tenants such as Crystal and Arleen rely on friends and extended kin networks to get by? Did this do anything to lift them out of poverty or distress? What limitations do these short-term relationships have? Why do you think agencies such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children seek to limit kin dependence?

12. Landlords repeatedly turned down Pam and Ned’s rental applications because they have children. Why? Do you think families with children should have any protection when seeking housing? Why do you think families with children were not considered a protected class when Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968? Do you think it is fair for landlords to charge tenants with children monthly surcharges and children-damage deposits? Why or why not?

13. Why did Doreen choose not to call Sherrena when the house was in desperate need of repair? Do you agree that “The house failed the tenants, and the tenants failed the house” (page 256)? What effects does living in a home that is not decent or functional have on a person’s psychological and emotional health?

14. Do you think housing should be a right in America?

15. Many Americans still believe that the typical low-income family lives in public housing. Unfortunately, the opposite is true; only 1 in 4 families who qualify for any kind of housing assistance receive it. In Evicted, Desmond proposes a universal housing voucher program. What do you think of that idea?

16. The government spends much more money on homeowner tax benefits for affluent families than on housing assistance to poor families. Is this situation justified? How would you address this issue?

Q & A

A conversation with Matt Desmond,
author of

Why did you choose to write about this aspect of poverty in America?
If I had to answer this question in a word, it would be Arleen. When I first met Arleen, she was living in a small apartment in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Her rent took 88 percent of her income. I watched Arleen try to raise two boys and confront impossible choices: Should I help pay for my sister’s funeral costs or pay the rent? Should I buy my children school clothes or pay the rent? I saw Arleen get evicted several times. She lost her possessions. Her children lost their schools and communities. Landlords wouldn’t rent to the family because of Arleen’s eviction record. People like Arleen forced me to see poverty in a whole new way. I used to think eviction and homelessness were the result of poverty. But I came to recognize that eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty in America. The lack of affordable housing is driving families to financial ruin and is one of the most important drivers of inequality in the nation today.
How did you research EVICTED?
I began the old-fashioned way. I moved into a poor trailer park nicknamed “The Shame of the Southside” by the news media. I lived there for about five months before moving into a rooming house in the middle of the inner city, where I’d live for nine months. Living in those neighborhoods, I met families facing eviction and began spending my days with them. I sat beside families at eviction court, followed them into shelters, slept at their houses, and joined them at births and funerals.

As I spent more time with tenants, as well as with landlords, I found myself needing answers to basic questions that were beyond the reach of my fieldwork. How prominent is eviction? What are its consequences? Who gets evicted? So I went looking for studies that answered these questions. Surprisingly, I found no study—and no readily available data—that adequately addressed my questions. So I decided to gather the data myself. I interviewed 250 tenants in eviction court, surveyed over a thousand renters in Milwaukee, and analyzed hundreds of thousands of eviction court records. This research showed how common eviction is, and some of the most important findings had to do with the consequences of eviction. The data linked eviction to heightened residential instability, substandard housing, declines in neighborhood quality, depression, and even job loss.

EVICTED draws on all these endeavors while letting people’s stories drive the narrative. Working in concert with one another, each method I used enriched the others. And each kept the others honest.

Why did you choose to include landlords’ stories in your book, too?
Landlords literally own poor communities. They decide who gets to live where. They choose which families to evict and which to spare. They set rents, buy property, and make or neglect repairs. They are major players in the urban housing market. I realized early on that, if I really wanted to understand the dynamics of eviction and the link between housing and poverty, it was essential to capture landlords’ perspectives.

There is a larger point here about the way we think about poverty. With books about single mothers, gang members, or the homeless, social scientists and journalists have a tendency to write about poor people as if they are cut off from the rest of society. These accounts exclude rich people—or, at least, non-poor people—who wield enormous influence over the lives of low-income families and their communities. I’ve always wondered why we have documented how the poor struggle to make ends meet without asking why their bills are so high or where their money is flowing. With EVICTED, I wanted to try to write a book about poverty that didn’t focus exclusively on poor people or poor places. If poverty is a relationship, involving poor and rich people alike, I wanted to plumb that relationship.
Why did you choose Milwaukee?
Milwaukee moved me. I felt drawn to the place and its people, history, and culture. I am from a small town in northern Arizona, but there is something familiar to me about the Rust Belt. Cities like Milwaukee, Buffalo, Detroit—which have lost their economic base and are working to reinvent themselves—fascinate me, and I feel, in some way, at home in them.

But there was something else, too. Wisconsin’s largest city is not every city, but it is considerably less unique than the small clutch of iconic but exceptional places that have come to represent the American urban experience. Every city creates its own ecosystem, but in some cities this is much more pronounced. Milwaukee was far better suited to represent the experiences of those living in Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Baltimore, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Gary, Raleigh, Utica, and other cities generally left out of the national conversation. As for America’s large, global cities—San Francisco, New York, Seattle—they are where the lack of affordable housing is felt most acutely. New York City processes 80 eviction cases a day. There is nothing special about Milwaukee when it comes to eviction. The numbers are similar in Kansas City, Cleveland, Chicago, and other cities.

In 2013, 1 in 8 poor renting families nationwide were unable to pay all of their rent, and a similar number thought it was likely they would be evicted soon. This book is set in Milwaukee, but it tells an American story.
How did you gain the trust of those whose stories you tell in the book?
Living in the community helped. Many evicted families I met were my neighbors, and daily interactions helped us establish a foundation of trust. Some people opened up immediately. The first day we met, Scott told me that he was a fired nurse, consumed by a heroin addiction. Others took things more slowly. At first, Arleen suspected I worked for Child Protective Services and kept her distance. But with enough time, I was able to earn her trust. Showing her my previous work helped clarify what I did. Many of the landlords, too, were eager to talk. Arleen’s landlord, Sherrena Tarver, was in love with her work and proud of it. She told me that she wanted people to know “what landlords had to go through.” After a while, both tenants and landlords began to accept me and get on with their lives. They had more important things to worry about.
Most people think that eviction is the result of poverty, but you say above that eviction can actually cause poverty. Can you elaborate?

Eviction causes loss. Families lose their homes, schools, and neighborhoods—but also their possessions: furniture, clothes, books. It takes a good amount of money and time to establish a home. Eviction can erase all that. It also comes with a court record. Many landlords won’t rent to recently evicted families, and housing authorities treat eviction as a strike against those applying for public housing. The result is that evicted families often relocate to worse housing in more distressed neighborhoods. Eviction can cause workers to lose their jobs, because the stress and consuming nature of being forced from their homes wreaks havoc on people’s work performance.

Then there is the toll eviction takes on a person’s spirit. The violence of displacement can drive people to depression and, in extreme cases, even suicide. One study I published found that two years after their eviction, mothers still reported higher rates of depression than their peers. When you add all this up, the evidence is overwhelming. The lack of affordable housing the gap between the need and the amount of housing aid offered, and the resulting common occurrence of eviction in struggling communities—these are main causes of poverty in America. We can’t fix poverty without fixing housing.

If people are evicted, isn’t it their own fault, because they didn’t pay their bills? If they can’t afford their rent, why not just live in public housing?
I think the first thing we need to understand about this issue is that, today, the majority of poor renting families in America are spending more than half of their income on housing, and at least 1 in 4 dedicate over 70 percent to paying the rent and keeping the lights on. These families have watched their incomes stagnate, or even fall, while their housing costs have soared. But at a time when more and more families are in need of government support to afford housing, fewer and fewer are getting it. Today, only about 1 in 4 families who qualify for housing assistance receive it. The need far outpaces the aid. In larger cities like Washington, DC, the wait for public housing is counted in decades. There, a mother of a young child who put her name on the list for public housing might be a grandmother by the time her application is reviewed.

When we imagine where the typical low-income family lives in America, we should not picture a public housing complex or a subsidized apartment. Instead, we need to recognize that the typical low-income family doesn’t receive any government housing assistance and tries to make ends meet in the private housing market, where they spend most of what they have on rent. Under these conditions, eviction is more an inevitability than the result of personal irresponsibility. Between 2009 and 2011, 1 in 8 Milwaukee renters were involuntarily forced from their homes. A few generations ago, eviction used to be rare enough to draw crowds; today, eviction has become a way of life for many poor American families.
You spent a year living with people going through this experience. How did that change you?
It shook me to my core. I saw mothers trying to decide between feeding their children and paying the rent. I saw children so used to being batted around from one place to the next that they gave off no emotion during an eviction: no tears, no running to grab a favorite possession, nothing. I remember meeting Larraine, a grandmother who endured a winter in Milwaukee without heat because she simply couldn’t afford her gas bill.

I will never forget one eviction I saw. The sheriff and movers showed up to a house and found only kids inside, the oldest one a teenager. Their mother had died two months earlier, and the children had simply gone on living in the house by themselves. Inside, the house looked like a house run by children. It was raining. The deputies went ahead with the eviction, moving the children’s toys and mattresses onto the wet sidewalk.

It’s depressing to see this degree of inequality, this denial of basic needs. But I also saw a lot of spunk and brilliance and strength. I heard a lot of laughter. It was humbling to see families confronting huge, exhausting challenges and refusing to be reduced to their hardships.

I remember one day I was with Crystal and Vanetta, who were both homeless at the time. We were eating lunch at a McDonald’s and a boy walked in. He was maybe nine or ten, in dirty clothes and with unkempt hair. One side of his face was swollen. The boy didn’t approach the counter. Instead, he wandered slowly through the tables, looking for scraps. Crystal and Vanetta noticed him at the same time. “What you got?” Crystal asked, riffling through her pockets. The women pooled what they had to buy the boy dinner. Staring up at the menu, Crystal wrapped her arm around the boy as if she were his auntie or big sister. She made sure he was okay, handed him the food, and sent him on his way with a hug. Moments like this remind me that poverty has not prevailed against people’s deep humanity.

How can we fix this problem?

The good news is that much has already been accomplished. America has made impressive strides over the years when it comes to housing. In generations past, the poor crowded into wretched slums, with many apartments lacking toilets, hot water, heat, or windows. But over the generations, the quality of housing improved dramatically. And today, there are nonprofit and community-based organizations all around this country working hard to keep people in their homes and to promote affordable housing initiatives. I’ve built a website called justshelter.org that allows you to search over 600 organizations from all 50 states. So if you want to get involved in the work of decreasing homelessness, preventing eviction, and alleviating housing poverty, go there and see how you can get involved in your community.

And yet, it has become more and more difficult just to keep a roof over your head. Powerful solutions are within our collective reach. But those solutions depend on how we answer a single question: do we believe that the right to a decent home is part of what it means to be an American? We have affirmed provision in old age, twelve years of education, and basic nutrition to be the right of every citizen because we have recognized that human dignity depends on the fulfillment of these fundamental human needs. And it is hard to argue that housing is not a fundamental human need. Decent, affordable housing should be a basic right for everybody in this country. The reason is simple: without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.

America is more than capable of delivering on this right. And I think the most effective way to do that would be to expand our current housing voucher program so that all low-income families could benefit from it. Universal housing programs have been successfully implemented all over the developed world. The idea is simple: every family below a certain income level receives a voucher, so that instead of paying 60 or 80 percent of their income to housing, they now pay 30 percent. A universal voucher program would change the face of poverty in this country. Evictions would plummet. Homelessness would almost disappear. Families would immediately feel the income gains and be able to buy enough food, invest in themselves and their children through schooling or job training, and start modest savings. They would find stability and have a sense of ownership over their home and community. We can do this. We can make our cities livable again.
What do you hope readers will take away from your stories of Vanetta or Arleen or the others? What do you want us to understand about them?

I want them to remember how Vanetta organized an Easter egg hunt in a homeless shelter, bringing her children joy in the midst of a despairing time. I want them to remember how much satisfaction Arleen took when she caught a break and was able to buy her thirteen-year-old a new pair of shoes, a beautiful smile flashing across his face. People like Vanetta and Arleen, all they want is to provide for their children.

The faces of America’s eviction epidemic are the faces of mothers and children. The majority of households evicted in Milwaukee have children living in them. If mothers like Arleen and Vanetta didn’t have to dedicate 70 or 80 percent of their income to rent, they could keep their kids fed and clothed and off the streets. They could settle down in one neighborhood and enroll their children in one school, providing them the opportunity to form long-lasting relationships with friends, role models, and teachers. They could start a savings account or buy their children toys and books, perhaps even a home computer. The time and emotional energy they spent making rent, delaying eviction, or finding another place to live when homeless could instead be spent on things that enriched their lives: community college classes, exercise, finding a good job.

When families finally receive housing vouchers after years on the waiting list and only have to spend a third of their income on rent and utilities, the first place many take their freed-up income is to the grocery store. They stock the refrigerator and cupboards. Their children become stronger, less anemic, better nourished. But the majority of poor families aren’t so lucky, and their children—Vanetta’s kids, Arleen’s—are not getting enough food, because the rent eats first.

On the Fireline

In this rugged account of a rugged profession, Matthew Desmond explores the heart and soul of the wildland firefighter. Having joined a firecrew in Northern Arizona as a young man,… More

The Racial Order

Proceeding from the bold and provocative claim that there never has been a comprehensive and systematic theory of race, Mustafa Emirbayer and Matthew Desmond set out to reformulate how we… More