It Is Expensive to Be Poor: A Review of Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted”

Martin Eiermann

In Evicted, Matthew Desmond demonstrates that the urban poor are not just victims of neglect but targets of persistent exploitation.

In Evicted, Matthew Desmond’s recent book on poverty and housing in the Milwaukee area, the world of the protagonists is marred with the scars of racial and social antagonisms but unified by a pervasive sense of neglect: It is a world of broken sinks, leaking ceilings, stunted aspirations, rebuffed calls for leniency, and rebutted pleas for support.[1] The waitlist for public housing is measured in uncertain years, tenants go without legal representation because there is no funding for public defenders in civil cases, and decrepit housing stock is declared “unfit for human habitation” and cleared out rather than repaired. “The poor,” Desmond writes, quoting from Behind Ghetto Walls, Lee Rainwater’s classic study of black families in inner-city public housing, “are constantly exposed to evidence of their own irrelevance.”[2]

The urban poor are an indispensable part of the city as a population that sustains unregulated and informal markets, supplies clients to landlords who specialize in low-end real estate, contributes fines to municipal budgets, and pays fees to private entrepreneurs.

Perhaps it is so. But as Desmond’s book demonstrates, it is also profoundly misleading to conceive of poverty primarily as a state of deprivation characterized by insufficient resources, failing infrastructure, and a lack of social and political support that thus renders the poor “irrelevant” within the social geography of the city. Far from it: the urban poor are an indispensable part of the city as a population that sustains unregulated and informal markets, supplies clients to landlords who specialize in low-end real estate, contributes fines to municipal budgets, and pays fees to private entrepreneurs who increasingly conduct the unglamorous but profitable business of forcing people out of their homes. In short, they are not just victims of neglect but targets of persistent exploitation.

Accounts of urban poverty from the decades before World War II regularly foregrounded the extractive and exploitative relations that linked poor tenement residents to the owners of real estate or the proprietors of shops, and often locked them into a state of disadvantage and dependency. In The Philadelphia Negro, published in 1899, W.E.B. DuBois summarized the lot of those who found themselves at the intersection of racial and economic marginalization. Poor black families, instead of “being met by aid in the direction of their greatest weakness,…”

“are surrounded by agencies which tend to make them more wasteful and dependent on chance than they are now. One only has to watch the pawn-brokers’ shops on Saturday night in winter to see how largely Negroes support them; and it is but a step from the insurance society to the pawnshop and thence to the policy shop.”[3]

The meatpacking workers in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle likewise struggled and strove in a city rife with corruption, where backroom deals between politicians and industrialists ensured the non-enforcement of sanitary standards, the perpetuation of abysmal labor conditions, and the continued exploitation of immigrants.[4] And as Jacob Riis, the great early documentarian of urban poverty in the United States, observed about the rise of tenement construction in poor neighborhoods in the 1880s:

“It was soon perceived by estate owners and agents of property that a greater percentage of profits could be realized by the conversion of houses and blocks into barracks, and dividing their space into smaller proportions capable of containing human life within four walls… Blocks were rented of real estate owners, or ‘purchased on time,’ or taken in charge at a percentage, and held for under-letting. With the appearance of the middleman, wholly irresponsible, and utterly reckless and unrestrained, began the era of tenement building.”[5]

Yet one of the most vivid accounts of urban poverty during the industrial age comes from the German playwright and author Bertolt Brecht. Set in London around the turn of the 20th century, Brecht’s Dreigroschenroman (“Threepenny Novel”) paints a detailed portrait of the human costs of inner-city business that did not usually appear in bookkeepers’ records (or, for that matter, in many economic histories).[6] He writes of invalid soldiers who are pulled into an organized begging racket in exchange for a temporary roof over their heads; of small franchise owners who are baited with economic independence but find themselves tied to extortionate contracts and are driven into homelessness and despair; of landlords and petty bourgeois entrepreneurs who are squeezed by banks and quickly pass the pressure onto their tenants and employees. The enforcement of contractual obligations – to repay one’s debt or to supply one’s labor power – appears not as evidence of the rule of law but as legally sanctioned violence against the less fortunate. “The law was made for one thing alone,” observes the daughter of an entrepreneur who is trying to ascend from the working class by squeezing profit from the alms of well-off passerby, “for the exploitation of those who don’t understand it, or are prevented by naked misery from obeying it.” Indeed, as Walter Benjamin noted,[7] the novel’s great if slightly didactic achievement lies in its stubborn insistence on revealing the crimes that are latent in business and the relations that link the city’s poor to its rising bourgeois elite. It politicizes rather than aestheticizes the plight of its characters: “It’s plain to me now,” remarks one of the novel’s central figures, “why people don’t examine the injuries of beggars more closely before they give. They are convinced that the wounds are there, because they themselves have dealt them.”[8]

Ostensibly focused on the prevalence and the dynamics of evictions, it is really a book about the winners and (more often) the losers of the inner city in the 21st century and about the most prominent market through which they interact: the rental market.

In short, there is a long tradition of situating poverty at the nexus of deprivation and exploitation, and thus of understanding it not just as a condition of neglect but as a set of relationships among unequals. Desmond’s book wisely returns to this tradition. It is written in a literary cadence even if it is based on a wealth of statistical and ethnographic data and comes with 63 pages of endnotes (not unlike The Jungle, for which Sinclair prepared by spending considerable time in the factories and tenement communities of Chicago), and its greatest contribution may well lie in the centrality of exploitation to its argument. Ostensibly focused on the prevalence and the dynamics of evictions, it is really a book about the winners and (more often) the losers of the inner city in the 21st century and about the most prominent market through which they interact: the rental market. In Desmond’s telling, this market constitutes the powerful but often overlooked link between the profoundly different and dissociated social worlds of the urban poor and the city’s entrepreneurial and clerical middle-class.

Yet this link also has a history: Decades of “redlining” excluded black tenants from the mortgage market and forced them into certain neighborhoods and into the arms of predatory lenders, who sold homes at inflated prices and repossessed them when tenants failed to meet steep monthly payments. For inner-city landlords, it meant windfall profits as white tenants fled to the suburbs. For many poor black tenants, the result was an intergenerational cycle of economic insecurity and precarious housing. Indeed, the current composition of many American inner-city neighborhoods continues to correlate strongly with the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation’s (HOLC) historical mortgage assessments. Neighborhoods that were “redlined” by the HOLC still experience much higher rates of poverty and eviction.

This history – and the theoretical scaffolding that allows us to conceptualize its relevance to the present – is remarkably absent from Desmond’s book even as it provides the largely unmentioned background against which the biographies of his respondents unfold.[9] Yet it sometimes resonates eerily: Sherrena, a landlords who rents almost exclusively to poor tenants, “has been dabbling in rent-to-own ventures.”[10] She works with her tenants to improve their credit score, helps them secure a loan to cover the Federal Housing Administration’s 3.5 percent down payment requirement, and then sells them their building at inflated housing-bubble prices. “Sherrena would reinvest the cash in more properties,” Desmond concludes, “and the new homeowner would inherit a massive debt.” Likewise, in a trailer park whose residents populate many of the book’s pages, those who cannot meet payment deadlines regularly leave behind their homes – which are then repossessed by the park owners as abandoned property and sold to new occupants.[11]

Throughout the book, then, debt is a pervasive presence even as the history of indebtedness recedes into the background. In some cases, tenants who fall too far behind their rent payments are simply served the pink papers and evicted. In other cases, their debt turns a financial relationship into one of explicit power imbalances: Tenants who owe money to their landlords are discouraged from asking for necessary repairs, are compelled to work without or with minimal pay for the property owner, and are prevented from making emergency calls for robbery or domestic violence, knowing too well that regular “nuisance calls” to the police will likely trigger eviction proceedings.[12] And when tenants attempt to service one debt, they frequently incur another: Using the Earned Income Tax Credit to pay back rent (a fact that explains the low eviction rate in February) means that children will often go without clothes or school supplies. Requesting a payday loan to meet a landlord’s payment schedule means accepting steep interest rates and fees that will eat into subsequent paychecks or welfare checks. For the 47 percent of Americans who, according to a 2015 report by the Federal Reserve, lack resources to cover an unexpected $400 bill for emergency medical services or car repairs, debt and the dependencies it engenders are a pervasive fact of everyday life.

The exclusion of poor tenants from mainstream markets forces them into others that are frequently more informal, less regulated, and more exploitative.

This points to another crucial story in Desmond’s book. The exclusion of poor tenants from mainstream markets forces them into others that are frequently more informal, less regulated, and more exploitative. There are no labor laws that govern the informal hiring of indebted tenants for menial labor and fewer laws that constrain the practices of payday lenders. (According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, average annual percentage rates for payday loans currently hover around 400 percent.) And when tenants dwell at the margin of existing markets – such as the residents of the trailer park –, existing regulations often aren’t enforced. Building inspectors routinely ignore health and safety violations, aware that landlords are eager to rent out units in questionable condition and renters are forced (and often relieved) to accept them. The poor are being served when mainstream institutions abandon them as risky business, but not without paying a steep price for their disadvantage. A population that is perennially transient – as Desmond has previously argued, the social ties of the urban poor are often “disposable” and are cultivated and severed as routines of daily life are disrupted – also remains firmly locked into costly market relations.[13]

Indeed: It is expensive to be poor. As Desmond writes, “in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, where at least 40 percent of families lived below the poverty line, median rent for a two-bedroom apartment was only $50 less than the citywide median.”[14] As a result, many tenants who do not receive housing vouchers commit a disproportionate amount of their monthly household income to cover rental expenses; one third of evictees in Milwaukee spent at least 80 percent of it.[15] If they fall behind on payments, landlords routinely charge $55 late fees to forestall an eviction and may also ask the courts to seize a tenant’s savings and up to 20 percent of their income, unless they are on welfare.[16] If tenants are evicted, they incur additional court fees, moving fees, or storage fees. One trailer park resident spent a total of $1000 to store her possessions when she was evicted.[17] When she was unable to make monthly payments, her boxes were trashed.

Some of these hidden costs of poverty were recently thrust into the public consciousness, when it was revealed that the city of Ferguson relied heavily on court fines and traffic tickets to fund its municipal budget. According to one study, $2.6 million (out of $20 million total annual revenue) came from fines and fees that were disproportionately extracted from the city’s black poor. If they failed to meet court-imposed deadlines, they were put on mandatory payment plans (which sometimes come with steep interest rates) or were taken to jail, and sometimes to prison. But prisoners in the United States are not allowed to handle their financial transactions independently, so they have to rely on private contractors like JPay, which handles the transactions of around 70 percent of American inmates and also extracts a fee between 35 and 45 percent.

In Desmond’s book, too, the boundaries between private enterprise and the state are often blurred, with agents of the state (en)forcing participation of the poor in specialized markets. As he writes,

“Exploitation within the housing market relies on government support. It is the government that legitimizes and defend landlord’s right to charge as much as they want; that subsidizes the construction of high end apartments, bidding up rents and leaving the poor with even fewer options; that pays landlords when a family cannot, through onetime or ongoing housing assistance; that forcibly removes a family at landlords’ request by dispatching armed law enforcement officers; and that records and publicizes evictions, as a service to landlords and debt collection agencies.”[18]

For example, sheriffs supervise evictions but leave much of the dirty work to moving companies that have discovered a lucrative market in the inner city and give concrete empirical weight to Schumpeter’s observation, from 1928, that “the modern enterprise has outgrown the driving forces and human types of economic competition and, in its essence, structure and methods, has started to resemble a kind of public administrative body.”[19] The welfare state and the penal state cannot function without a penumbra of businesses that have traded competition in the private sector for a symbiotic relationship with public authorities. The management of populations, in Foucault’s terminology, is not only a particularly modern raison d’état but also a thriving enterprise. Or, as Desmond observes, “there was a business model at the bottom of every market.”[20]

The inner city of Desmond’s book is not a world of bifurcated class warfare or carefully executed schemes against the poor but a web of unequal relations and a nexus of exploitation that routinely and predictably disadvantages some groups and explains their intergenerational concentration at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

Given this dynamic, it is perhaps surprising that Evicted is largely a book without culprits. Sherrena might be a slumlord, but she also struggles to pay her utilities bills to the city. Due process in the eviction court has been replaced with assembly-line processing of cases, but judges also ache under the volume of cases. Tenants rob and beat and betray each other, but also provide temporary shelter and emotional support. Some – like the trailer park owner who takes home more than $400,000 per year and escapes the Midwestern winter by moving south – get by much better than others, but everybody hustles. (Tellingly, leisure features in Evicted only in the form of gambling: late-night games of spades or trips to the local casino.) The inner city of Desmond’s book is not a world of bifurcated class warfare or carefully executed schemes against the poor but a web of unequal relations and a nexus of exploitation that routinely and predictably disadvantages some groups and explains their intergenerational concentration at the bottom of the social hierarchy. This also means that there is no original sin, no ultimate explanation for how the country ventured astray (Desmond makes it clear in the epilogue that he considers the present as a profoundly troubling aberration). The fates of landlords and tenants “are bound and their interests opposed,” even if there is no attempt to explain how their particular relation came to be. The account of exploitation is profoundly presentist. But what is the price of this relative ahistoricity?

In the closing chapter of Brecht’s Dreigroschenroman, the beggar Fewkoombey dreams of “the greatest arraignment of all times,” when testimony must be given and judgment must be passed on the source of everyone’s wealth (he conservatively estimates that the trial will take several hundred years).[21] The poor will have the final word: How did it come to pass that some have plenty and others have little? Slowly, the judge moves through a series of cross-examinations: Is it because religion contributes to an acquiescence of the masses? Is it because people are lazy or irresponsible or of bad character? Is it because some are born into wealth and others are not? But he quickly grows frustrated: Behind each commodity lies but another layer:

“There is the wall of the house – where is the bricklayer? Is he ever really paid in full? And this paper! Someone had to make it! Was he sufficiently compensated for it? And this table here! Is there really nothing owed to the man who planed the wood for it? The washing on the line! The line itself! And even the tree, which didn’t plant itself here. This knife here! Is everything paid for? Fully? Of course not!”[22]

Thus disillusioned, the judge resigns: The source of value cannot be traced back to the dawn of primitive accumulation, and the fate of individuals can scarcely be disentangled from the tides of history. All he can ascertain is the centrality of exploitation in the present. Some have to be underpaid and have to overpay so that others can thrive. Some have to increase their misery so that others can increase their wealth. This is what Étienne Balibar, in his critique of Marx’s Das Kapital, refers to as the “ahistorical historicism” of capitalism: We know that social relations are neither natural nor eternal and can accurately describe their present constitution, but we cannot precisely retrace their origins.[23] Likewise, Desmond has largely done away with the past, and has replaced it with detailed accounts of the present. Evicted opens a window into the inner city that is rich in social relations but curiously divorced from social history. The legacies of racial and class discrimination are acknowledged but do not significantly shape the analysis.

Ultimately, Desmond casts his vote for an expansion of the voucher program that helps poor tenants find housing in the private rental market through taxpayer-funded assistance. Echoing Jacob Riis’ insistence that “the business of housing the poor, if it is to amount to anything, must be a business,” he rejects massive investments into new public housing in favor of expanding voucher eligibility and regulating rent ceilings.[24] This is perhaps a surprising choice: Having quoted Martin Luther King’s proclamation that “every condition exists simply because someone profits by its existence”[25] Desmond endorses a vision of profit without exploitation. It would be a marvelous world indeed: Instead of dwelling in limbo for years on public housing waitlists, and instead of having to spend 80 percent of their income on rent, the poor could scour the private market while knowing that median rents were well within their reach. But this is where the lack of historicity is most significant: If the history of housing and poverty in the United States is of any indication, the markets of the inner city often haven’t responded kindly to this sort of intervention. The poverty and high mortgage default rates of African-Americans during much of the 20th century were not the cause but the consequence of exclusion from certain neighborhoods and from mainstream rental markets: Neighborhood associations and landlords had deep interests in concentrating them in parts of the city with sub-par housing and high crime. When housing discrimination on the basis of race was outlawed in 1968 in the Fair Housing Act, the deed had already been done. Saddled with debt and eviction records, the black poor were frequently priced out of stable neighborhoods, shut out of mortgage markets, and forced into the outstretched arms of predatory lenders.

Perhaps the situation has changed: Since the 1970s, public support for explicitly racist or segregationist statements has declined significantly.[26] But it occasionally rises to the surface even in Desmond’s book, and remains a powerful obstacle to policies that focus primarily on narrowing resource gaps and broadening market participation. In the 2008 General Social Survey, 28 percent “still support an individual homeowner’s right to discriminate on the basis of race when selling a home, and even nearly 1 in 4 highly educated Northern whites adopt this position.”[27] Likewise, as Devah Pager has shown, the exclusion from mainstream markets can result from historically rooted stigmatization as well as from contemporary economic disadvantage. Convicted felons are significantly less likely to receive job offers in the regular labor market, especially if they are black.[28] This is what Loïc Wacquant has called the “negative sociodicy” of the urban poor: a double stigma of race and class that “produces an institutional justification for the misfortune of the precariat at the bottom of the social scale.”[29] It is a stigma with great intergenerational persistence: an artifact of history that continues to be reproduced in the present, illuminates contemporary patterns of exploitation, and must inform our search for efficacious solutions.

Martin Eiermann is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley and a co-editor of the Berkeley Journal of Sociology. His research focuses on the organizational networks of social movements and on the history of privacy in the United States.

References and Footnotes

  1. Matthew Desmond. 2016. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. New York: Crown Publishers.
  2. Desmond: 257.
  3. W.E.B. DuBois. [1899] 2007. The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 134.
  4. Upton Sinclair. [1906] 2001. The Jungle London: Dover Thrift Editions.
  5. Jacob Riis. 1890. How the Other Half Lives. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
  6. Bertholt Brecht. [1934] 1989. Threepenny Novel. New York: Penguin.
  7. Walter Benjamin. 2003. Understanding Brecht. London: Verso.
  8. Brecht: 155. Quoted in Benjamin: 82
  9. For example, the book does not focus on exploring and explaining spatial segregation in the inner city – in Desmond's narrative, landlords profit off the poor not because they are concentrated in certain neighborhoods but because the poor pay close to median rents for substandard housing.
  10. Desmond: 156
  11. Desmond: 47
  12. Desmond: 190-191
  13. Matthew Desmond. 2012. "Disposable Ties and the Urban Poor." American Journal of Sociology 117(5): 1295-1335.
  14. Desmond: 74-75
  15. Desmond: 97
  16. Desmond: 96
  17. Desmond: 222
  18. Desmond: 307
  19. Joseph Schumpeter. [1928] 1987. “Unternehmer.” P. 144 in Beiträge zur Sozialökonomik, edited by Stephan Böhm. Vienna: Böhlau.
  20. Desmond: 90
  21. Brecht: 354
  22. Brecht: 364
  23. See Devin Fore. 2013. "The Time of Capital: Brecht’s Threepenny Novel". Nonsite 10: 102-115. Origin stories are, as Nietzsche writes in the Untimely Meditations, well-sustained fictions that render the present intelligible and the future navigable.
  24. Desmond: 311-312
  25. Desmond: 305
  26. Peter V. Marsden (ed). 2012. Social Trends in American Life: Findings from the General Social Survey since 1972. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  27. Marsden 2012
  28. See Devah Pager. 2007. Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  29. Loïc Wacquant. 2014. "Marginality, Ethnicity, and Penality". P. 287 in Criminalization: The Political Morality of Criminal Law, edited by R.A. Duff, L. Farmer, S.E. Marshall, M. Renzo and V. Tardos. Oxford: Oxford University Press.