Friday, August 11, 2017

Must-Read Book Reviews: Evicted By Matthew Desmond

When Christ tells his disciples, "You will always have the poor with you," as he did in Matthew 26:11, I don't think this was a matter-of-fact statement but a warning. Throughout the Bible, we see God's love and identification with the poor. His prophets are constantly reminding the nation of Israel not to neglect the poor.

Years ago, when I worked in management for a drugstore chain, I was managing one in what was considered the bad parts of town. On a daily basis, I interacted with drug addicts, homeless people, prostitutes, shoplifters and the poor. I got to know some of them better and began to realize that behind all of their situations were stories, many involving poor choices but also a lot of heartache, tragedy, and often abuse or neglect or poverty in their own childhoods. These were not statistics but people. I often took time out of my day to speak to them and just listen, even taking one homeless man (who had a college degree in art history) out for a Thanksgiving meal at one of he few restaurants that was open back then (a buffet).

My time getting to know some of these people changed my attitude about the poor and shed some of my misconceptions or stereotypes as to who they were and why they were in their circumstances. Reading Matthew Desmond's Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City does that as well and for the same reason. Desmond focuses on the stories of people who are trapped in substandard and low-income housing (one is described as having "maggots sprouting from unwashed dishes in the sink" as well as being infested with rats and roaches). He brilliantly allows those who are caught in this cycle of poverty to speak for themselves, to tell about their own lives. Many of them are not shiftless, lazy, and irresponsible.

Evicted tells stories, often disturbing ones, of how the people who live in these low-incoming housing often have to pay exorbitant costs for rent (often anywhere from 50-80% of their income, leaving inadequate amounts for their other needs: such as medicine and food). There are over 10 million people who are struggling to pay rent and utilities, as well as landlords who take advantage of their status by not repairing walls, sinks, broken windows because it's cheaper to evict a family than it is to do the needed fixes to the apartments or homes. The problems that come with these evictions are that the force children to change schools and often cost the adults their jobs; all of which undermine neighborhoods and inflict deep emotional and physical scars on those who suffer from being kicked out of their homes.  All the while, they long for normalcy and a clean home. One of those written about is 13-year old Ruby Hinston, who takes refuge in the local library where she spends time on a computer creating her "dream home." And what does it look like? Not some mansion, but simply a house with "clean, light-reflecting floors, a bed with sheets and pillowcases, and a desk for doing schoolwork."

Matthew Desmond, a Harvard sociologist, breaks the book down into three parts: Rent, Out and After. As he tells the stories of those involved, he warns us, "Every year in this country, families are evicted out of their homes not by the tens of thousands or even the hundreds of thousands, but by the millions." Yet how many of us are unaware of even stop for a moment to think about or consider this fact of life in one of the wealthiest countries in the world but where there is such disparity between the haves and the have-nots? A country that spends great sums of money to subsidize housing for people who are well-off while the poorest of the poor are completely left out. Only one in four of low-income households that qualify for assistance actually receives it.

The people who inhabit this book are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty in a country that is filled with such privilege. He follows the lives of eight families in deindustrialized Milwaukee. He presents the brutal truth of poverty in America but is never preachy or heavy-handed. Desmond simply lets their heart-breaking stories unfold before the reader. This book is eye-opening and heart-breaking. While it's not an easy read, it's an extremely necessary one.

What haunts me is some of the very last lines of the book:

Whatever our way out of this mess, one thing is certain. This degree of inequality, this withdrawal of opportunity, this cold denial of basic needs, this endorsement of pointless suffering - by no American value is this situation justified. No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching, can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become.

No, indeed, there isn't. As I read those words, I couldn't help but hear Christ warning, "Woe to you . . ." and I wondered if we would ever truly listen?

Matthew Desmond's official website:

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