The premise of the book is almost unreal. Matthew Desmond weaves a narrative about people who were evicted from their homes and the ensuing poverty in the rust belt city of Milwaukee. I was disappointed when I first started this book because it was just a bunch of stories of different people. There was a landlady and her husband who collected rent from folks; there was a trailer park that saw aspects from both the renter and the tenants; stories that followed particular people around the city among others. I thought “This can’t be real.” But I was wrong. Matthew Desmond explains that he lived in the trailer park and had a tape recorder playing almost all the time. He transcribed hours of recordings that then become this book. An incredible feat.
But what is heartbreaking is the sad reality of the content. Many of the people Desmond followed were either on welfare or some other government program targeted at the poorest citizens. In many instances, the patron renting the trailer or apartment spends most of their paycheck on rent alone, leaving sometimes $50-$100 leftover for necessities. One unexpected expense could derail a person for months and most certainly end in eviction.
The book is filled with stories like this, often times worse. Having children complicates issues quite a bit. But ultimately, the narrative is about real people experiencing issues that, for the majority of readers, are non-existent. What this book provided for me was a look into a dark corner of how many, many Americans live. Scraping by each month to just survive is difficult; picking up and moving your entire life because you’ve been kicked out of your home is even more dire.
This isn’t without controversy however. While I sympathize and agree that we probably need to do more (more on this later), the poor are poor for a reason. I thought it was interesting that throughout the book you get a glimpse of what kind of purchases people who were living paycheck to paycheck made. Cigarettes, drugs, beer among other conveniences are prominent. It makes me wonder if their plight is somewhat self-induced. Which complicates simply throwing money at the situation. On both sides we can be concerned about this epidemic but not want to be unwise in how to target the core issue.
I think Matthew Desmond has a really interesting solution to such a problem. The last chapter of the book looks at some of the ways we can address this large issue. His main theme is that creating a stable home helps families, period. Obviously this has so much merit to it, I believe. Home owning, as the founding fathers understood, creates a sense of duty and responsibility. Even more still, having a place to call home is one of the ways America has reached a level of prominence. Desmond suggests the government creates a program that caps low income families from paying only 30% of the monthly income towards rent. This is an interesting idea from Desmond who has spent years studying this issue. We will have to continue to watch this issue and be concerned for the poor and destitute. This book is a great start for that objective.