Book Review: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

I have wanted to read this book for some time, so I put in a reservation at the library and I was about two hundredth in line. It would have taken many months. Then it became available as part of the library’s Peak Picks program, in which bestsellers are shelved in a special place and can be taken out on a first-come first-served basis with no reservations, two weeks borrowing time, and no extensions. Fair enough. I could have read it in less than two weeks, and when I finally got it, I did. However, I delayed initiating this particular reading project. Why? Because the subject matter hit too close to home. Let me explain.

Ever since I moved back to the States after living in Greece for over fifteen years, I have had a terrific struggle bringing in income. In Greece, I taught English as a second language for a long time and got very good at it. I assumed I would easily get a job teaching English here with my experience and recommendations. I was wrong. No school would even consider my application because I lacked a college degree. I could have been a great asset to their teaching staff. Their loss. But mine too, because I found that I had great difficulty finding any kind of job. And I applied for a lot of them at all sorts of places. You can read about my struggle in my memoir America Redux: Impressions of the United States After Thirty-Five Years Abroad. In desperation, I sought freelance writing work, and that’s what I have been doing to pay the rent and bills since then.

Recently, one of my adult sons who had been helping to pay the rent moved out, leaving me to foot the bill by myself. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad he moved; it’s the best thing for him at this time. But I have not been making enough money to cover the rent by myself, and I wondered what I would do. At the same time, my current lease was coming to an end, and I received notice that the company that owns this housing complex was raising the rent for the new lease. Again. Seattle housing is expensive. Even with a roommate, I have been spending about ninety percent of my income on rent and bills.

A seemingly bottomless pit of despair opened up before me. I didn’t want to lose the apartment; I knew I couldn’t find anything better in a decent neighborhood. Okay, well, now I am writing this from a position of relative advantage, because I managed to find some writing work that should help – at least on a temporary basis. But as I said, my first reaction was despair, and then my second reaction was to go on the attack and fix the problem. At the same time, the book Evicted became available. However, until I got my own situation – especially my attitude situation – under some sort of control, I didn’t want to compound my negativity by reading about other people’s similar experiences.

Actually, the people in this book have it much, much worse. Desmond chronicles the lives of about a dozen residents of Milwaukee who are living in deep poverty. He alternates between the poor black north section of town and the poor white south section of town. He follows the residents of crappy slum apartments and house trailers as they struggle to cope with eviction notices, landlord negligence, and the raising of their children. He follows the lives of the landlords too, who are getting rich off the misery of their fellow citizens.

It’s a traumatic but eye-opening read. An essential read, I would say. At the end, he proposes possible solutions. Each viable way to help dig these struggling people out of poverty involves sharing and sacrifice – commodities in short supply in the present political environment. In a postscript essay, the author explains how he researched the project. The amount of interviews he conducted, surveys he commissioned, and data he compiled and consolidated is truly impressive. Even more impressive, though, is the fact that he dove into the lifestyle himself. He lived in the trailer park and inner city slum he writes about. He experienced the filth and degradation first-hand. He got to know the landlords personally. There is no doubt as to the veracity of his story.

So yes, this is a significant and important and essential book. As the author points out, everyone has the right to a decent, safe place to live. The terrible housing crisis in the United States needs to be addressed. This book is a step in the right direction. Read it. I just hope that you never have to realize its truths on such a visceral level as I have

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