I’m throwing a pity party because the trip I’ve planned for months got canceled so instead of dragging you into it, I’m just going to share a book review I wrote a few weeks ago.
Evicted:Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond–2/5 stars
Evicted purports to look at homelessness and evictions in Milwaukee. This book has an average 4.47/5. And I just…could not get into it. It occurred to me as I made my way through the author’s “solution” in the back of the book that if this was an article submitted to the law journal where I am an articles editor, I would probably recommend against publication. So, in the spirit of the criteria I would use to objectively analyze an argument submitted to my law review, here are my thoughts on the book:
Thesis: the article has a strong and clear thesis that predominates throughout.
The subtitle says it all. “Poverty and Profit in the American City.” Matthew Desmond blames capitalism–i.e. profit–for tenant turnover rates. Ironically, the narrative nature of this piece often feels like a direct contradiction to this argument. To give him credit, he gives it all. He reveals the good and the bad choices made by the people he highlights. But when reading about their choices, it quickly becomes apparent that how you interpret their behavior will depend on how you view poverty and the problem of generational poverty in America. (Generational poverty being a phrase he would actually probably strongly object to.) How do you react to a person spending food-stamps on lobster and then having nothing left over to eat for the remainder of the month? A conservative leaning reader will view it as wasteful and part and parcel for why the person remains poor. Desmond views it as a way of “fighting back” against a lifetime of poverty. And he says so.
Initially I thought Desmond did a good job giving glimpses of the landlords as well as the tenants and their varied motivations, but it quickly becomes apparent where his loyalties lie. And it isn’t with the landlords. The fact that anyone gets rich off real-estate appears to offend him. While I agree that some really shady behavior seems to be going down, he doesn’t go there but instead strives for a much more morally righteous tone with capitalism in general. So while I do think his extrapolation of the “data” could get interpreted differently, the author’s thesis remains fairly consistent throughout.
Novelty: the article contains original analysis that is convincing and in proportion to the background provided
It depends what you mean by analysis. In his explanation at the back of the book we learn Desmond moved to a trailer park and lived with many of these people. Good for him. But if I was actually writing this as a review for law review, I’d flag the narrative nature of this piece. It makes it readable–there is a reason this book appeals to a wide, non-academic readership–but is not particularly empirical. So any “analysis” he does at the end when he describes the “solution” feels…less than backed up by actual data. Or possibly even logic. It comes from a place of moral outrage. And I’m all about moral outrage, but just because he lived in a trailer park does not mean he knows the best solution for poverty in America. Talk about entitlement. You live with people for a period of time and suddenly know how to fix all their problems. But Desmond wants to provide a solution. As a reader, we want a step by step solution to combat the tragedies we just read about. I’d be mad if he did not offer one, to be honest. The thing is, solutions do not come from moral outrage. And they do not come by suggesting we throw more money at the problem. If anything, his stories reveal that programs set up by the government to address homelessness don’t do much to actually solve homelessness. Instead, they fund slumlords raising their rent because now there is more money pouring in. So why is more government the solution? I needed more than “countries we consider backwards do this so what is America’s problem.”
So, yeah, I needed more analysis and less storytelling.
Utility: the article solves an important, current
legal problem in a nonobvious way and will continue to be important by the time it goes to print.
No matter who you blame for it, homeless is a problem. It doesn’t take a book like this to point to the education and job opportunities lost because of a lack of housing. (But trust me, this book will point it out anyway. Because that fact is about the closest this comes to data.) I already laid out above why I feel like his solution is insufficient. But it bears repeating–after 300 some pages telling heart-yanking stories about why the system fails people, Desmond provides a handful of pages that amount to: “We need a universal housing voucher system. Other countries have it. Why not us?”
Y’all, that does not address the problem. Or if it would, Desmond does not give me nearly enough arguments to prove it will. Desmond thinks that if people aren’t afraid of getting kicked out of their homes, they will pursue education and keep their jobs and pursue better relationships and make better financial decisions and everything will become kumbaya. It is quite an optimistic opinion for someone who got to return to academia (Harvard no less!) after his stint in a trailer park ended.
But perhaps you think I’m being too negative. After all, I am not offering a solution to homelessness, poverty, and racism all in one go. And this book isn’t trying to provide a solution. It is exposing the problem. The details get worked out farther down the line.
Here is my biggest problem with this book’s “solution”: first it wins over your pity, then it says “we can solve the problem by throwing money at it.”
And you what that means? You, the reader, can sit back satisfied because you, the reader, can feel engaged and indignant and cry out for the government to ‘do something!’ while not actually having to do anything yourself to help these people or address their situation or look beyond the problem. Because we have the problem: greedy landlords. Not drugs, not poor financial decisions, not violence.
No, greedy landlords who use the government to their advantage by having sheriffs engage in evictions. So apparently the decision is to get government more involved. And possibly not have sheriffs carry out evictions.
Soundness: the article addresses counterarguments, provides explanations of prior literature in the area, and generally demonstrates mastery of the subject.
Here is where my academic and legal training particularly kicks in–I was driven crazy by the lack of counterarguments in this book. I thought maybe the parts where the Desmond follows the landlord would make up something of a “counterargument.” After all, they’re just trying to make a day’s wage too. But no, as the book goes on, they increasingly become scapegoats for the inner city ills. And maybe rightly so. But the result is that we don’t get alternatives here–alternative solutions or alternative explanations. We simply get one morally charged outrage.
I was particularly struck by how Desmond dismisses an inner city pastor who doesn’t help a woman with her rent. I don’t have the exact quote but it was something to the effect of, “He preached loving your neighbor until it came to actually doing it.” And I’m not saying I would not have handled the situation the same or that I understand it fully. But the fact is, we’ve seen the woman make poor financial decisions left and right. And then the author wants us to get mad that the pastor won’t pour more money into the situation after even calling up her family members and asking them what they think. You’re probably noticing a theme but…less moral smugness and more facts would go a long way for my appreciation of this book.
Clarity & Organization: the article uses clear, efficient, and organized writing to convey ideas.
I mean, it is prettily written. It is easy to get engaged, enraged, energized. A lot of the more negative reviews dismiss the “academic” portion at the back after the more narrative beginning, but I certainly preferred the academic portion. Still, overall, he is trying to put a face to poverty and I can give him credit for it. The problem is, poverty is multifaceted and complicated and often generational. It does frequently occur because of mental illness and childhood trauma, as Desmond illustrates with many of his subjects. Much of it is cultural.
And it means no easy solution emerges. But to make a book like this tenable, you have to provide a solution. I don’t know how you get around it. And Desmond provides his solution. It is one firmly rooted in his worldview.
Your political worldview will likely impact how you read this book. It will tug on your heartstrings. It will give you the moral indignation to cry out for change. But it will not provide you with something workable or sustainable as a solution. And that is where I was left frustrated and why this did not get a higher rating from me.