Evicted – Book Review

People who are not doing well economically in the United States – are they at fault or are they trapped in a system with little opportunity of moving forward? This has been a pertinent question and conversation point in the United States for generations back to the Gilded Age and the Depression ongoing to the current era of inequality.

evicted

Matthew Desmond is a Harvard sociologist and urban ethnographer. He’s not a blue blood; born at the dawn of the current era of inequality (circa 1980), he went to college with his parents’ encouragement but not their financial backing. While Desmond was in college, his working class parents were not able to keep up with mortgage payments and a bank foreclosed on their home in Winslow, Arizona – the home in which Desmond grew up. It became a defining moment in his educational and vocational journey.

Desmond decided to go to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin. He figured studying sociology would give him the best chance to understand the prevalence of poverty in the richest country in the history of the world. Left-leaners blame poverty on structural forces (discrimination, for example) and right-leaners focus on individual deficiencies; Desmond judges both suppositions as lacking: “Each treated low-income families as if they lived in quarantine . . . The poor were being left out of the inequality debate, as if we believed the livelihoods of the rich and the middle class were entwined but those of the poor and everyone else were not.”

Desmond treats poverty as existing, not in a vacuum, but in a people-to-people relationship system where influences run much more varied than simple one directional causes-and-effects.

For the project that produced the book Evicted, Desmond moved into a lower-income Milwaukee trailer park in May 2008. He lived there four months and then moved into a rooming house on the second floor of a duplex in Milwaukee’s predominantly African-American North Side neighborhood. He lived there until June 2009. (This is the same part of the city that saw violent unrest in August 2016 after the fatal police shooting of Sylville Smith, a twenty-three-year-old African-American.)  Evicted details the lives of eight lower-income families Desmond got to know during the fourteen months he lived in Milwaukee. Some of the families are white, some are black; some with children and others without children. What they all share in common: evictions from their living quarters.

Desmond argues that the fight against poverty has rightly focused on jobs, parenting, education, and public policy to alleviate social problems caused by issues such as mass incarceration. But he clamors that a sharp focus on the dynamics of the private housing market is sorely missing and intricately linked to the persistence of poverty. “We have failed to fully appreciate how deeply housing is implicated in the creation of poverty.”

According to Desmond, the majority of Americans living in poverty spend over half their income on housing, with one in four Americans spending more than 70 percent of their monthly income on housing and the electricity bill. It’s hard to stay put when there’s more month than income. One in eight Milwaukee families experienced eviction during 2009-2011. Desmond takes his readers to eviction court – a well-lubed machine in Milwaukee (and other large US cities) involving landlords, judges, sheriff deputies, moving companies, and belongings dumped onto the street curb.

Poverty in America, Desmond shows, has become a lucrative business. The trailer park owner – Desmond’s first landing spot in Milwaukee – was a Cadillac-driving millionaire who made upwards of $400,000 a year off the dilapidated trailer park. Categorize the owner as a top 1 percent earner making his living off of bottom 10 percent earners. (He was eventually forced to sell the park as the city wouldn’t renew his license because of multiple living code violations.) Desmond writes: “We need a new sociology of displacement that documents the prevalence, causes, and consequences of eviction. And perhaps most important, we need a committed sociology of inequality that includes a serious study of exploitative and extractive markets.”

Desmond writes well. The first chapter describes Milwaukee’s formidable winter “as cold and grey as a mechanic’s wrench.” Read on and you’ll discover that he also researches well. His meticulous transcribing of recorded conversations and note-taking yielded more than 5,000 handwritten pages from which to tell this crucial and important American story of poverty.

Evicted joins a recent chorus of work (Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort, Linda Tirado’s Hand to Mouth, among others) that documents the lack of knowledge that exists in upper- and middle-class America about their fellows who live in poverty. Since the advent of the current era of excess and inequality beginning in 1980, America has emphasized fiscal over social policy. We’ve figured out how the rich can get richer and what makes the stock market rocket upward. We’ve fallen behind, however, in compassion and understanding.

Desmond doesn’t write himself into the story. In the Epilogue (the only part of the book where he uses his first person singular voice), he asks readers when telling others of this work not to focus on him but upon the characters in the story: Scott, Pam, Sherrena, Arleen, Vannetta, Tobin and the others. I’ve strayed from Desmond’s request in this review. I can’t give, however, a stronger recommendation for this book – bump it up to the top of your to-read list, now. Evicted is must-reading for any and all concerned about poverty and inequality in American society and for those wanting to go beyond simple suppositions about their neighbors living in poverty.

Desmond, Matthew – Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Crown, 2016).

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an e-book. It’s also available on Nook and iBook/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más –está disponible en Amazon y el sitio web www.blueocotillo.com!

Our Complicity in the Trump Phenomenon, Part 2

I wasn’t the only one startled and stunned by the Trump onslaught of November 8th. While I whiffed on two very important details in my “Part 1” blogpost from October 20th – Trump wouldn’t amass more than 40 percent of the vote; and, accusations of sexual assault would doom him to lose the election convincingly – I didn’t whiff on the main point: the over-importance and overemphasis we attribute to wealth helped bring about the Trump candidacy and nomination, and now the Trump presidency.

Trump becoming a good president lies within the theoretical realm of possibility. If Trump succeeds, it will result from good decision-making and discernment uniquely different from what he utilized as an American business colossus. Success for a presidential leader depends upon having social wisdom and the positive leveraging of relationships. Trump knows a thing or two about leveraging relationships from his business days and he leveraged successfully with a mostly white and non-college educated crowd during the campaign. His learning curve on social wisdom in twenty-first century America, however, is steep. Continuing to unite supporters in opposition to Syrian immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims, and issues like climate change only guarantees heightened conflict for his administration. Most major American cities will host in their streets protests against Trump on inauguration day, January 20th. The numerous organizations committed to social gains recent (LBGTQ rights, DACA/Dreamer enactments) and historic (women’s, voting, and civil rights) will fight against political leaders committed to turning back the clock, especially a leader like Trump whose vehemence against so many is public record.

Trump’s wealth, however, has helped cover up a multitude of these publicly recorded sins. We Americans are a forgiving bunch, and we love us some rich and famous folk – even if they have a few quirks.

Trump not only has as few quirks, he has managed to alienate just as many voters as he has attracted. Trump’s election portends victory for bigotry, misogyny, racism, nativism, and fear-mongering. Let me add one more to the list of unwanted victors: inequality. None of this is good, but there’s a nuanced reality beneath the surface of Trump’s victory. Inequality, ironically, is one of the reasons Trump won the vote. Let me explain.

Like Bernie Sanders did, Donald Trump connected with working class voters who have received the brunt of inequality’s back-handed slap for the last generation or so. Here’s what Trump said at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this past July:

I have visited the laid-off factory workers and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals (cheers). These are the forgotten men and women of our country – and they are forgotten, but they’re not going to be forgotten long. These are people who work hard, but no longer have a voice. I AM YOUR VOICE (raucous cheers). 

electoral-college-2016-2

Bernie Sanders could have uttered these populist lines. Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and most surprisingly, Pennsylvania – four states that went in Barack Obama’s column in 2008 and 2012. These four states have white population majorities ranging from 79 percent (Michigan) to 86 percent (Wisconsin) – “racism and nostalgia” alone do not explain the swing of these states from Obama to Trump. Legitimate white working class frustrations and despair – related to three decades of increasing inequality, exemplified by greater social and economic immobility – explain better the switch in votes from Democrat to Republican. Obama championed change for these white working class voters in 2008 and 2012; Trump is now their guy in 2016. Kudos to President-elect Trump (and Bernie Sanders) for reaching out to them much more effectively than did Hillary Clinton.

Inequality breeds social problems. Many majority white working class communities have suffered declines in jobs and social cohesion, and increases in rates of opioid and meth addiction. Along comes a candidate offering scapegoats (immigrants and globalization) and a solution (“I am your voice”) and the upshot is the most startling and stunning election result of our lifetimes.

Our dual complicity in the Trump phenomenon: We overly revere the accumulation of wealth and we passively tolerate rampant inequality. Consequently, there continues to be a lot of work to do in this society beset by the consequences of deepening social and economic inequalities. For those of us who value and labor for societal common good, we will stand beside all those who feel threatened – Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQs, and minorities – in the new Trump era. We will also continue our work for greater social cohesion and understanding in and among America’s diverse populace. I’ve asked before in this blog: Do you have a friendship with anyone living in poverty? Now I can also ask: Do you know anyone who is working class? Now more than ever, it’s time for us to expand our social circles of understanding and cooperation.

 

 

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más –está disponible en Amazon y el sitio web www.blueocotillo.com!

The Inequality Trifecta

Now that we’re on the other side of the Bernie Sanders campaign, the claim that American society suffers from rampant inequalities is no longer a shocker. If anything, Senator Sanders’ candidacy proclaimed inequality as public enemy number one. He’s helped us understand that inequality in the US (and elsewhere) consists of three sub-categories: income, wealth, and opportunity.richvspoor-large_600x400

Income inequality is the most accessible of the three, revealed by comparisons in hourly wages, daily wages, and yearly salaries of workers. Income inequality is on the rise in the US, and has been for more than thirty-five years.

To understand wealth inequality, consider that the Dow Jones Industrial Average recently crested 18,000. Climbing since July, the average has now hit an all-time high of more than 18,500. Are you among the 55 percent of American adults who own stocks? Before the 2008 “Great Recession” when the Dow Jones index fluctuated between 12,000 and 13,000, close to 65 percent of Americans owned stocks. Today, the pool of stock owners as a percentage of total population is the smallest it’s been in a generation, concentrating wealth. Increases in stock market indices generally mean those that already have plenty get more.

A number of us (myself included) have retirement pensions and other holdings in the stock market. I fit the majority stockholder profile: white college grad living in a household making more than $75,000 per year. According to the Pew Research Center, 55 percent of whites, 28 percent of blacks, and 17 percent of Hispanics held stocks as of 2013. Financial market holdings, along with business and home ownerships are the main markers of accumulated wealth. The racial wealth gap has increased since 2008 in the US – whites have thirteen times greater wealth (overall assets minus liabilities) than blacks, and ten times greater than Hispanics.* Double or triple would be a significant difference – thirteen and ten times greater reveals a rigged system, historically and currently so.

Economist, financier, and author Mohamed El-Erian best explains opportunity inequality in his book The Only Game in Town: Central Banks, Instability, and Avoiding the Next Collapse (Penguin Random House, 2016): “The worsening of income and wealth inequality has been so pronounced within countries that it now also undermines opportunities” (p. 84). In other words, as inequality continues to increase in the sub-categories of income and wealth, opportunities decrease. This explains why the great American tradition of economic and social mobility is morphing, especially during the past thirty-five years, into economic and social immobility. El-Erian, an American with extensive work experience worldwide, warns that the important role of inequality serving to incentivize and reward hard work and entrepreneurship now takes a back seat to excessive inequalities that harm society in many ways. We’re becoming stuck, and it’s not a good place in which to get stuck.

El-Erian further details inequality’s tightening grip. Wall Street has recovered from 2008’s Great Recession. Corporate profits, as a share of GDP, have reached record highs in the post-Great Recession era. Job creation has improved, but wages remain flat. El-Erian says while the rich continue to get richer, “conventional cyclical redistribution policies have been noticeably absent. With active budget policy making heavily constrained by political polarization, there has been a reduced emphasis on transfer payments and other support for the poor” (p. 87).

“Redistribution” – El-Erian knows that the use of the word is dangerous in today’s era of inequality. Since the first era of rampant inequality – the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century – redistribution, however, has been an important tool to help make an unequal society a better society. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, Title 1 of the Education and Secondary Education Act, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) are some examples of redistribution and transfer payments that specifically benefit the elderly and children in America. Without these programs, American society would be decidedly worse off.

What kind of society do we want to live in? What kind of society do we want our grandchildren to live in? I’m all for continuing to advocate for a society that is egalitarian, civil, and full of opportunity with just rewards.

And for those of us concerned that public administration is by design corrupt and inefficient? Yes, those in government need to be held accountable so that the above mentioned programs and other transfer programs are designed smartly and implemented efficiently. Hopefully, just as smartly and efficiently as have been the decisions and policies we’ve seen in the last thirty-five years to siphon income and wealth upward helping to create the trifecta of inequality that now threatens to destabilize our society.

*For you curious types (like me), as of 2013, Asian-Americans have wealth stores that are 70 percent of the level of whites.

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an e-book. It’s also available on Nook and iBook/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide will be available in September 2016. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más saldrá este Septiembre de 2016!