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.


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!


Poverty, Scarcity, and Your Next Diet

Have you ever failed at dieting? A newer book gives an insightful explanation as to why the diet didn’t work; additionally, the same explanation helps us understand why many get stuck in poverty and what might be done to combat its persistence.

jalbm food

In a previous blog post, I asked: Do you know anyone who is poor? In our increasingly stratified society, most better-off Americans don’t maintain friendships with people living in economic poverty; nonetheless, many have an opinion about their societal brothers and sisters struggling to get by on less. And – let’s be honest – that opinion is generally not favorable.

Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How it Defines our Lives, by Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan and Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir, exposes as flawed the opinion that being poor is due mostly to moral failure.

Using the term bandwidth to describe fluid and accessible mental capacity, the authors explain how we process information and make decisions. None of us, they maintain, has unlimited mental capacity. As evidence, think about the last time you saw someone texting while driving. The culpable person was either driving ten miles per hour under the limit or weaving in and out of the lane, like a drunk driver. We can only do so much with what we have, especially as concerns texting and driving. Mullainathan and Shafir say that scarcity of differing types (caused by lack of time, money, or other resources) causes tunneling, a concentrated type of focus. Tunneling helps you send or read a text message while driving, but it hampers your driving performance. None of us is as good at multi-tasking as we think we are. Our available brain capacity, or bandwidth, is taxed when we’re doing more than one thing at the same time.

Temporary scarcity helps the mind focus and causes it, for better or for worse, to tunnel. If you missed breakfast for some reason, there’s a good chance you’ll get some lunch – your mind and stomach united, focused on the task. Chronic scarcity, however, is always disadvantageous. One’s mental bandwidth is heavily taxed when living in a state of chronic want and need. Mullainathan and Shafir maintain that chronic scarcity hampers decision making; living in poverty constitutes an austere tax on the mind.

The co-authors agree with the assessment made by many better-off Americans: specifically, the stereotype of those living in poverty as having a “lower effective capacity” concerning positive decision making for their own health and well-being, and that of their families. But – THIS IS A MAJOR DIFFERENCE – Mullainathan and Shafir attribute the diminished capacity of those living in poverty (compared to those who are well-off) not to sub-par character issues and moral failure. They attribute it to the mental bandwidth tax: “part of their mind is captured by scarcity.” Would you and I make some of the same questionable decisions in similar circumstances that poor people make – like spending too much on basketball sneakers for a kid? It’s easy to say “no.” But, have you or I ever lived in chronic poverty? If we answer the latter question in the negative, we best leave the former questioned unanswered.

We’ve all heard of slackers who do their darndest to game the system; some of these are in our own families. They, however, are the minority. In today’s America, a lot of the folks living in poverty are the elderly and children. Mullainathan and Shafir report that 50 percent of American kids today will at one point or another be on food stamps. It’s a great country, as the saying goes, but it’s also an incredibly unequal country.

In my book Just a Little Bit More, I quote the English historian and economist R. W. Tawney who lived in a time of similar inequality to ours – the 1920s. Tawney spoke of an unequal society that lacked understanding of and compassion for those who lived in poverty: “A society which reverences the attainment of riches as the supreme felicity will naturally be disposed to regard the poor as damned in the next world, if only to justify making their life a hell in this.” Tawney wrote these lines in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, published in 1926. Some things haven’t changed in close to 100 years.

Mullainathan and Shafir do not shun individual responsibility as they encourage an expanded understanding of poverty and its causes. There is no substitute for hard work and personal responsibility for those desiring to rise above the poverty line. The co-authors do call for something they call fault tolerance – I call it compassion for those living in poverty. Perhaps there is a single mother in your community, working a job that pays $10/hour, juggling childcare and household responsibilities, trying to pick up a class or two at the local community college. What does she need? She needs supportive family, friends, neighbors, and public policy that don’t further tax her mental bandwidth. She needs timely helping hands, an occasional day off, and political representatives and appointees that shape ethical public policy, in part, because they are in touch with her reality.

As for your next diet, Mullainathan and Shafir have a suggestion: Sabbath. The traditional Jewish practice of rejuvenation, tranquility, and rest, Sabbath encourages a break from normal activity. According to the co-authors, food deprivation and trade-offs (adding up allowed calories and carbs, depending on types of food consumed) are activities of self-imposed scarcity that tax one’s mental bandwidth. Psychologically, this type of dieting is exhausting. Consequently, take a day off from your diet when necessary. Don’t blow it or ruin it by consuming all things forbidden! But, be compassionate with yourself – allow for some fault tolerance. Relax and let your mind reboot. The very next day, get back on the diet and have a goal to stay on it for six days or so. Sabbath comes once a week, every seven days.

The long-term goal is new practice. The only diet that works is the one that acts as a bridge to new practice. Good ol’ proper diet and exercise – there’s no substitute for it. Sabbath might help you get there, to the “new you.”



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. JaLBM, distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/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.




Sorry, I Don’t Know Anyone Who is Poor . . .

Do you have a friendship with anyone who is poor?

Since writing and continuing my work with Just a Little Bit More, I’ve had a lot of conversations with others in my own socio-economic status range – upper-middle – about those in our society who live in poverty. Currently, the US poverty rate is around 16%. (I’m aware that there are some who bicker about the rate – how it’s determined and calculated. I’m using the government poverty threshold rate – for 2014, income of $23,850 for a family of four – which helps lend consistency over a fifty-plus year period, going back to 1959 when the US government published the first national poverty rate – 22.4%.) A lot of folks in the upper classes talk about the poor in our society, but the majority of those who speak don’t know – not by acquaintance, and certainly not by friendship – anyone who is poor.

Author Bill Bishop tells us why this is so in his book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart (Houghton Mifflin, 2008). He argues that even as America becomes more diverse in overall demographics, we increasingly live in neighborhoods – and socialize – with people who think, vote, and sort their values just like we do. Remember the days when a mechanic and a doctor could be next door neighbors? The America of yesteryear was segregated racially; the dominant segregation in today’s America is socio-economic and often political – reflecting, in part, the polarization that dominates our strained social interactions. Bishop claims only 25 % of American counties in the 1976 presidential election were deemed landslide (more than a 20 point margin of victory); in the 2004 presidential election over 50% of American counties were landslide.

Sorry, I don’t know anyone who is poor, but I certainly have an opinion about the poor.

So true. I’ve learned by listening to middle/upper-middle/upper class folks (white, mostly – all my Latino and African-American friends and acquaintances do know people who are poor) to know what they say about those living in poverty, because I’ve been asking this question consistently for a couple of years when conversing about social inequality: Do you know anyone who is poor? The answer typically breaks down into four opinions/viewpoints: 1) personal knowledge (or an anecdote heard) of a bona fide slacker who doesn’t work and sponges off the government; 2) the story (the one answering the question) of his/her rise from poverty back in the 1940s or ’50s (the implication being that social mobility is alive and well in America); 3) the claim that poor people lack discipline and are lazy – again, the implication being that social mobility is alive and well in America; and, 4) the reality that people living in poverty in the United States have it so much better off than poor people in other parts of the world.

Yes, there are bona fide adult slackers who sponge off the government – without question. It’s tempting to think, however, if you don’t know anyone who is poor – the law of generalization – that all people living in poverty consequently fit this same pattern. Those of us who know people living in poverty realize that such a generalization is nowhere close to the truth. A small minority of adults sponge off the government; consider that half of those living in poverty in the United States – some 22.5 million – are children or elderly. The United States has an abysmal 23.1% child poverty rate. According to a 2012 UNICEF report of the thirty-five richest countries in the world, the United States ranks 34th in childhood poverty. Thanks to Romania’s rate of 25.5%, we avoid the cellar in childhood poverty rankings.

As for social (or economic) mobility – work hard, save money and you’ll succeed by moving up – it works well for middle and upper class, educated Americans (with the usual caveats for ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation). But that same rate of social mobility doesn’t apply to those who are born into poverty, especially among ethnic minorities. The former group – higher classed and educated – is privileged, systemically. Today it’s best to be born rich in America: it’s three times more likely as compared to a generation or two ago that your father’s income will determine your own income. Upward social mobility, overall, is not what it used to be in America.

And, yes, those who are poor in American have it much better off than those who are poor in Africa, India, Russia, and China. My mother tried to get me to eat my boiled asparagus by referencing the starving hordes in Africa (or was it China?), but it was largely unsuccessful. I had no idea or vision of what life was like in Africa. That type of comparison thinking was too abstract for my juvenile mind to process, especially when it was fully engaged in potential strategies to avoid the mushy asparagus that sullied my plate. Similarly, personal income differences within countries matter much more than income differences between countries.  Economic differences can and do serve to motivate the less fortunate to aspire to greater heights, and poor people living in America can count on a better social safety net than poor people, for example, in Belarus. But, prominent economic deprivation in relation to the rest of society is what can warp a young mind and spirit, because the differences are blatant, noticeable, and real. And if the opportunities to advance are few and far between, then many of the social variables affected by poverty (incarceration, teenage pregnancy, and school drop-out rates) are simply and sadly reinforced.

Do you know anyone – a friend or someone who is more than a passing acquaintance – who is living in poverty?

Linda Tirado is someone who has lived most of her adult years in poverty. Her book Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2014) tells it like it is. She got lucky; a blog post of hers that described living in poverty went viral and she ended up with a book deal. As she rightly claims, it’s more like she hit the lottery than worked her way up via a vibrant economic mobility. Her book is a top-seller and she tells a tale that is compelling, insightful, and real for many Americans. There are those, of course, who attempt to dismiss her telling of the tale of living in poverty in today’s America as overdone and exaggerated. I’ve read her book and done my own bit of investigating. Whereas she can tend toward over-generalizing (I’m guilty of the same charge at times), how often does a minority or shunned voice get the stage? She liberally uses profanity, but her voice is genuine. She speaks for a number of Americans who are rarely heard.

From the last chapter in her book, “An Open Letter to Rich People,” Tirado states “I hope at this point you are feeling like maybe you hadn’t thought this whole [socio-economic] stratification thing through all the way. You guys don’t really ever talk to us and have no idea what our daily lives are like.” When we don’t know anyone in a certain people group, it’s easy to stereotype and even demonize them. The majority of people living in poverty are not undisciplined, lazy, or necessarily deserving of their current fate. How might we all work together to remake our society into one where egalitarianism is valued more so than the propagation of entrenched privilege for the most fortunate among us? Tirado asks would you “want to live in the nation you’ve created; if you were born tomorrow into the lower classes, would you be quite so sure that America is the land of opportunity?”

Some of us in the upper classes are effectively cocooned off from those who live in poverty. We don’t know personally anyone who is poor; our interaction with people living in poverty is limited to random interchanges of commerce that bring us together. We who are well-off purchase or receive services from the working poor whose jobs pay the minimum wage of $7.25/hour or slightly more. As if it’s a religion, we teach to our kids and grandkids the unifying belief: If you’re poor, you’ve done something to cause it to happen, and, consequently, you are at fault. When we trust this premise to be true every single time – without exceptions – we create a society with an intentional lack of compassion. What social critic R. H. Tawney described generations ago is still true today: “A society which reverences the attainment of riches as the supreme felicity will naturally be disposed to regard the poor as damned in the next world, if only to justify making their life a hell in this one.” (From his classic of 1926, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.)

What would it be like if there was more interaction between the socio-economic classes, as equals on a person-to-person level? Take it from Tirado: “There are poor and working-class people everywhere, guys. You can just have a conversation with one, like a real human being. Give it a try. You’ll like it. We’re entertaining. We have to be; we’re stuck entertaining each other because cable is ridiculously expensive.”


This blog post and others on this website are representative of my views and writing in Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, available at http://www.blueocotillo.com, Amazon, or any other bookselling venue.

Pick it up with Linda Tirado’s Hand to Mouth – highly recommended!