Every time I discuss books with others, I recommend Evicted by Matthew Desmond. It’s really good. All the people who awarded it things (Pulitzer Prize committee, National Book Critics Circle, basically every major American newspaper, Bill Gates) agree. Also, those who read it on my recommendation—so far only two people, but I’m still trying—said it was the best book they’ve read in a long time.
In Evicted, Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond studies the relationship between extreme poverty and housing in America by following several groups of people in Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods. A few of these people are landlords. The rest are poor families whose tales of moving from neighborhood to neighborhood, struggling to pay rent, and of course constant threat of eviction are somehow intertwined with the aforementioned landlords.
As a novel, the stories in Evicted are ridiculously compelling even though most of them don’t lead to nice or neat resolutions. As reportage, Evicted is an account of the poor housing system in America, detailed in micro-scale through the lens of Milwaukee. It’s probably not surprising that this system is self-reinforcingly broken. What’s more shocking is the magnitude of this brokenness, although interestingly Desmond says that Milwaukee’s system is an American “average”, neither a success like that of New York City nor a failure like that of Detroit.
Although Evicted focuses on housing, one of its major recurring themes is that the problems poor people face when dealing with housing go far beyond housing. As the people in the book struggle to find homes and pay rent, their struggles seep into their personal, familial, and communal lives. For example, in one memorable scene a poor tenant buys a single, very fancy meal with an entire month’s worth of food stamps. This scene and its subsequent dissection is brilliant demonstration of why the extreme poor sometimes make “bad” decisions—because “good” decisions aren’t always rational. The poor get poorer, indeed.
What makes Evicted so good? As already suggested, Desmond is a master storyteller and reporter. This book isn’t a dry presentation of facts. It reads way more like a novel. Think Dickens-worthy storyline and character development, but real-life and with shorter sentences. Also, no moralizing (thankfully): although Desmond includes some personal arguments in the epilogue, most of Evicted is description, research, and plot. Even in the epilogue Desmond doesn’t force his opinions on the reader. I think one of his major goals with the book is to raise awareness of how the poor live in America from an “insider” perspective – first-hand, non-clinical, not written like someone who’s spent too long stuck in an academic ivory tower, but still supported by academic research. And raising awareness is itself an important goal. Many Americans tend to associate poverty with “third-world countries”, often overlooking that extreme poverty exists right here in our country too!
I was also really impressed by the research quality of Desmond’s work, not least because his line of “field work” is fraught with difficult-to-answer practical and ethical questions. In the epilogue he describes the lengths he went to for the project: the time he spent becoming intimately familiar with the communities of poor Milwaukee; the inevitable ethical dilemmas he faced as a white man, an academic, and a relatively privileged outsider; the balance of honesty and invisibility he had to find while following his subjects around. The epilogue of Evicted really inspired me as a researcher. Even beyond its storytelling and the importance and timeliness of its messages, Evicted is an incredible demonstration of how to conduct (and follow through on) a major research project.