Tara Safavi data mining researcher

A short review of Evicted by Matthew Desmond

03 May 2018
Tags: book-review 

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 said it was awesome. Here’s a short review of why I liked it.

A short summary

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 meal with an entire month’s worth of food stamps, a brilliant demonstration of how people make “bad” decisions when they have no real incentives to make “good” ones. The poor get poorer, indeed.

A short review

What makes Evicted so good? As already suggested, Desmond is a master storyteller and reporter. His writing is gripping but mostly impartial. Think Dickens-worthy storyline and character development, but real-life, with less moralizing and shorter sentences. Although Desmond includes some personal arguments in the epilogue, most of Evicted is description, research, and plot, so you get to decide which factors contribute to the brokenness of the system, and to what degree. Indeed, I sampled some online reviews and found a variety of interpretations: everything from this story exemplifies the inherent evils of capitalism to those people made bad decisions and got what they deserved! And so on…

Actually, though, what I remember most clearly about Evicted is its research quality — maybe unsurprising coming from a PhD student. A lot of this quality was only vaguely clear to me while I was reading because I was too fixated on the story to marvel at technical details. The epilogue made up the difference for me, though. Here Desmond describes the lengths he went to for this work: the time he spent becoming intimately familiar with the communities of poor Milwaukee; the inevitable ethical dilemmas he faced as an outsider and an academic; the balance of honesty and invisibility he had to find while following his subjects around. The epilogue of Evicted convinced me that, as a researcher, Desmond did it all. Even beyond its storytelling and the importance and timeliness of its messages, Evicted is an incredible demonstration of a researcher’s commitment to his work.

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