Rating: 4 Stars
A sociologist specializing in poverty embeds himself into the lives of the deeply poor in Milwaukee, one of our poorest large cities. He spends time in a nearly condemned trailer park in the poor white part of Milwaukee and shares an apartment in the poor black part.
The first thing you notice is how close the desperately poor are to homelessness. They seem to always be on the verge of eviction, on the verge of getting kicked out by a roommate, on the verge of a serious health issue. A roof over your head is something that most people take for granted, but at a certain level of poverty it really seems to be a nearly month to month kind of struggle.
The people that Desmond profiles do make what seem to be pretty overtly bad decisions. There are women who have children by several different fathers. There are people who buy a lobster dinner and then spend the rest of the month going to a food bank. There are people fighting addiction and yet still hanging out with addicts.
There are a couple of things of note here. One is that the environment that they live in does not encourage good decisions. If you’re going to be poor at the end of every month anyway, why not very occasionally make yourself a fancy dinner? If the state has defined guidelines that reduces your benefits if you save money, then why should you save it? If you know that the landlord isn’t going to fix it and you don’t have money for a plumber, why not just live in a house with a clogged toilet and sink?
Decision fatigue crops up everywhere here. This is the idea that you can only make so many decisions before the quality of your decisions begin to degrade. For instance, if you have five days to vacate the premises, you have previous evictions in your history, and you have looked at over fifty rental properties and no landlord is willing to rent to you, how important is it to you that your children attend school?
Tragedies occur while Desmond is embedded with the families. A house burns down and a child dies. A woman, in desperation, turns to prostitution. Another woman, a mother, again in an act of desperation, tries to rob someone, is caught, and is sent to jail.
The relationship between landlord and tenant is interesting. On the one hand, clearly there is a predatory element here. The landlord studied in the black neighborhood makes $10,000 a month, collecting up to 80% of the paycheck of her poor black tenants. The landlord of the trailer park is worth something like $2,000,000.
However, in both cases, you see the humanity in the two landlords. They do occasionally try to work with their tenants (at least the ones they like; the ones they don’t they evict with barely a thought) and the tenants appreciate those efforts.
Since so many of the poor have been close to the edge themselves, you see a sense of sharing and community. One woman, evicted from her trailer home, with nowhere else to turn, knocks on the door of a nearby neighbor, a woman that she barely knows. She explains her situation, and her neighbor immediately lets her stay for a while.
In the black neighborhood, a woman (and her children) are days away from being evicted. The landlord shows the home to a new tenant. The new tenant and the evicted tenant start talking, and by the end, with tears and hugs, agree to live together in the house.
Overall, it’s a grim narrative. For the very large majority of people in this situation, there is no path out. Their existence is a month to month struggle to determine which bills to pay and which to let slide. They figure which are the best months that they can live without electricity. They figure which months landlords are most likely to let them slide. Their day-to-day life is a simply a struggle to endure.
Desmond does have some recommendations at the end, which have been implemented elsewhere (as in other countries) but just seems like so much pie in the sky nonsense in twenty-first century America.
How well will the idea of defining housing as a universal right go down? How many people are going to rise up and shout about how that’s going to coddle those lazy millions sucking at the teat of our country?
How well will the idea of a needs based universal housing voucher go down? Who’s going to support such an obvious socialist take over of the picket fenced American dream?
For those that do the shouting, I’d dare any of them to move out of their house, give up their cars, don’t touch their savings / checking, put away their credit cards, and actually try to live the life of the desperately poor. How long would they last? A week? A month?
This book is a cry for empathy and it’s a wonderful cry. It’s just so sad that the very people that need to hear this cry are precisely the people that won’t read it.