Tuesday, March 15, 2016



When a low-income parent gets evicted, what happens?

Matthew Desmond’s new book, Evicted, looks closely at what happens to a series of low-income people, mostly parents, in Milwaukee.  It should be required reading for anyone who works at a community college or a public school in a low-income area.

Desmond insinuated himself into the lives of dozens of people in the Milwaukee area at the onset of the Great Recession, and followed their lives closely for years.  The book is written mostly as a series of character-driven vignettes, rather than as academic sociology, though he connects the dots in passing and at the end.  

I won’t attempt to go through the whole thing; there’s just too much.  Instead, I’ll offer a few highlights that seemed particularly revealing or relevant.

Desmond’s book seemed much more careful than Alice Goffman’s “On the Run,” an ethnography of a low-income neighborhood in Philadelphia that focused on police-community relations.  Goffman’s book made an enormous splash, but raised some eyebrows by its methodology and the ambiguous position of the author.  (I thought the book largely successful, but upon reading Desmond’s book, some of the criticism makes more sense.)  Desmond’s book also stood in contrast to Kathryn Edin’s “$2.00 a Day,” which examined the daily lives of some of the most precariously-resourced people in the country.  In Desmond’s book, welfare payments formed the baseline for local rents.  In Edin’s, almost nobody received welfare, or even knew anybody who did; the system had become so difficult to access that it had essentially vanished.  I don’t know to what extent the difference reflects local context, or timing, but it was hard not to notice.  I’ll defer to my sociologist colleagues to sort that one out.

Still, putting the accounts together, it’s hard to come away without a sense of urgency.  The upward mobility that community colleges live for relies on a certain basic level of material security.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs isn’t perfect, but it’s hard to study for a Bio test when you don’t know where you’ll sleep that night.  And the transience that affects so many low-income students -- and is effectively blamed on them -- is often involuntary.  

It’s a depressing read, but a necessary one.  Highly recommended.

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