Matthew Desmond’s book, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” like Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed,” is a heartbreaking snapshot of the rapacious exploitation and misery we inflict on the most vulnerable, especially children. It is a picture of a world where industries have been created to fleece the poor, and destroy neighborhoods and ultimately lives. It portrays a judicial system that has broken down, a dysfunctional social service system and the license in neoliberal America to carry out unchecked greed, no matter what the cost.
“Her face had that look,” Desmond wrote. “The movers and the deputies knew it well. It was the look of someone realizing that her family would be homeless in a matter of hours. It was something like denial giving way to the surrealism of the scene: the speed and the violence of it all; sheriffs leaning against your wall, hands resting on holsters; all these strangers, these sweating men, piling your things outside, drinking water from your sink poured into your cups, using your bathroom. It was the look of being undone by a wave of questions. What do I need for tonight, for this week? Who should I call? Where is the medication? Where will we go? It was the face of a mother who climbs out of the cellar to find the tornado has leveled the house.”
Being poor in America is one long emergency. You teeter on the edge of bankruptcy, homelessness and hunger. You endure cataclysmic levels of stress, harassment and anxiety and long bouts of depression. Rent strips you of half your income—one in four families spend 70 percent of their income on rent—until you and your children are evicted, often into homeless shelters or abandoned buildings, when you fall behind on payments. A financial crisis—a medical emergency, a reduction in hours at work or the loss of a job, funeral expenses or car repairs—can lead inexorably to an eviction. Creditors, payday lenders and collection agencies hound you. You are often forced to declare bankruptcy. You cope with endemic violence, gangs, drugs and a judicial system that permits brutal police abuse and ships you to jail, or slaps you with huge fines, for minor offenses. You live for weeks or months with no heat, water or electricity because you cannot pay the utility bills, especially since fuel and utility rates have risen by more than 50 percent since 2000. Single mothers and their children usually endure this hell alone, because the men in these communities are locked up. Millions of families are tossed into the street every year.
We have 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its prison population. More than 60 percent of the 2.2 million incarcerated are people of color. If these poor people were not locked in cages for decades, if they were not given probationary status once they were freed, if they had stable communities, there would be massive unrest in the streets. Mass incarceration, along with debt peonage, evictions, police violence and a judicial system that holds up property rights, rather than justice, as the highest good and that denies nearly all of the poor a trial, forcing them to accept plea bargains, is one of the many tools of corporate oppression.
The working poor, now half of the country, have fallen to levels of misery unseen since the Great Depression. One in eight renting families in the United States was unable to meet rent payments in 2013, Desmond writes. Lamar, a double amputee profiled in Desmond’s book (whose name, like all he wrote about, is a pseudonym), lived on $2.19 a day once he paid his $550 in rent. He was a single father and recovering addict responsible for two teenage boys. He desperately attempted to stay in his home by doing odd jobs for his landlord, propelling himself with his hands across the floor, but even this did not save him and his sons from eviction.
“These days, there are sheriff’s squads whose full-time job is to carry out eviction and foreclosure orders,” Desmond wrote. “There are moving companies specializing in evictions, their crews working all day, every weekday. There are hundreds of data-mining companies that sell landlords tenant screening reports listing past evictions and court filings. These days housing courts swell, forcing commissioners to settle cases in hallways or makeshift offices crammed with old desks and broken file cabinets—and most tenants don’t even show up. Low-income families have grown used to the rumble of moving trucks, the early-morning knocks at the door, the belongings lining the curb.”
We get the New Deal. A few decades later we get neoliberalism. Up and down we go on the capitalist seesaw. It is a long and honored tactic of the capitalist class—concessions in times of unrest and then reversals—one amply illustrated by the labor history of the United States and illuminated by revolutionary theorists such as Rosa Luxemburg.
Everyone suffers. But poor people of color, trapped in the internal colonies Desmond wrote about, suffer more.
“Between 2007 and 2010, the average white family experienced an 11 percent reduction in wealth, but the average black family lost 31 percent of its wealth,” Desmond noted. “The average Hispanic family lost 44 percent.”
Mass incarceration and evictions destroy the cohesion of poor communities. The oppressed are never permitted to congregate long enough in one place to organize. It is, I believe, one of the reasons families that visit incarcerated loved ones in prison are treated so brutally by prison guards. While they wait for hours—sometimes in the rain—outside the prison gate, they often have no access to a bathroom. Once in the visitor’s area, they and their children are shouted at, searched and traumatized to the point of tears, as if they were prisoners. The idea is to make it so unpleasant they do not come back. And many do not. Once the oppressed gather together often enough to realize that their story is shared by millions of others, there will be hell to pay. In the 1930s, community groups blocked sheriffs from carrying out evictions, moved belongings from the street back into the house or organized rent strikes. But this takes solidarity.