My wife and I have been listening to the Harry Potter books on Audible so I have been reminded of one of the key ideas from the series – the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy. A prophecy is made about Harry Potter, the big bad guy, Voldemort, hears part of the prophecy and acts on it, ultimately fulfilling the prophecy and bringing about his own doom. The question, which is asked directly in the book, is whether any of the events of story would have happened if the prophecy had not been overheard. If the bad guy hadn’t been afraid of the prophecy to try to prevent it, would the prophecy have been meaningless?
For most Americans who rent a home or apartment, if something important breaks, like a pipe or part of the HVAC system, they can expect the landlord to respond and fix the problem in a reasonable time. However, our nation’s poorest individuals cannot always expect to have repairs to the housing they rent made in a reasonable and timely manner. Rents are expensive, and for many Americans work is hard to find and payments for housing falls behind. When this happens, exploitation is possible and many low-income renters end up trading their dignity for their housing.
In Evicted Matthew Desmond follows a landlord named Sherrena through the general course of her day managing several rental units for low-income individuals. In the book, several of Sherrena’s tenants fall behind on their rent and need help getting by. This creates a situation where Sherrena is able to skirt the rules on maintenance and upkeep for her rental properties. Desmond writes, “as Sherrena put it to tenants: if I give you a break, you give me a break.” The implication is clear, if you are a difficult tenant due to noise complaints, damage to the property, or late rent, don’t expect the landlord to stick to the letter of the law in terms of fixing and repairing the rental property. Its not so much giving Sherrena a break in terms of being slow to address concerns but rather an acknowledgement that Sherrena giving a tenant a break is an exercise of power which allows her to then avoid legal requirements related to general property upkeep.
There is a transactional sense where this seems logical. If a tenant is going to be late on payments or difficult in one way or another, then they should expect that the landlord is going to be less cooperative in return. This is a classic tit for tat type of transactional relationship where one person responds in kind to the provocations of the other. But as Desmond describes, and Sherrena’s quote demonstrates, this creates exploitative relationships between landlords and poor renters.
“Tenants could trade their dignity and children’s health for a roof over their head.” Housing prices across the nation have increased at a time when wages have stagnated for many people. Prior to 2020, unemployment reached record lows, but still, many people had left the job market and couldn’t find adequate work to support them with a living wage. For these individuals, being able to afford rent month after month is a major challenge.
Falling behind on rent may mean that a landlord will ignore problems with the rental property. This could mean they don’t call an exterminator if bugs are found in the building, that they don’t fix a broken window, or that they don’t hire a plumber to repair a clogged toilet. Renters who are behind on rent or have rocky relationships with the landlord have to put up with unsanitary or dangerous living conditions until they can get current on rent or catch up on any back payments. Being poor means they trade in their dignity and health in order to not get kicked out of their rental. We can argue that this is simply market dynamics and rational behavior on the part of landlords, but we should acknowledge that there is a dignity trade off taking place and that low-income renters can be exploited by more powerful landlords. This is a real issue that we should care about, no matter how lazy, how undeserving, or how bad we find the choices an individual has made to end up in their current situation. Trading dignity for housing should simply be untenable.
I often find myself thinking about the history of racism in America and asking how that history could still be impacting the lives of Americans today. While it feels like we have made huge steps in addressing racism and in expanding economic and social opportunities for black and minority people in our country, we still have a long way to go, and the effects of our history of racism still plays a role in the world around us.
Homeownership is a great example of the way that historic racism still impacts the racial inequality that we see around us today. Matthew Desmond in his book Evicted does an excellent job showing how racist and segregationist policies influenced the homeownership and economic development of black people in the United States. He writes, “in the 1920s and ’30s, rent for dilapidated housing in the black ghettos of Milwaukee and Philadelphia and other norther cities exceeded that for better housing in white neighborhoods. As late as 1960, rent in major cities was higher for blacks than for whites in similar accommodations. The poor did not crowd into slums because of cheap housing. They were there – and this was especially true of the black poor – simply because they were allowed to be.”
For many Americans, a house is the most expensive thing they own and is their primary vehicle for wealth creation. Being able to purchase a home can set an individual up for a retirement, an inheritance to pass on to children and grandchildren, and can provide numerous other financial and social benefits for the individual and their family. The practice of redlining was a deliberate act of denying housing to black and minority individuals. Both homeownership and renting was limited, as Desmond’s quote shows, to certain neighborhoods and areas within cities for black people. They could not purchase homes in suburban areas, because banks would not lend to them for purchasing a home outside a redlined area. Real estate agents would not show black people homes in white neighborhoods. Landlords in white neighborhoods wouldn’t rent to black people.
From this segregation came the crowding of black and minority populations into city centers that were ignored and underdeveloped. Housing was limited in these areas, driving the price up for those who could not buy or rent in a cheaper white area due to racism. Black people could not build wealth, even if they became successful business people. They were stuck around low socio-economic status people, meaning their children could not connect with more wealthy individuals and network for future opportunities.
For decades after the Civil War, black people were intentionally denied access to the kinds of assets that allowed many American’s to get started on a path toward wealth generation for themselves and their families for generations to come. Not only were black people not able to purchase homes in good neighborhoods that would appreciate in value, they were denied affordable rent in white neighborhoods, paying more for worse quality housing in redlined areas. They were denied the opportunity to begin building wealth and to pass an inheritance along to their children while paying more for worse housing. When we see the wealth gap that exists between black and white people today, we can look back and see that redlining played a direct role in the creation and maintenance of that gap. Racial disparities that exist today often have deep roots that we cannot see if we don’t look closely to understand how the policies impacted the lives of those who could not build wealth and set their families up for future success.
Low income renters face a lot of challenges in terms of maintaining stable housing. For those with low incomes, affordable rental units are hard to find, and the competition for such units means that any error or slip-up on the part of the renter could land them on the streets with no where else to go.
In Evicted Matthew Desmond writes, “the high demand for the cheapest housing told landlords that for every family in a unit there were scores behind them ready to take their place. In such an environment, the incentive to lower the rent, forgive a late payment, or spruce up your property was extremely low.” A lack of affordable housing and high competition among low income renters means the incentives for landlords are not in favor of the renters. Landlords know they can boot out a tenant who has young children that cause problems, or a tenant who misses a couple of rent payments, or a tenant who complains too much about problems with the property and quickly find a replacement. There are no incentives to have a nicer property to attract new tenants. There is no incentive to work with a tenant who was just laid off or had unexpected medical bills to repay late rent.
This puts low income renters in dangerous places. They cannot pass up low rent opportunities at units that are in bad condition, because if they pass, someone else will take it and they will be without a place to live. Low income renters cannot afford to have a child break a window, because they may be more likely to be kicked out of the unit than to have the window repaired timely. Additionally, they are unlikely to get a break if they hit an unlucky spell with work or health that prevents them from making rent. In many ways, the incentives around low-income housing lead to unhealthy and exploitative relationships between the poor and their landlords. Throughout Evicted Desmond explores these relationships and the real psychological costs that this reality creates for low income renters.
“The most effective way to assert, or reassert, ownership of land was to force people from it,” writes Matthew Desmond in his book Evicted. This line feels like it could be from a book written about the Trail of Tears, about any number of American atrocities toward indigenous populations of the Americas, or about European colonialization. But the line is about modern evictions from rental properties across the Untied States.
I don’t think the idea of connecting modern evictions with our nation’s history of forcing Native Americans from their land was intentional in Desmond’s book, but I think it is an interesting and insightful angle through which we can view evictions and the American housing crisis. People need reasonable and safe places to live. Research has demonstrated how important the places where you live and grow up can be for your life outcomes. Our troubling history of taking land from Native Americans shows that we have always known this and it reinforces the lessons that current research is presenting. Additionally, the abandonment of native populations and the economic challenges that tribes across the country face today show how long lasting dislocation from property and housing can be.
American public housing projects have often not gone well. Providing housing via market mechanisms is generally much preferred to government provided housing, but for those on the lowest end of the socioeconomic scale, this option often become exploitative, exclusionary, unhealthy, and dangerous. Poor people often have to live in slums that can do more to set them back than help them find a way to get ahead. And when they can’t get ahead, they face eviction, with the powerful landowners forcing them from the lousy housing they were at one point able to attain.
The power dynamics of renters and owners is important to acknowledge. Landlords can evict tenants, and low income tenants quickly realize that a landlord can make their life difficult if they speak out about the slum conditions they live in. The people living on the land have to deal with terrible conditions, and risk being forced from the land if they speak up. Just as Native Americans had to accept the terms of the powerful American Government, tenants have to accept the terms of land-owners, no matter how unreasonable they may be.
I recognize that land owners have rights. I also recognize how terrible renters can be and how terrible they may treat the property of the land owner (I currently live in a house that was once a rental and we are still dealing with the costs of careless renters and neglect). However, my efforts to connect Desmond’s writing with the way Native American’s were treated is a deliberate attempt to show that a power imbalance can be more harmful for renters than landlords. I don’t have a great solution, but I think it is important that we recognize the opportunities for exploitation that arise for our nation’s lowest SES members in a market system of providing low-income housing. It is also important that we recognize the great harms that exercising power and forcing people from land can have, as demonstrated through the darkest moments of our nation’s past. We should do all we can to avoid leaving another bitter legacy of power and eviction in our wake.
In the book Evicted, Matthew Desmond writes, “in a typical year, almost 1 in 5 poor renting families nationwide missed payments and received a disconnection notice from their utility company.” Life in the United States can be brutal for the poor. We operate under an economic system that helps push the middle class to work hard, strive for more, and be the driving force of our economic engine. Some individuals from the middle class do advance, some do fall, and some poor people do rise up to achieve the middle class American dream. However, this system that focuses so heavily on a productive middle class doesn’t always match the realities faced by our nation’s poor.
It is true that all of us have to make tough choices every day. We have to choose to show up to work, we have to choose to actually work rather than socialize and play games once we get there, and we have to make responsible decisions to use our money to pay our bills rather than buy air Jordan’s and sushi every night. However, what Desmond and other authors who have written about poverty and homelessness in America show, for many of the poorest among us, even making those smart decisions won’t help alleviate their poverty. Desmond argues that one reason why so many people fail to pay utility bills and receive disconnection notices is that many people are paying as much as 50% of their income on rent and as much as 70% of their income on rent plus utilities.
For people in poverty who face high rents and utilities, they may have only 30% of a minimum wage income to spend on the necessities. That’s a tiny amount of their income to use toward transportation to school, work, or childcare. A fraction of their income is available to put food on the table. A sliver of the 30% can be used for clothes, perhaps a religious tithe, cleaning supplies, and basic household goods to replace worn and broken items.
Two things happen to poor people living in these situations. First, one instance of bad luck can upend years of hard work and good decision-making. A child who breaks something, a roommate who steals something, an unexpected healthcare cost, or a product that goes bad prematurely can be a substantial cost that breaks the bank and throws the perfect balance of that remaining 30% of income out of whack. For many individuals working at the lowest wage jobs, one slip-up can mean losing a job, making it harder to get a job and climb toward a higher wage, and compounding the financial difficulties that an individual may face.
The second thing that happens is that the individual recognizes how little it matters if they save a lot or don’t save at all. If one spell of bad luck can ruin your plans for using your money wisely, then why try hard to keep things in balance? Everyone forgets a bill sometime, or overspends impulsively, or faces an unexpected cost that sets them back, but for rich and middle class people, its no problem. For lower class people, it is a major problem that they are blamed for and often punished for. If this is the reality of your life, then there are actually incentives to simply spend money in a seemingly irrational manner and to enjoy what you can of the 30% remaining after rent and utilities. If you are going to have to live with the consequences of not having enough money, then why not enjoy what you can until your water and power are shut off. When you live in a constant state of stress where your entire pay check is gone toward bills and necessities, no matter how much you try to cut down, then you don’t really have an incentive to make smart decisions and continue to strive for better financial stability. Blowing your money on QVC items or a steak (something middle and upper class people also do) doesn’t seem like a bad idea, after all, you may have your power shut off regardless of how wisely you spend.
I live in a town that has experienced a major housing boom in the last 5 years. By car, we are only four hours away from San Francisco and by plane it is only an hour hop to the bay. Reno, Nevada is also located next to Lake Tahoe, one of the most beautiful alpine lakes in the world (if you don’t mind my little brag), and offers a lot of great hiking, skiing, and other outdoor activities. The city has become an attractive place for people in San Francisco, Oakland, or Sacramento who want to buy a more affordable home and have more space for families and outdoor living.
Unfortunately for many people in Reno, what is considered an affordable home to someone who has lived in the Bay Area or Sacramento is not what has traditionally been considered an affordable home to long-time locals and their families. The median price of homes in Reno has soared to over $500,000, placing homes out of reach for many long-time residents. However, with median prices for homes in the Bay Area being over $950,000, homes in Reno are somewhat of a steal. The end result in Reno is a growing population, a housing supply that hasn’t kept up, and increasing housing costs.
I personally know people who have been renting apartments for roughly the same monthly rate as what I have paid for mortgages on houses. This soaring cost of rents is pushing people in the city into unstable housing situations, and for many, into homelessness. Reno is a great example of the challenges of sudden housing cost increases, but it certainly isn’t the only place where this is happening.
In his 2016 book Evicted, Matthew Desmond writes, “Families have watched their incomes stagnate, or even fall, while their housing costs have soared. Today, the majority of poor renting families in America spend over half of their income on housing, and at least one in four dedicates over 70 percent to paying the rent and keeping the lights on.” For close to a decade the cost of housing in many cities and regions of the country has been soaring at a time when many people were not seeing wages increase. This pushed people to have to decide between working more, moving, going into debt, risking homelessness, or sacrificing time with family, comforts, and necessities.
It is not possible to tell everyone living in a place where rent and housing costs are soaring to move to South Bend, Indiana where homes are more affordable. It is not reasonable to tell everyone to take on a second job, to get more roommates, and to simply downsize into smaller and more affordable places. The problem has to do with the amount of housing being constructed, limits placed on housing construction, and the increasing concentration of economic opportunities to large coastal cities. There are many factors and trade-offs that influence the decisions that are made with regard to new housing construction and zoning regulations, but we should remember that one outcome from failing to provide enough quality housing is homelessness. Homelessness can be temporary, cyclical, and chronic, and it has tremendous costs on society and the environment, and if housing costs can’t be brought down to a level where people are not spending half their income on rent, then it will persist and worsen.
This idea came back to me when thinking about a quote from Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in their book $2.00 A Day. When I think about the poor and about the way they are treated, I often fall into a similar mindset as I do when I think about the prophecy from Harry Potter or any other story about a self-fulfilling prophecy. I find myself asking if the way we treat the poor effectively tells them they are not worthy and valuable, effectively creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that they realize. When we tell someone they are not good enough, not worth the time and attention of society, do they begin to believe it, and do they give up on themselves?
“Research shows that the intrusive treatment people typically receive at the welfare office can undermine their confidence in government and erode political participation,” write Edin and Shaefer. Their book shows that research on how people in poverty are treated finds that the treatment of poor people directly influences how they understand their position in society, how they understand whether they are supported, valued, and whether they should even try to participate in democracy to improve their lives and fight for what they need to live better. Edin and Shaefer continue, “it stands to reason that this kind of treatment could also erode the very confidence that is so necessary for pulling yourself out of a $2-a-day poverty.”
This is where my ideas about self-fulfilling prophecies reconnects with poverty. Shaefer and Edin demonstrate that what we tell poor people becomes the reality they live within. We set up systems to aid the needy, but we treat them terribly when they seek to access such systems. We tell them they are not worthy, that they are failures, and that they don’t deserve the assistance legally provided. As a result, poor people believe they are not meant to participate in society, they may truly believe they are not good enough to improve their situation, and they may give up and accept that they are not deserving of a better life. The way we treat the poor effectively creates a prophecy that they live out, preventing them from meaningfully participating in our democracy, and limiting their chances of doing the things necessary to be seen as worthy of more help and assistance to escape deep poverty.
“TANF has become welfare for the states rather than aid for families in need,” write Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in their book $2.00 A Day. In the United States we don’t like the idea of giving direct aid to poor people. We want to make sure that people who receive social aid and assistance deserve the help they get, and as a result we have put restrictions, limits, and qualifications on the aid that the government provides to poor people. We also tend to prefer in-kind benefits rather than cash benefits, believing that cash benefits will be wasted and abused, and believing (whether we admit it or not) that we know what is better for poor people than they do. Providing the thing we think poor people need is our preference rather than providing poor people cash to acquire the thing.
This is how TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) came to exist in its current form. TANF is a block grant from the federal government to states. That means that the federal government provides a certain amount of money to the states for them to use in assisting the poor. Obviously, this means there is an incentive for states to put restrictions and limits on the aid they give to families so that they don’t expend all of the money from the grant. Any money not spent on needy families can be redirected to other purposes for which states may need additional funding.
Work requirements, drug screenings, complicated forms, long lines, and life-time limits reduce the total expenditures that states have with their TANF programs. Instead of focusing on what would be the most beneficial for the needy, programs utilizing such restrictions focus on what would be best for the states coffers. This is why the authors describe TANF as welfare for the state instead of aid for families.
A big focus on unaffordable housing is on the price of homes and the cost of rent. However, wage stagnation is another important factor that contributes to unaffordable housing. In $2.00 A Day, Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer write, “rising rents are certainly a big part of the problem, but the concurrent fall in renters’ incomes has outstripped the rise in prices by a factor of more than two to one.” There is a double housing squeeze being felt across the nation as the price of housing increases while wages either stagnate or decrease, especially when considered relative to general inflation indexes.
Rising home costs are often attributed to zoning regulations the prevent building sufficient housing to meet the needs of a city or population. Zoning laws restrict the building of duplexes and apartment complexes. Some zoning laws require ample parking space, cutting down on potential living space. And some zoning prevents infilling with more high density housing that would allow more people to move to the area. The results are limited housing options and higher prices for sought after units.
As wages stagnate, this becomes a serious problem. People search for sectors with higher wages and more opportunities for advancement. Such opportunities are often found in cities, however that is where the highest competition for housing exists. So individuals seeking higher wages have to contend with higher housing prices. The alternative is often accepting a stagnant wage and living further away from work than one would like, because that is the only place affordable housing can be found.
This double squeeze creates a lose-lose situation for low income individuals. If they move to a city they may find better work opportunities, but they will pay more for less space. But if they don’t move, they will either face a very long commute or a job closer to their home that pays less and has no opportunities for advancement. Housing is a major issue, and unaffordable housing has a whole cascading series of negative consequences.
$2.00 A Day by Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer looks at individuals in the most dire poverty in the United States to understand their history, experiences, and lives with almost no income. They provide a humanizing look at a group that is often dehumanized, and often taken advantage of. In the book, the authors discuss wage theft, what researchers use to describe violations of labor standards that harm the lowest wage workers who have no avenues for complaints or legal action against employers or gig hirers.
“If one tallied all of the losses suffered by victims of robberies, burglaries, larcenies, and motor vehicle thefts combined,” the authors write, “the figure wouldn’t even approach what is taken from hardworking Americans’ pockets by employers who violate the nation’s labor laws. And the victims are generally the most vulnerable among us.”
The claim in this quote is seems pretty huge to me and potentially a bit hyperbolic. But I believe the idea holds even if the claim itself overstretches. The lowest income people in the nation are easy to take advantage of. They are often desperate for any money or aid they can receive, with the alternative being to put up with unfair work or go with hungry stomachs or no place to sleep. This leaves the poor in a position where it is easy for someone who has hired them for a formal or informal job to make unreasonable demands on their time, effort, or wage that they cannot push back against.
Edin and Shaefer explain that wage theft can take the form of simply not paying someone the wage that was originally offered or paying below minimum wage. However, it can be even more severe, such as forcing an individual to work overtime without paying overtime rates or forcing them to work off the clock and not paying them at all. For the lowest income individual in the country, even being hard working doesn’t help them receive a fair wage, and can be a losing situation for them.
The simple answer to extreme poverty is hard work and getting a job. It is easy to tell the person on the street that they just need to work harder, need to be more persistent, and need to stick out the terrible job they can get in order to work their way up. In reality though, for those low wage individuals, the work they can find can be demeaning and can take more from them than what it gives in terms of wages. They may not get the full amount they should be owed, they may be taken advantage of in a situation that deliberately keeps them from advancing to make more money. Wage theft can create a cycle where the only work for the poor makes them worse off, leading to more spells of unemployment followed by further wage theft and exploitation. When we think about wage theft as Edin and Shaefer present it, we see that the simple answer of getting a job and working hard is not enough for many of the poorest among us to improve their situation.