Equal Treatment in an Unequal Society

Equal Treatment in an Unequal Society

Inequalities cannot be solved simply by establishing new standards, criteria, and rules that will apply equally to everyone. When inequality exists, creating new policies and laws designed to be more equitable in how they treat everyone can have the effect of locking in inequality. Such rules can inadvertently give inequality the appearance of fairness and institutional approval.
Matthew Desmond demonstrates how this has happened within housing markets across the country in his book Evicted. For decades, discriminatory housing policy was the norm in our country. At times in our past it has been explicitly authorized in laws and statutes. At other times, it has been openly, yet unofficially, practiced. Today, explicit housing discrimination still exists, but it at least has to be hidden under innocuous motives or carefully crafted lies. Implicit housing discrimination, however, with no one feeling as though they are being discriminatory, is still common and open.
Desmond argues that the history of racial discrimination in housing markets has created a system that perpetuates the inequalities that discrimination deliberately fostered, while appearing race neutral. He writes, “landlords and property management companies … tried to avoid discriminating by setting clear criteria and holding all applicants to the same standards. But equal treatment in an unequal society could still foster inequality.” Applying universal rules in a system that has been shaped and defined by inequalities does not mean that discrimination goes away. It means that it is codified and approved though seemingly eliminated.
When black people have been incarcerated for years following discriminatory and prejudiced practices, they will be overly burdened by legal denials of housing. When housing policies have driven black people toward eviction at disproportionately higher rates than other groups for centuries, then denying someone on the grounds of prior evictions will disproportionately impact black people. The result is that the discriminatory practices that once existed openly and deliberately to harm minority groups for the benefit of the majority will continue, but with the presentation of authority and fairness under the law. This is how ostensibly equal treatment under the law can have such unequal impacts for people in an unequal society.
Why America's History of Racism Still Matters

Why America’s History of Racism Still Matters

At a time where we can say that a black person has been President of the United States and at a time when the Vice President of the United States is currently a woman of black and Asian descent, it can feel as though race, skin color, and racism are no longer problems. It can feel as though we have overcome the shackles of the darkest truth of our collective history and as though there is no longer a ceiling for anyone willing to work hard and strive toward big goals. However, the truth is that our history of racism is still with us and still impacts the lives of many people across the country.
In the book Evicted Matthew Desmond shows how this is the case within the world of housing policy and low income renters. He writes, “over three centuries of systematic dispossession from the land created a semipermanent black rental class and an artificially high demand for inner-city apartments.” For almost all of American history, property ownership for black people was deliberately limited and threatened, beginning with the ownership of one’s own body. Slavery took ownership of one’s body away from black slaves and the end of slavery perpetuated this loss of ownership of ones body through Jim Crow laws, forced prison labor, share cropping, and other forms of disenfranchisement for people of color. Without being able to own property, whether in the form of their body, the form of common goods, or the form of reliable housing, black people were kept from the institutions which allowed white people to establish long lasting families and inter-generational wealth.
Black people were forced into ghettos over time, and even when explicit segregation was overturned, implicit segregation remained. Black people were exploited, their properties, businesses, and neighborhoods undervalued and disinvested. The legacy of this history cannot be erased simply by one man becoming president and one woman attaining the office of vice president. The long term community disinvestment that black people have experienced will take years – and likely targeted policy – to overcome. It won’t happen on its own, and it won’t happen overnight.
Eviction and Job Loss

Eviction & Job Loss

When we think about eviction and job loss, we probably imagine job loss being the cause for eviction. People lose their jobs, either because of an economic downturn or due to poor performance, and end up being evicted if they cannot find another job in time to pay the rent. Jobs provide money which is needed for maintaining stable housing, so the causal arrow flows from job loss to eviction.
But Matthew Desmond argues that the causal arrow can often point in the other direction. Eviction can cause job loss. In Evicted he writes, “job loss could lead to eviction, but the reverse was also true. An eviction not only consumed renters’ time, causing them to miss work, it also weighed heavily on their minds, often triggering mistakes on the job. It overwhelmed workers with stress, leading them to act unprofessionally, and commonly resulted in their relocating farther away from their worksite, increasing their likelihood of being late or missing days.”
Housing is not something we can afford to think of as a luxury or as a reward for good behavior and an industrious attitude. Housing is in many ways a basic right, and our economic system depends on people having reasonable and affordable housing to participate in the labor market. When we make housing impossible for people to maintain it has an effect on their job performance, hurting our economic system.
The fact that the causal arrow can flow from eviction to job loss also belies another idea that we pride ourselves on in our country – the idea that everyone deserves a second chance. Instead, what Desmond’s quote shows is that one bad outcome can compound and overwhelm an individual. Rather than having a second chance, people snowball into worse states of affairs, each setback making recovery harder and further away. Perhaps an individual spent unwisely, perhaps they used drugs, and perhaps they made other serious mistakes that made their eviction inevitable. But instead of a second chance and an opportunity to bounce back from their mistake, we punish them further by making it harder for them to keep their job. If they do lose their job following an eviction, then they are marginalized even further and pushed further from society. Rather than a second chance, we seem to push people against a steep cliff where any breeze of bad luck could send them tumbling with no end in sight.
Apologizing for Existence

Apologizing for Existing

“Larraine learned a long time ago not to apologize for her existence,” writes Matthew Desmond about one of the individuals he profiles for his book Evicted. Larraine lived in a trailer park, barely getting by on social assistance checks from the government. She spent unwisely, but, with no hope of getting to a more stable financial position in her lifetime, saw little reason to live more frugally.
The simple line from Desmond tells us a lot about people living in poverty. They are outcasts in our country and are looked down-upon no matter what they do. They are treated as if they are not doing the right thing, not working hard enough, and not deserving of smiles, compliments, or sympathy. Poor people are made to feel bad about themselves, about their reliance on others, and about the help they need from the government, from charity, and from private donations. They are made to feel as though they must apologize for existing and being so poor.
The narrative in our country is that one simply has to work hard and everything will be ok. As long as you are industrious and self-disciplined, you can have a car, a nice place to live, a TV, and good food to eat. You will be respected if you either work hard and earn your way, or have enough money on your own to get by without help from others. The reality for many, however, is that you must work very hard for very little, subsist on the same mediocre food all the time, and live without any frivolous spending or enjoyment, otherwise the more important bills won’t get paid. And even if you do all that, people still won’t want to associate with you, won’t want to talk to you, and won’t look at you as if you deserve to be treated like a fully human individual.
Is it any wonder that people opt out and chose to live with short-term pleasures, like expensive steak or commemorative merchandise, at the expense of making their gas payment for a month? This is the situation Larraine found herself in, and rather than acquiescing to the disparaging looks and disappointment from other people, Larraine chose to embrace her seemingly irrational and unwise spending habits. She chose not to apologize for her poverty stricken existence, to be human, and to accept who she was, even if it was not what the rest of her society wanted her to be.
Saving Money in Poverty

Saving Money in Poverty

People in poverty are often criticized for the way they live and the decisions they make. From the outside it is easy to criticize the person in deep poverty who buys things they don’t need on QVC, goes to garage sales and buys junk that piles up inside and outside their home, and spends their money on fancy grocery items instead of the cheapest options. However, for people in the deepest poverty, escape to even just a more stable poverty can seem impossible, and when that is the case, there is little reason to work on saving.
Matthew Desmond demonstrates this reality by explaining the situation of a character in a trailer park named Larraine. He writes, “To Sammy [Larraine’s niece], Pastor Daryl, and others, Larraine was poor because she threw money away. But the reverse was more true. Larraine threw money away because she was poor.” Desmond walks through Larraine’s financial situation. She had a tiny amount of money left after paying the rent each month, and if she saved every penny that she could for the whole year, she would bank enough money to afford one month of rent. However, doing so would come at a huge cost, forgoing things that brought her a small amount of enjoyment in her trailer park poverty. Instead of penny pinching, Larraine splurged on frivolous fun items and enjoyed the small perk of getting something nice from time to time. This frustrated the people in her life who she sometimes asked for money because they saw her prioritizing face creams and steak over hot water and sufficient food for the whole month.
Desmond continues, “People like Larraine lived with so many compounded limitations that it was difficult to imagine the amount of good behavior or self-control that would allow them to lift themselves out of poverty. The distance between grinding poverty and even stable poverty could be so vast that those at the bottom had little hope of climbing out even if they pinched every penny.” When this is the life you are stuck with, then why continuously live with nothing. Why continuously try to save when a whole year of saving only gives you enough cash in the bank (or under the mattress) to be secure for one month of rent payments if something went wrong. If there is almost no hope of your financial situation improving, then why not enjoy what you can, even if it means you are going to suffer a little more in some areas or risk having a utility shut off for a few weeks.
Nuisance Citation Evictions

Nuisance Citation Evictions

I’ve only spent a few months of my life renting rather than owning my own home. What I did not learn in a few months of renting, but what I learned from Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted, is that tenants can be evicted when they receive too many emergency response calls. Landlords can receive nuisance citations if police, fire, or medical first responders are called to a property they own more than a certain number of times within a given period. No one likes having sirens wake them up at night and no one likes having their street blocked by first responder vehicles. These laws are intended to help protect people living around homes that have rowdy neighbors that have police called for parties, drug dealing, or dangerous behaviors that result in fire and ambulance calls.
Unfortunately, innocent victims can also be caught up in these laws and evicted by tenants who don’t want fines from numerous nuisance citations at a property they own. Desmond first introduces evictions for nuisance citations with a character in his book who has a son with asthma. As a struggling single mother, she had trouble affording her son’s asthma medicine. If her son had an asthma attack and needed medical attention, the mother had to make a decision between calling an ambulance and trying to get her son to the hospital herself. If she called for an ambulance too many times, her landlord might get a nuisance citation, and if that happened, she may be evicted from the property. Essentially, the mother was punished and threatened with eviction because she was too poor to afford her son’s asthma medicine.
Another example of nuisance citation evictions that Desmond highlights are domestic violence evictions. If I were renting an apartment and my neighbors experienced domestic violence, I’m sure that I would be uncomfortable, especially if I could hear yelling and physical abuse. I would be grateful for nuisance citations which might help get the violent couple evicted from the unit next to me. However, while I might benefit, the couple involved in the domestic violence certainly would not, and society would have to deal with the costs of their eviction and their abusive situation sprawling into the street. According to Desmond, this happens frequently.
He writes, “In the vast majority of cases (83 percent), landlords who received a nuisance citation for domestic violence responded by either evicting tenants or by threatening  to evict them for future police calls. Sometimes, this meant evicting a couple, but most of the time landlords evicted women abused by men who did not live with them.”
The vast majority of domestic violence victims are women, and when they risk possible nuisance citation evictions, they are put in the difficult position of deciding between housing and violence. Reporting domestic violence too often could mean losing housing. But choosing not to call the police to respond to domestic violence could mean remaining in a dangerous situation. What is worse, as Desmond’s quote shows, women often are evicted for domestic violence that comes not from a husband, but from a boyfriend or significant-other who is not married or truly committed to the woman. It can be hard for a single mom to make it on her own, and that may necessitate turning to a man for support, assistance with children, and extra income, but for some women at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, that can also mean opening themselves to potential violence. Nuisance citations mean that they then have to decide between violence and eviction, a tradeoff that no one should have to make.
Community & Trauma

Community & Trauma

In many ways I think it is a good thing that our nation does so much to celebrate the individual. We mythologize our greatest national founders, we try to embody the spirit of our greatest leaders, and we look up to great entrepreneurs today who are trying to solve some of our most challenging problems. Hard work, ingenuity, personal responsibility, and talent are the things we praise the most in these individuals, focusing on how great our society can be if we all strive to be as good as these leaders. Unfortunately, this hyper-individualism focus of the United States seems to be pulling us away from engagement with our communities as we focus inward on our selves, and can have devastating effects.
US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has argued, especially with the COVID-19 Pandemic, that our nation faces a crisis of loneliness. We have fewer social groups and organizations that we engage with. We spend more time in our homes watching TV and less time participating in social and community focused groups. When we are shut away inside, this puts some individuals at risk of domestic violence, drug abuse and addiction, and mental health challenges like depression. Ultimately, as our community institutions are left to dwindle with our relentless focus on the individual, we risk increasing the trauma that individual members experience, which has a positive feedback loop on diminishing notions of community.
In the book Evicted Matthew Desmond writes, “Milwaukee renters who perceived higher levels of neighborhood trauma – believing that their neighbors had experienced incarceration, abuse, addiction, and other harrowing events – were far less likely to believe that people in their community could come together to improve their lives. This lack of faith had less to do with their neighborhood’s actual poverty and crime rates than with the level of concentrated suffering they perceived around them.” Trauma destroys community, and destroyed communities create more opportunities for trauma. The more trauma and the weaker a sense of community, the more isolated and hopeless people become.
I don’t think anyone can overcome trauma on their own. People who have experienced any trauma, from minor to extreme, need the help of stable, compassionate, and trained individuals to live healthily. However, our hyper focus on the personal responsibility of the individual fails to account for trauma. You cannot pull yourself up by the bootstraps, demonstrate extreme grit, or maintain self-control when dealing with trauma. You need community, you need other people to help create safe places where you can engage in the world around you, and you need caring people who can serve as role mentors and coaches to help you get through.
As we have allowed community to dwindle, we have removed the supports that help us overcome trauma. We have removed safe spaces for us to see that we can interact with others, come together to have fun and complete socially beneficial projects, or to provide support for one another. We focus on what we as individuals can do (even when it is being socially responsible and volunteering our time), not on what we can be as a community. This drives our isolation, leaves those who experience trauma without positive and healthy outlets, and diminishes our sense of community, further crumbling the lives and institutions of those living in poverty or trying to get through deep trauma. Celebrating the achievements and success of the individual is great, but not when it comes at the expense of our community and the institutions that help support all of us.
Social Construction & Narrative Policy Frameworks for the Poor

Social Constructions & Narrative Policy Frameworks for the Poor

I often think about the social construction and narrative policy frameworks when I look at issues in the world. I see the ways in which we categorize people and create narratives about those individuals that shape the way we understand them and interact with them. There are some people and groups that we have favorable constructions of, such as veterans, and some groups that we have negative views of, like drug users. There are some groups that are powerful and influential, like senior citizens, and other groups that might be sympathetic but lack power, like single working mothers. These two frameworks from political science are helpful in seeing how groups and individuals interact, how policies for groups develop, and how we justify the political decisions that we make.
I have applied these two frameworks when reviewing Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted. For example, Desmond has a passage in which he writes, “Mass resistance was possible only when people believed they had the collective capacity to change things. For poor people, this required identifying with the oppressed, and counting yourself among them – which was something most trailer park residents were absolutely unwilling to do.” This passage is generally about social movements and change, but I think it can be better understood when viewed through narratives and social constructions.
Trailer park residents may not be in much different economic situations than individuals living in inner city ghettos, but for the trailer park renter who is able to make rent and buy groceries (even if requiring government aid to do so), there is a notable difference. However, the difference is nearly entirely a narrative that they tell within their own minds. Policies that help the poor living in the inner city will likely help the poor living in trailer parks, but as the quote shows, social constructions shape the narrative that trailer park residents tell themselves about the poor living elsewhere, and ultimately do not support the policies which would help them both.
The other notable narrative at work in the short passage is the idea that people have to believe they have the collective capacity to change things. A mass uprising and mass movement could change the world, but only if individuals can tell themselves a compelling narrative to get them out the door and participating in a movement. Only if people can identify with others in similar economic situations, only if their narratives can overlap, only if they can establish social constructions which unite them can they engage in a way that will flex their political muscle, moving them from a socially sympathetic (or socially deviant) but weak position into one of power. The narratives people build are often based on social constructions, and those narratives influence how people understand the world, ultimately shaping what they see as possible and what policies they do or do not favor and fight for.
Undeserving Poor

Undeserving Poor

Our nation encourages us to look at the outcomes within our lives as the product of our own doing. How hard we work, how much effort we make to learn and get ahead, and how well we do with making good decisions determines whether we are successful, poor, addicted to drugs, healthy, and happy. This is the narrative that drives our lives, and any failure within any area of our life ultimately represents some type of personal or moral failure by us as individuals. However, is this really an accurate way of looking at humans living within complex societies? Should everything be tied to this sense of hyper personal-responsibility?
Matthew Desmond questions this idea throughout his book Evicted, but he also shows how dominant and entrenched this idea is. Even among our nation’s poorest who have faced extreme difficulties and poverty, the idea of personal responsibility is still the driving narrative around life. Writing about individuals in poverty living in a trailer park Desmond writes, “Evictions were deserved, understood to be the outcome of individual failure. They helped get rid of the riffraff some said. No one thought the poor more underserving than the poor themselves.” Even those living in the deepest poverty, those who have ostensibly failed the most within our capitalistic society, see each other as personal failures, not as victims of a system that was stacked against them. They don’t see themselves as getting swept up in a system and society that didn’t help provide enough support, guidance, and opportunity for them. They only see the bad choices that have landed people in the trailer park, and subsequently driven them out through eviction.
The reality is that as individuals we still exist within a society. We are still dependent on numerous social systems and institutions which shape the reality of the worlds we inhabit and the opportunities and possibilities available to us.  Drug use, for example, use seems like an individual decisions, however research on adverse childhood experiences and the impact of loss of meaning, social connections, and opportunity, shows that there are social determinants that drive drug use across communities. What seems like simply an individual decision based entirely on personal morality has numerous dimensions that cannot be explained simply by individual level decisions.
Desmond argues that evictions are also not something we should see as simply personal failures. There are numerous factors that can push an individual toward a downward spiral that ends in eviction. There are numerous points where social systems and institutions seem designed to drive poor people to failure. Blaming individuals for their own failure and subsequent eviction hides the ways in which we are all responsible to a system that either lifts us all up, or allows some of us to fail spectacularly. Focusing just on an individual’s poor decisions, and not seeing those decisions as a consequence or symptom of larger structural failures means that we can never address the root causes that push people toward failure, poverty, drug use, and eviction. It is easy to blame the individual, but it is inadequate.
The Limits, Strings, and Expectations of Charitable, Religious, and Familial Aid to the Needy

The Limits, Strings, and Expectations of Charitable, Religious, and Familial Aid to the Needy

I’ve written in the past about aid provided by charitable organizations in the United States. Aid provided by families comes with many of the same pitfalls as aid provided by charitable organizations. Our country is generally not comfortable with aid provided by a faceless government to everyone who qualifies. Many people in the country prefer that aid be provided by charities and/or religious organizations instead. Implicitly, what people seem to prefer is aid provided in a manner where certain restrictions and strings can be attached.
My two main criticisms of aid provided through religious organizations is that donors are engaging in a divine quid pro quo, giving money in exchange for divine reward. The implicit idea is that charitable aid provided to those in need comes with the expectation that individuals receiving assistance will become more religious and/or more respectful toward those churchgoers who donate money. Those who provide aid through religious and secular organizations are also able to be more selective and excludable than aid provided by government. It is easier to deny people aid for lack of a job, for drug use, for perceived sexual deviance, and other factors when you are a small charity or a church organization with a limited amount of aid available to give.
In the book Evicted, Matthew Desmond shows that these same strings and limitations are also present in aid provided by families, another preferred method for aid and assistance that Americans favor over government aid. In telling the story of a young woman who was evicted while Desmond was researching the book, he writes, “Over the years, she had learned to ask her favorite aunt for help only during true emergencies, and evictions didn’t quality. If Arleen asked too often or for too much, she would hear about it. Merva might give her a lecture or, worse, stop returning her calls.”
Our country shames those who receive aid, and all the strings, expectations, and personal responsibility lectures that accompany familial, charitable, and religious aid contribute to that shame. This is not a bug in the system, it is a feature. American’s don’t want a well functioning and efficient government program to deliver aid to any struggling American who needs it. They want a system that shames the poor, wastes their time, and limits aid if they are criminals, drug users, or sexually promiscuous.
The story of Arleen is important. Her landlord assumed she had family to stay with or to hold her over if she was evicted. We assume people can always fall back on family until they get their lives on track. We assume that family will do the tough work of instilling personal responsibility in another, or absorb the societal costs of a dejected family member on behalf of the rest of us. We set up limitations and strings on aid from other sources and make government aid hard to access so that people cannot receive aid unless they are personally responsible. When they are not, we expect their family to take up the responsibility that the needy person lacks. This is a system that deprioritizes aid to those in need in favor of principles and rule following.