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.
Cheap Houses, High Rents

Cheap Houses, High Rents

Throughout the book Evicted, Matthew Desmond shows how the market for low-income renters is stacked against them in many ways that are unfair and often exploitative. Without a strong system to ensure that everyone who needs housing is able to access basic and reasonable housing, the bottom of the market for renters becomes a scramble for a small number of dilapidated and overpriced units. Low-income renters cannot walk away from properties that they find unacceptable, because the alternative is reliance on overcrowded and stressed homeless shelters. In the end, this allows landlords to disinvest in their rental properties while maintaining high rental rates.
Desmond writes, “the same thing that made homeownership a bad investment in poor, black neighborhoods – depressed property values – made landlording there a potentially lucrative one. Property values for similar homes were double or triple in white, middle-class sections of the city; but rents in those neighborhoods were not.”
Unfortunately, our nation’s history of redlining and lingering structural racism has created dense minority ghettos in our country. Black people are limited in where they can look for housing, with landlords in white and middle-class parts of cities tacitly refusing to rent to minorities. Desmond shares a story of two black roommates who were showed a rental unit, only to have the landlords suddenly receive a phone call from a tenant accepting a rental agreement, removing the property from the market. In the only instance of the book where Desmond deliberately interfered with the subjects he was studying, he contacted the landlord after he told the black roommates the property was no longer available posing potential renter and was told the property was available [Author note: Desmond is a white male]. Black people are still to this day stuck in areas where local governments and businesses have disinvested, depressing the property values.
As Desmond shows, this creates a situation where landlords can purchase properties cheaply and rent to residents who can’t find housing outside of these disinvested areas. Since black and brown people can’t go elsewhere to find housing, where the rent is equivalent but the properties are nicer, they have to accept high rents for dilapidated units. Poor minority renters are taken advantage of by landlords who purchase cheap houses and charge high rents. This system reinforces structural racism and inequality for the lowest income minority renters in our nation.
Housing Vouchers - Joe Abittan - Matthew Desmond - Evicted

Housing Vouchers

Housing vouchers have been a major political win for landlords and realtors. Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted is about the real negative consequences of America’s high cost of housing, and he addresses housing vouchers which have been one of the main forms of public assistance for low-income renters. Our country likes market, or near-market, mechanisms to provide aid and assistance. Housing vouchers represent that preferred market mechanism, especially when compared to government provided, low cost housing. However, housing vouchers are not necessarily the most efficient way to provide assistance to those who cannot afford a place to live.
Desmond writes, “In Milwaukee, renters with housing vouchers were charged an average of $55 more each month, compared to unassisted renters who lived in similar apartments in similar neighborhoods. Overcharging voucher holders cost taxpayers an additional $3.6 million each year in Milwaukee alone – the equivalent of supplying 588 more needy families with housing assistance.”
Housing vouchers are taken advantage of and abused by landlords and the companies managing apartment complexes. If an individual with a voucher is not facing the full cost of the housing unit, then they don’t have the same market pressures to find alternative housing options. The result is that higher rent can be charged, with that higher rent absorbed by the voucher. Money and aid is ultimately wasted, and families who could receive help do not receive it.
The extra money that can be made by overcharging voucher holders is a windfall for landlords and realtors, and unsurprisingly, both groups lobbied for voucher systems rather than government provided housing. Desmond writes, “Landlords and realtors saw government-built and -managed buildings offered at cut-rate rents as a direct threat to their legitimacy and bottom line.” If the government could provide housing at reasonable rates, then renters wouldn’t have to put up with high rent and lousy living conditions in slums. Contrasting a voucher program that encourage rent seeking behavior, those who profit from vouchers would lose money under a system bolstered by public housing and would have to lower rents or improve property to compete against government housing that didn’t have a profit motive.
It is easy to say that government-built and -managed housing has failed in the United States and that vouchers are clearly the superior way to provide housing assistance, even if they are inefficient. But I don’t think that is a truly valid argument, and I don’t think Desmond would find it a compelling argument either. Massive housing projects in the United States were built in a way that clustered poverty, creating dense units of low-income individuals. Research from Raj Chetty has shown that economic integration and mixing is important for social and economic success, and the experience of those living in dense housing projects supports Chetty’s research. Housing projects were also constructed at a time when cities and local governments were disinvesting in inner cities, before lead abatement programs had taken hold, and when the nation had not yet begun to reckon with its racist past. In some ways it seems as if these approaches to government housing projects were intentionally designed to fail.
I don’t see any reason why government-built and -managed housing could not be successful today if built in a more dispersed manner, if designed to integrate poor, and constructed to be responsive to the racists history of housing, drug, and incarceration policy of our nation. Of course this would require real investment from the government, contrasting the disinvestment that mass housing projects once witnessed. Political considerations are the real barrier, as realtors and landlords would surely seize upon the history of failed housing projects, and stoke fear of crime and dereliction that many American’s likely harbor around public housing. Unfortunately, our unwillingness to imagine a new form of government housing means that we are stuck with inefficient housing vouchers, lobbied by (and potentially doing more to benefit) landlords and realtors than the people who are the intended recipients.
Unemployment Statistics Miss Informal Labor

Unemployment Statistics Miss Informal Labor

“Reported high rates of joblessness among black men with little education obscured the fact that many of these men did regularly work, if not in the formal labor market,” writes Matthew Desmond in Evicted. Labor force participation rates are important because they inform national policies and discussions regarding the economy, society, and how we understand ourselves relative to others. What Desmond’s quote shows is that national labor force participation rates don’t capture a full picture of work, and as a result, our policies, discussions, and interpretations of the world of work may be inaccurate.
 
 
Desmond’s focus is on the way that landlords are able to access poor tenants as a form of free – or sometimes low paid – unregulated labor. Poor tenants, especially in the reporting from Desmond poor black men, are available for hire in exchange for breaks on rent or quick cash. Payments are not often up to minimum wage standards and requirements, and the work can range from relatively unimportant fence painting to crucial code compliance updates for landlords’ properties. A tenant may be hired to help paint a hand rail or may be hired to repair a roof, and when their work is under the table, then their safety can be at jeopardy. Nevertheless, as Desmond shows, informal labor is common among unemployed men.
 
 
Our welfare and assistance policies are designed so that able bodied young men must meet certain requirements before they can receive any benefits or aid. Many policies require work, community service, or job search activities before any benefits will kick in. Informal labor doesn’t count in this system, so men cannot be seen as deserving of aid if they only find work in the informal labor sector. Informal labor may help poor men get by, but it doesn’t help them get ahead.
 
 
The fact that many poor men find work within informal labor markets should tell us that these men can function within society and can find productive ways to earn money. It tells us that these men have been shut out by various structures and systems that don’t permit them to work in formal economies. When landlords come around and help get these men to a job then they do work, at least enough to get by. They don’t all do a great job once they are working, as Desmond shows in his book, but with a little help they can get started. I Think this is an important point to consider. Often the arrangements are not fair and  the work is not great, but informal labor does take place, and can tell us a lot about the people whose work is not counted elsewhere and the types of systems that could be built to reach them.

How Men & Women Experience the Threat of Eviction

How Men and Women Experience the Threat of Eviction

The poorest people in our country are often in danger of being taken advantage of or exploited. For low income renters, their need for shelter and limited housing options means that they have to negotiate deals to avoid eviction or try to work out better arrangements with more powerful landlords. In the book Evicted, Matthew Desmond shows how these negotiations differ for men and women and how these arrangements can be particularly exploitative and dangerous for women.
 
 
“Men often avoided eviction by laying concrete, patching roofs, or painting rooms for landlords. But women almost never approached their landlord with a similar offer. Some women – already taxed by child care, welfare requirements, or work obligations – could not spare the time. … When women did approach their landlords with such an offer, it sometimes involved trading sex for rent.”
 
 
Gender disparities in our nation translate into different experiences of exploitation and danger for men and women in our lowest socioeconomic ranks. Low skill and low wage men are expected to work and produce, and this expectation affords them extra opportunities to find ways to pay their rent and avoid eviction. Landlords, Desmond explains, are more willing to offer men the chance to work off late rent by providing them some form of manual labor that will help benefit the landlord and their tenants or properties. Rarely do women receive the same offers, and Desmond explains that women rarely seek out similar arrangement themselves. Various gendered norms and expectations end up making it harder for women to skate by with odd jobs at the lowest levels than men who are given extra chances, even if those extra chances are physically demanding and potentially dangerous.
 
 
Desmond’s quote also hints at another gendered norm that makes life in the lowest socioeconomic status harder for women than men. Women are expected to take care of children, if they have any, and this means they have less time and flexibility in picking up extra work for their landlord in exchange for rent. Welfare often requires that an individual spend a certain amount of time in school, searching for a job or working, or engaging with certain productive volunteer activities. Women who try to adhere to these requirements, all while caring for kids or men who did not try to meet such requirements, could not possibly take on more gig work to make a little extra cash to avoid eviction.
 
 
Finally, Desmond’s quote highlights the exploitative and dangerous reality that many low socioeconomic status women find themselves in. The gendered disparities and power disparities between these women and their landlords often means they have nothing to negotiate with for rent other than their bodies. Trading sex for rent is dangerous for the women, exploitative, and in many ways degrading. It is not the case that every individual facing eviction experiences these realities exactly as I have described them based on gender, but it is often the case that the threat of eviction manifests differently for men and women, in part due to larger gender biases that exist within our society.