“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.
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.