“Neighborhoods marred by high poverty and crime were that way not only because poverty could incite crime, and crime could invite poverty, but also because the techniques landlords used to keep illegal and destructive activity out of rental property kept poverty out as well,” writes Matthew Desmond in Evicted. There is an old idea I came across again recently that suggests that you are in some ways the product of the five people you spend the most time with. Who you are around and what kind of people they are like makes a difference in the person you become. Usually, in the United States, this is presented to us as a warning to be responsible for having upstanding friends and colleagues who will make us better people. But this sentiment can also be understood not as a rallying call for personal responsibility, but as a cudgel against personal responsibility.
We are not our own independent entities free from societal influence and pressures. The world around us shapes how we see that very same world. It influences what we see as possible, moral, acceptable, and excusable. It defines our horizon and opens or closes certain doors and directions. It challenges the idea that our life is entirely within our own hands. Desmond’s quote above shows that poverty and crime run together, and it shows that if you are poor, you are probably stuck around criminals, meaning that the poorest among us are stuck among the worst among us. If the saying that you are the people you spend most of your time around, then those in poverty are stuck becoming deviants.
“This also mean[s] that violence, drug activity, deep poverty, and other social problems coalesced at a much smaller, more acute level than the neighborhood. They gather[ ] at the same address,” continues Desmond.
Our market approach to housing means that those who have a history of not making rent payments, who have a history of drug abuse or violence, and those who have made poor decisions in the past are grouped together, often ending up in the same household splitting rent. If you are the product of the five people around you the most, then being surrounded by only other derelict or deviant individuals cannot possibly make you anything other than the worst version of yourself possible. None of us would want to live surrounded by poor, defeated, and destitute individuals. If we are honest with ourselves, we can see how being stuck in such a situation would make it effectively impossible for us to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, unless we are a truly remarkable person.
Our failures of housing policy have resulted in a dramatic economic segregation. Understandably, all of us as individuals want to move away from places of crime, drug use, and poverty (I am guilty here as well). We want to limit the amount of time we have to interact with the deviant and derelict, but in doing so, we cluster those poor, violent, and/or apathetic individuals together, creating the conditions for a downward spiral for anyone who gets caught amongst our lowest ranks. This is not a problem of just the individuals stuck in these situations. It is a problem and failure of society more broadly. A failure to ensure that poverty does not pit one solely among deviants. A failure to give those deviants a safe place to take steps to improve their lives. And a failure to demonstrate social responsibility to work with the destitute to show them that they are valued and can indeed improve their lives.