Eviction & Poverty - Housing First

Eviction & Poverty

Housing first is a common saying among those who advocate for the poor and impoverished in our nation. Instead of housing being a capstone to a responsible, socially adjusted, and respectable lifestyle, housing is seen by housing-first advocates as a cornerstone to those things. Without a stable place to live, it is almost impossible for people to rise from poverty, advocates of housing first policies argue.
Matthew Desmond shows support for a housing first approach in his book Evicted by connecting eviction with poverty and a downward life spiral. Once a stable housing situation is taken away from an individual, whether due to their own poor decisions or unfortunate circumstances, maintaining any sort of respectable and laudable lifestyle becomes nearly impossible. Desmond writes,
“Losing your home and possessions and often your job; being stamped with an eviction record and denied government housing assistance; relocating to degrading housing in poor and dangerous neighborhoods; and suffering from increased material hardship, homelessness, depression, and illness – this is eviction’s fallout.”
Eviction is a cause of poverty Desmond argues. When you lose your house and have to scramble to find a new place to live, don’t have a safe place to leave your children, and don’t have a place to store your things, you can hardly continue to work or search for a job. By losing your housing, you often lose your job, eliminating any hope of increasing your financial well-being. Evictions may also cause you to lose government housing aid or the support of neighbors and family members, making it even harder for you to get by. Employers won’t want to hire you if you live in a homeless shelter and you may become estranged from children or relatives. All of this only drives you deeper into poverty and despair.
A housing first approach gives people a stable place to live. It gives them an address that they can use on job applications, it takes away the stress that comes from trying to find a place to rent and gives people time to engage with neighbors or search for a job. Housing is necessary to take steps to better ones life, and can’t be seen as a capstone to reach once one’s life is on track.
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.
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.
Concentrating the Deviant & Derelict

Concentrating the Deviant & Derelict

“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.
A Clash Between Personal Responsibility and Structural Forces

A Clash Between Personal Responsibility and Structural Forces

Personal responsibility in the United States is huge. It drives much of how we understand ourselves, others, and our economic and political systems. We believe that the individual has the power to shape their life for the better, to overcome obstacles, and to find success as long as they take the responsibility to do the right things. We reward those who are responsible and succeed and we offer little aid or assistance for those who can’t seem to figure it out on their own.
“Yet laying the blame on a lack of personal responsibility obscures the fact that there are powerful and ever-changing structural forces at play,” write Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in their book $2.00 A Day. In the United States there is opportunity to achieve the American Dream and to reach for a better life, but there are also challenging factors that limit the opportunities for some while amplifying the opportunities for others. There are real structural forces which limit the opportunities and second chances for some people, and are ignored by those who don’t face such challenges.
Writing specifically about the low-wage job market, Edin and Shaefer continue, “whatever can be said about the characteristics of the people who work low-wage jobs, it is also true that the jobs themselves too often set workers up for failure.”
Edin and Shaefer explore commonalities among low-wage jobs that seem designed to provide marginal benefits to employers by making the jobs themselves more challenging for the employees. Service sector jobs often have unpredictable hours, don’t come with any benefits, don’t include opportunities for promotion, and can be physically demanding without appropriate supplies and materials for employees to complete their work. When low-wage workers are desperate for employment, they cannot complain to any government agencies about unfair or poor working conditions. If the employer is shut down, then they loose their source of income, even if it is dehumanizing. As a result, hard work doesn’t pay in these low-wage jobs. After enough poor experiences where working hard doesn’t help someone get ahead, it is not surprising that many opt out all together or put forward minimal effort when they do get an opportunity.
The larger structural forces, however, often end up being ignored. In the United States we chose just to focus on the individual and their responsibility, blaming them for quitting a job which was designed to make them fail. We blame the individual for not being smart enough, skilled enough, or resilient enough to stick it out and get to a better position after starting at a minimum-wage, dead-end job. Personal responsibility and structural forces clash, but from the outside we are only able to focus on the failures of the individual, giving little thought to the larger forces at play.
$2.00 A Day

$2.00 A Day

In $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, authors Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer provide an insight into the lives of people living in extreme poverty in the United States. The book highlights a population that is largely invisible in the United States, those living on $2 a day or less, averaged across the entire year. It is hard to imagine that anyone in the United States could live on such a low income or even have such a low income, but Edin and Shaefer show that it is the case for some American’s and explain what life is like for those individuals.
They write, “Two dollars is less than the cost of a gallon of gas, roughly equivalent to the that of a half gallon of milk. Many American’s have spent more than that before they get to work or school in the morning. Yet in 2011, more than 4 percent of all households with children in the world’s wealthiest nation were living in a poverty so deep that most Americans don’t believe it even exists in this country.”
About a year ago I did a mini-dive into a series of books on homelessness and extreme poverty in the United States. Our country prides hard work and makes a lot of our social support programs conditional on individuals making an effort to improve their lives through their own industriousness. Our system is designed to reward those who work hard and put forward the effort to make their lives better, certainly something that is admirable and socially desired. However, one downside of this system is that people who either cannot or will not take the steps necessary to work hard and improve their lives are cast aside with minimal support.
I completely understand people’s dislike (in some cases even hatred) of free riders. It doesn’t feel good to have to go to work every day, to sacrifice sleep or spending time with the people and things we like, and to have to pay for for food, necessities, and pleasures out of hard earned paychecks. It is even worse when we see other people getting by without making the difficult choices that we make each day.
But I think the important thing to remember is that we are all humans, and that our true value as human beings doesn’t come from the work we do, but just from being humans. I think it is important that we all recognize how dependent we are on others, how much we have benefitted from other people to get to the place we are in (even if it isn’t where we want to be), and how much we all want to be respected simply for being ourselves. While we like to be admired for the things we accomplish, at the end of the day we want to be valued for being who we are, and not because of the special things we have done. A system that casts people out, allows them to degenerate on the streets with no support, and blames people who fail without aiding them is a system that has forgotten that our value as human beings is not dependent on our value to an economic or social system.
$2.00 a Day is an important book because it acknowledges an uncomfortable truth that most people try to ignore. For many of us we would rather not look at the person on the street corner asking for money, we would rather not think about people living in abject poverty, and we would not like to bear any responsibility for the poor living conditions of others. After all, most of us work very hard to try to maintain the lifestyles we live. $2.00 a Day reminds us that people living in poverty are still human, shows us that sometimes one poor decision multiplied and placed individuals in situations where making the right decisions to improve their lives was nearly impossible. It helps us appreciate how we got to where we are, and recognize a responsibility to the rest of our society, especially the segment of our society that has failed to the greatest extent. Ignoring the worst poverty in the nation and simply assuming that people are lazy and hopeless denies the humanity of those who suffer the most and can only perpetuate a problem we would like to wish away.
Ignorance is Culpable

Ignorance is Culpable

We are responsible for our vices and deserve blame for them. We are sometimes responsible for acquiring our vices and are almost always responsible for eliminating our vices. However, sometimes our vices prevent us from being able to recognize that we possess vices and from taking the necessary steps to eliminate them. However, blind-spots induced by our vices do not absolve us from our culpability, they only make it worse.
Quassim Cassam references former President Donald Trump to demonstrate how we become more culpable for our vices when they create blind-spots in our lives. Cassam writes:
“Few would be tempted to regard the cruel person’s ignorance of his own cruelty as non-culpable on the grounds that it is the result of his cruelty. If the only thing preventing one from knowing one’s vices is those very vices then one’s ignorance is culpable. It is on this basis that Trump’s ignorance of his epistemic incompetence can still be deemed culpable. It is no excuse that he is so incompetent that he can’t get the measure of his incompetence. That only makes it worse.”
The blind-spots induced by our vices may inhibit us from actually recognizing how our vices shape the ways in which we act, think about the world, and behave. Cassam demonstrates this throughout his book as he investigates epistemic vices, those vices which hinder knowledge. If we fail to recognize how little we actually know about the world and can’t be bothered to learn anything, then we will never actually see how little we know. Arrogance, closed-mindedness, and intellectual laziness will prevent us from actually seeing that our thinking is vicious, and that our thinking is limiting our knowledge.
However, we cannot then say that our vices are not our fault. Arguing that we couldn’t have changed and couldn’t have improved our thinking because our vices were in the way simply demonstrates how vicious our thinking is. Instead of removing the culpability of the vice, Cassam argues, this line of thinking simply doubles down on the cost of the vice, making us even more revision responsible for our vice.  Ultimately, we are culpable for our vices and for our ignorance about our vices.
Beliefs are Not Voluntary

Beliefs Are Not Voluntary

One of the ideas that Quassim Cassam examines in his book Vices of the Mind is the idea of responsibility. Cassam recognizes two forms of responsibility in his book and examines those forms of responsibility through the lens of epistemic vices. The first form of responsibility is acquisition responsibility, or our responsibility for acquiring beliefs or developing ways of thinking, and the second form of responsibility is revision responsibility, or our responsibility for changing beliefs and ways of thinking that are shown to be harmful.
 
 
Within this context Cassam provides interesting insight about our beliefs. He writes, “If I raise my arm voluntarily, without being forced to raise it, then I am in this sense responsible for raising it.
Notoriously, we lack voluntary control over our own beliefs. Belief is not voluntary.”
 
 
Cassam explains that if it is raining outside, we cannot help but believe that it is raining. We don’t have control over many of our beliefs, they are in some ways inescapable and determined by factors beyond our control. beliefs are almost forced on us by external factors. I think this is true for many of our beliefs, ranging from spiritual beliefs to objective beliefs about the world. As Cassam argues, we are not acquisition responsible for believing that we are individuals, that something is a certain color, or that our favorite sports team is going to have another dreadful season.
 
 
But we are revision responsible for our beliefs.
 
 
Cassam continues, “We do, however, have a different type of control over our own beliefs, namely, evaluative control, and this is sufficient for us to count as revision responsible for our beliefs.”
 
 
Cassam introduces ideas from Pamela Hieronymi to explain our evaluative control over our beliefs. Hieronymi argues that we can revise our beliefs when new information arises that challenges those beliefs. She uses the example of our beliefs for how long a commute will be and our shifting beliefs if we hear about heavy traffic. We might not be responsible for the initial beliefs that we develop, but we are responsible for changing those beliefs if they turn out to be incorrect. We can evaluate our beliefs, reflect on their accuracy, and make adjustments based on those evaluations.
 
 
It is important for us to make this distinction because it helps us to better think about how we assign blame for inaccurate beliefs. We cannot blame people for developing inaccurate beliefs, but we can blame them for failing to change those beliefs. We should not spend time criticizing people for developing racist beliefs, harmful spiritual beliefs, or wildly inaccurate beliefs about health, well-being, and social structures. What we should do is blame people for failing to recognize their beliefs are wrong, and we should help people build evaluative capacities to better reflect on their own beliefs. This changes our stance from labeling people as racists, bigots, or jerks and instead puts the responsibility on us to foster a society of accurate self-reflection that push back against inaccurate beliefs. Labeling people will blame them for acquiring vices, which is unreasonable, but fostering a culture that values accurate information will ease the transition to more accurate beliefs.