Eviction vs. Conviction

We hear a lot about criminal justice in America and how it adversely affects the lives of black men in particular. A similar story should be told about housing in America and how it adversely affects the lives of black women. Lots of black men get convicted. Lots of black women get evicted.

Katha Pollitt’s 2016 review of “Evicted”, by Matthew Desmond, in The Guardian:

What if the dominant discourse on poverty is just wrong? What if the problem isn’t that poor people have bad morals – that they’re lazy and impulsive and irresponsible and have no family values – or that they lack the skills and smarts to fit in with our shiny 21st-century economy? What if the problem is that poverty is profitable? These are the questions at the heart of Evicted, Matthew Desmond’s extraordinary ethnographic study of tenants in low-income housing in the deindustrialised middle-sized city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

You might not think that there is a lot of money to be extracted from a dilapidated trailer park or a black neighbourhood of “sagging duplexes, fading murals, 24-hour daycares”. But you would be wrong. Tobin Charney makes $400,000 a year out of his 131 trailers, some of which are little better than hovels. Sherrena Tarver, a former schoolteacher who is one of the only black female landlords in the city, makes enough in rents on her numerous properties – some presentable, others squalid – to holiday in Jamaica and attend conferences on real estate.

Desmond follows the intertwined fortunes of eight families and a host of minor characters. Arleen Belle and Doreen Hinkston are black mothers clinging to the edge of low-wage employment; Crystal and Trisha are fragile young black women whose upbringing was violent and chaotic; Lamar is a genial black father of two who lost both his legs to frostbite when he passed out on crack in an abandoned house; Scott is a white male nurse who lost his licence when he stole opioids from his patients; Larraine, also white, is a slightly brain-damaged sweet soul. It is sometimes a little hard to keep up with the storylines as they weave in and out of the text, but no matter. What is important is that Desmond takes people who are usually seen as worthless – there is even a trailer-dweller nicknamed Heroin Susie – and shows us their full humanity, how hard they struggle to retain their dignity, humour and kindness in conditions that continually drag them down.

The main condition holding them back, Desmond argues, is rent. The standard measure is that your rent should be no more than 30% of your income, but for poor people it can be 70% or more. After he paid Sherrena his $550 rent out of his welfare cheque, Lamar had only $2.19 a day for the month. When he is forced to repay a welfare cheque he has been sent in error and falls behind on rent, he sells his food stamps for half their face value and volunteers to paint an upstairs apartment, but it is not enough. People such as Lamar live in chronic debt to their landlord, who can therefore oust them easily whenever it is convenient – if they demand repairs, for example, like Doreen, or if a better tenant comes along. Sherrena liked renting to the clients of a for-profit agency that handles – for a fee – the finances of people on disability payments who can’t manage on their own. Money from government programmes intended to help the poor – welfare, disability benefits, the earned-income tax credit – go straight into the landlord’s pocket and, ironically, fuel rising housing costs. Public housing and housing vouchers are scarce. Three in four who qualify for housing assistance get nothing.

Even in the Great Depression, evictions used to be rare. Now, each year, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of renters are put out on the street. Even a paid-up tenant can be easily evicted. Arleen loses one apartment when her son Jori throws a snowball at a passing car and the enraged driver kicks in the front door, and another when the police come after Jori when he kicks a teacher and runs home. Any kind of trouble that brings the police can lead to eviction, which means women can lose their homes if they call 911 when their man beats them up. Think about that the next time someone asks why women don’t call the cops on violent partners.

As Desmond shows, the main victims of eviction are women. Why? They are paid less than men for doing the same job. They are less able to make deals with their landlord, who is almost always a man, to work off part of their rent with manual labour. The main reason, though, is that women are raising children as single mothers. They not only have all the costs and burdens of childrearing, they need bigger apartments – which, since landlords dislike renting to families with young children, are harder to find and a lot harder to keep. Other sociologists – Kathryn Edin, for example – have found that single mothers often get help under the table from their children’s fathers, but Arleen, Doreen and Doreen’s adult daughter Patrice get mostly trouble from men, who are variously abusive, addicted, vanished or in prison. In one of the book’s many small sad moments, Arleen claims she receives child support in order to seem more stable and respectable to a prospective landlord. In fact, she gets nothing.

Desmond lays out the crucial role housing plays in creating and reinforcing white privilege. In Milwaukee, one of the most segregated cities in the US, all black people suffer from housing discrimination and all white people benefit at least a little from the racial dividend – a landlord who will rent to them but not to black people, for instance, or offer them a nicer apartment. Black people have the worst housing in the worst neighbourhoods – the great fear of the trailer-park people, who are all white, is that they will end up on the black side of town. Eviction hits black women hardest of all, and the bleak benches of housing courts, which deal with disputes between landlords and tenants, are full of black women and their children: “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighbourhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”

An evicted woman watches as a removal company moves her property out of her rented apartment on to the pavement.
An evicted woman watches as employees of a storage company remove her belongings to place them on the pavement in front of her rented apartment. Photograph: Sally Ryan/Zuma Press/Corbis

What are the social costs of eviction? It puts incredible stress on families. It prevents people from saving the comparatively small sums that would let them stabilise their situation. They are always starting over from scratch, losing their possessions in the chaos of removal, or putting them in storage and losing them when they can’t pay the fees. An eviction on your record makes the next apartment harder to get. Eviction damages children, who are always changing schools, giving up friends and toys and pets – and living with the exhaustion and depression of their parents. We watch Jori go from a sweet, protective older brother to an angry, sullen boy subject to violent outbursts who is falling way behind in school.

Eviction makes it hard to keep up with the many appointments required by the courts and the byzantine welfare system: several characters have their benefits cut because notices are sent to the wrong address. Eviction destroys communities: when people move frequently, they don’t form the social bonds and pride in place that encourage them to care for their block and look out for their neighbours. “With Doreen’s eviction, Thirty-Second Street lost a steadying presence – someone who loved and invested in the neighbourhood, who contributed to making the block safer – but Wright Street didn’t gain one.”

“There is an enormous amount of pain and poverty in this rich land,” Desmond writes in his conclusion. That is easy to say, and many books by journalists and academics have done so. By examining one city through the microscopic lens of housing, however, he shows us how the system that produces that pain and poverty was created and is maintained. I can’t remember when an ethnographic study so deepened my understanding of American life.to all and safeguarding our independence.

Dollars and Poverty

Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, is worried that the federal government spends too much money trying to help poor people:

“The question isn’t whether the federal government should help; the question is how,” Mr. Ryan said at [a committee] hearing on Wednesday. “How do we make sure that every single taxpayer dollar we spend to reduce poverty is actually working?” 

Can you imagine someone like Ryan ever wanting to make sure that every single dollar spent on the military is actually working? I can’t.

The quote above comes from a New York Times article called “Changed Life of the Poor: Better Off But Far Behind”. The article describes the economic situation facing the poor today: 

Two broad trends account for much of the change in poor families’ consumption over the past generation: federal programs and falling prices.

Since the 1960s, both Republican and Democratic administrations have expanded programs like food stamps and the earned-income tax credit….

As a result, the differences in what poor and middle-class families consume on a day-to-day basis are much smaller than the differences in what they earn.

“There’s just a whole lot more assistance per low-income person than there ever has been,” said … a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “That is propping up the living standards to a considerable degree,” he said, citing a number of statistics on housing, nutrition and other categories.

[At the same time], the same global economic trends that have helped drive down the price of most goods also have limited the well-paying industrial jobs once available to a huge swath of working Americans. And the cost of many services crucial to escaping poverty — including education, health care and child care — has soared.

So, for example:

Tammie Hagen-Noey, a 49-year-old living in Richmond, Va., tapped at an iPhone as she sat on the porch of the group home where she lives… She earns $7.25 an hour at a local McDonald’s, and makes a little extra money on the side from planting small plots of land for neighbors….A few months ago, she sold her car for $500 to make rent.

Almost everybody could manage their spending better (even members of Congress) and that woman in Virginia presumably didn’t spend hundreds of dollars to buy the latest iPhone. Human beings get into all kinds of trouble, because of their own mistakes or through no fault of their own, and will continue to need help from the rest of us, even if every single dollar intended to help them doesn’t “work”. Republicans claim that cutting taxes and reducing regulations will create lots of better-paying jobs, allowing us to spend less on government assistance for the poor. What they’re really advocating is a race to the bottom, with more inequality, dangerous workplaces, pollution and unsafe food. Since we have to compete in a global economy, we’ll end up closer to the economic middle in future decades (nobody stays on top forever), but we shouldn’t race to become worse off.

Us, Them and Incentives Again, But Briefly

Remember when Clinton was President and the federal government briefly ran a surplus? The Republican response was: “Cut taxes!” Their justification was: “It’s our money, not the government’s!”. Since then, the surplus having been eliminated, the Republican response has been: “Cut taxes! That will lead to growth and reduce the deficit!” Which isn’t completely relevant to “Us, Them and Incentives”, but I’m getting there. It’s another example of how adherence to a political ideology can lead to inconsistency, especially when you try to justify what you already want to do. 

In writing about the Republican approach to incentives this week (less income for the rich will make them less productive, but less income for the poor will make them more productive), I may have been unfair. Maybe the Republican position makes sense based on the relative economic success of the rich and the poor.

After all, rich people are doing well, you might say, so they must be doing things right. Therefore, let’s reward them. That way they won’t get discouraged and stop doing things right. Poor people, however, aren’t doing well, so they must be doing things wrong. Obviously, we shouldn’t reward them for doing things wrong. And, if we don’t reward them, maybe they’ll start doing things right. In a capitalist nutshell, economic incentives should be given to productive people, and economic disincentives should be given to unproductive people.

This approach sounds an awful lot like social engineering, which the Republicans are supposed to be against. Putting that aside, however, the question is whether it’s a good idea to make life harder for people who are struggling and make it easier for people who aren’t. If you view life as a total morality play, in which good people prosper and bad people don’t, maybe it does makes sense. That is, we all know, the reason for heaven and hell (which St. Thomas Aquinas understood so perfectly).

But people are doing well or badly these days, economically-speaking, for lots of different reasons: skills, health, age, location, connections, work ethic, luck, education, competition and so on. In fact, one major hindrance to doing well economically is being poor to begin with (when you’re poor, it’s harder to get around, harder to fit in, harder to stay healthy, and so on). Once we view our fellow Americans as individuals with actual, often difficult lives, not simply as Us and Them, the reasonable response is to help the ones who are struggling, not the ones who are already getting ahead.

(Coming soon, “A Guide to Reality, Part 11”, I hope.)

Us and Them Again

As noted in an update to the post below, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is having their annual convention, which means leading Republican politicians are getting the chance to express their deepest thoughts. So Senator Rubio of Florida got the opportunity to explain why Franklin Roosevelt had it all wrong — we should be very, very afraid.

Also today, Congressman Paul Ryan highlighted the difference between the right and the left by telling the story of a Wisconsin kid who’d prefer bringing his own lunch to school instead of mooching off the rest of us by getting a lunch at taxpayer expense.

Juliet Lapidos of the New York Times points out Congressman Ryan’s underlying, contradictory assumption:

[Ryan] argued that Americans want to work — every bit as much as the Republican Party wants them to work. “People don’t just want a life of comfort,” he said. “They want a life of dignity. They want a life of self-determination”….

In Mr. Ryan’s view, Americans would rather depend on themselves, or their families, than on the government. And yet, in Mr. Ryan’s view, if these same Americans gain access to government programs, they’ll jump at the chance to abandon their responsibilities, effectively exchanging a “life of dignity” for a “life of comfort.”

That doesn’t make sense. If all or most Americans, like the kid in Wisconsin, want their own lunch rather than a government lunch, then the prospect of a government lunch won’t change their behavior.

Ryan doesn’t notice the contradiction, since he thinks of his fellow citizens as Us and Them. On one hand, there are the honorable, hard-working Americans who hate the idea of getting help from the government (you know who they are). On the other hand, there are the dishonorable, lazy Americans who want nothing more than to live off government handouts (you know who they are too).

This is the same point I tried to make recently in a comment on another blog. There is a strange dichotomy between how Republicans expect poor people and rich people to respond to financial incentives:

— People who are struggling should receive as little financial assistance as possible, because helping them will only discourage them from becoming productive members of society. After all, they’re not really motivated to increase their incomes beyond the bare minimum. In their case, therefore, less income will translate into more work, and more income will translate into less work.

— People who aren’t struggling should receive as much financial assistance as possible, especially in the form of lower taxes, because helping them will encourage them to become even more productive members of society. In their case, more income will translate into more work, while less income will translate into less work!

It isn’t fun at all being poor or unemployed, but Republicans believe that making life as difficult as possible for the economy’s losers will convince them to do better. That’s because they’re not like us. They don’t care about improving their situations and they don’t respond to economic incentives the way normal people do.

Less money for the poor, so they will work harder; more money for the rich, so they will work harder. It makes perfect sense!

(Note: I’m going to try to lay off writing about right-wingers for a while. Maybe I’ll try fashion reporting. Or poetry! “There once was a girl from Nantucket, …”)

Who Would Ever Use Food Stamps?

Funding for food stamps (the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) was increased a few years ago as part of the federal stimulus package. Unlike temporary tax cuts and business subsidies, which tend to last forever, the temporary increase in SNAP funding ended November 1st. 

The average monthly benefit per household two years ago was $293. Now it will be about $278, down 5%.There is an article here with more information, including an interactive map that allows you to see the numbers for your state. In Arizona, for example, 1.1 million people are covered by SNAP, including 538,000 children. 

It’s easy to demonize people you don’t know. Who are these slackers and scam artists who use food stamps anyway?

Sometimes they’re people you know or even people just like you. One of them writes:

People tend to think of food stamp recipients as poor, unfortunate, lazy, things along those lines. Be aware that recipients are also people trying to better themselves, simply needing some assistance to do so. Case in point: There was a time in the past when I was studying towards a graduate degree on a scholarship. The scholarship wasn’t nearly enough to live on. I did odd jobs for faculty to earn some money to help with my cash flow situation, but I also qualified for food stamps. With my level of income, I was eligible to be subsidized at 50%. That is, I could buy $1 of food stamps for 50 cents, up to a certain total amount of stamps every week, essentially doubling the amount of food I could buy and allowing me to devote more time studying towards a degree.

At the food stamp office, there were some other younger folks like myself, but most people were clearly much more desperate: people weak and elderly, women tending to babies and young children, disabled people. Standing on line waiting your turn, you could hear the transactions at the counter ahead of you, and could hear that many of these people were subsidized at 100%. I can guarantee you it has never occurred to me they should not have received this assistance. Today, to hear people say that citizens in need should be denied this kind of support, which simply enables them to buy enough food, well, I can’t decide if it makes me sad, angry, disgusted, depressed or all of those things.

It’s all of those things.