Issues

Matthew Desmond on How Housing is Ignored in the Poverty Discussion

Most Americans claim to care about the issue of poverty, and a desire to eradicate it from our country entirely. As of late, there has been a lot of talk about unemployment and how to fix it, and how to make healthcare more affordable. But what about the constantly growing issue of rent spikes, especially the ones we’ve seen in the past decade? Why is this issue neglected when it affects so many poverty-stricken Americans? How do we help these people in need?

Matthew Desmond, the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University and co-director of the Justice and Poverty Project, is an expert on this topic and has some insight on why the issue of housing is overlooked. He discusses housing and eviction in great length in his recent New York Times bestseller, Evicted, which follows eight families in Milwaukee as they struggle to keep a roof over their heads. He hopes to transform America’s understanding of poverty and provide innovative ideas for solving one of the largest problems in our country.

Watch the video below to hear Matthew discuss the troubling statistics around housing and poverty in America today.

Transcript of Matthew Desmond on the housing crisis.

America is unique. It’s the richest democracy with the worst poverty.

So for a long time, we cared about poverty. We’ve talked about things like welfare reform, folks having jobs– good jobs, no jobs, bad jobs. We’ve talked about the rise of the prison. And all those topics are incredibly important. There’s something missing, and what was missing was housing and the fact that more and more Americans are spending so much of their income just on basic housing needs today. Most poor renting families spend at least half their income on housing costs.

Forced to spend more than half their income on housing, on rent.

About one in four of those families spend over 70% of their income on housing. So we’ve moved from a place where evictions were weird in America and rare and drew crowds to a place that they’re incredibly common in poor neighborhoods, destabilizing schools and communities and homes. So if you go into about any urban housing court all around the country, you see the face of our eviction epidemic, and it’s moms with kids. Until recently, the housing court in the South Bronx in New York City had a daycare inside of it because there were so many kids coming through its doors.

And African-American women and moms in particular who are below the poverty line are evicted at incredibly higher rates. So in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for example, 1 in 5 black women who are renters have reports of being evicted at some time in her life, compared to 1 in 15 white women. That’s incredible. That’s a mass disparity. This is like the feminine equivalent to incarceration. We know that many of our poor African-American men are being locked up, but many of our poor African-American women are being locked out, and they are disproportionately bearing the brunt of the eviction crisis.

Between 1995 and today, median rent has increased by over 70%. So there’s this big gap between what poor families are bringing in and what they have to pay for a basic roof over their head. And then we might ask, well, where’s public housing in here? Where’s the govern men there? Don’t they receive help? They must be able to support themselves financially and should not use welfare.

And the answer is most don’t. Only about one in four families who qualifies for assistance receives anything, and the waiting list for public housing in our big cities like DC or New York – the waiting list isn’t counted in years. It’s counted in decades.

And I think when we add all that together, we have to conclude that eviction isn’t just a condition of poverty. It’s a cause of it. It’s making things worse, and it’s leaving a deep and jagged scar on the next generation, which means we can’t fix poverty in America without fixing housing.