The Costs of Being Poor

E.J. Harris/East Oregonian via AP

In this Tuesday, October 11, 2016 photo, residents of the Locust Mobile Village, walk within the trailer park near Milton-Freewater, Oregon. 

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
By Matthew Desmond

A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as Punishment for the Poor
By Alexis Harris
Russell Sage Foundation

This article appears in the Fall 2016 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

It is easy to think of poverty as a condition rather than as a relationship, to treat the problems of the poor as separate from and unrelated to the profits of the rich. And when analysts do explore the relational dimensions of poverty, they usually deal with the relations of the labor market. Marx saw exploitation as the process by which capitalists profit from their workers, largely ignoring the people on the margins of work whom he called the “lumpenproletariat.” Two new books take us beyond the labor market, revealing the extent to which the deep poor are subject to exploitation in other institutions—by landlords in private housing, and by state and local governments in the criminal justice system.

Combining graceful writing and airtight scholarship, Matthew Desmond’s Evicted explores how poor people’s lack of power in the housing market makes it almost impossible for them to get on their feet. Desmond’s immediate focus, as the title indicates, is the traumatic experience of eviction, faced by one in eight renters from 2009 to 2011 in Milwaukee, the site of his research. The broader subject is the nature of poverty itself: the “gnarled thickets of interconnected misfortunes” that the poor confront and the financial and psychological toll those misfortunes take, as well as the people who benefit from them.

Desmond, an associate professor of sociology at Harvard, wanted to write a book about poverty that, rather than focus exclusively on the poor, examined relationships across class lines. So, over two years, he followed eight families, two landlords, and a host of supporting characters—including social workers, judges, and movers—to understand the lives on both sides of the eviction process. He supplements the ethnography with extensive quantitative, legal, and historical research, evidence that is mostly relegated to footnotes and so preserves the power of his prose.

When the rent check eats up more than 50 percent of a family’s income, which is the case for one out of five renters nationwide, it is likely only a matter of time before the family falls behind. As much as the high rent itself, this indebtedness is the source of landlords’ profits. If tenants complain about problems with their units to Milwaukee’s Department of Neighborhood Services—an agency established to protect tenants—landlords are legally forbidden from retaliating against them. Tenants are also legally permitted to withhold rent until repairs are made. But once they fall behind on rent, they lose those rights, since they can be evicted at any time.

Desmond describes in wrenching detail how such economic blackmail unfolds in private, low-income housing. A tenant’s mother calls the Department of Neighborhood Services to complain about a broken window? The tenant is out. A social worker complains about the broken plumbing in her client’s unit? The tenant is out. Knowing the risks, most tenants do not call the authorities for help. Their debt keeps them silent, strips them of their rights, and—most important for the landlord—reduces maintenance costs and so increases the landlord’s returns, well beyond the costs of a missed month of rent. Sherrena, one of the two landlords whom Desmond observes, makes her “biggest returns” from “her worst properties.” Although Tobin, the owner of a trailer park, regularly has 40 tenants (nearly a third of all units) behind in rent, he evicts only a few. He makes his money “in the middle,” between those who paid their rent on time and those who never paid, because it is in this liminal space that the landlord has the most power over his tenants.

In this story, the government is no help. It appears most clearly in the form of a sheriff, who enforces landlords’ property rights behind the barrel of a gun. Even when the government might help, it seems to do harm. As the book opens, for example, it is unclear whether Tobin will be able to continue operating his trailer park. Milwaukee’s Licenses Committee has refused to give him a renewal because of excessive code violations, calls to the police from tenants, and rampant drugs, sex work, and violence on the property. Under different conditions, tenants might turn to a licensing authority to pressure Tobin to clean up the raw sewage on the grounds or to figure out ways to help those struggling with addiction. Instead, residents are united with Tobin against the authorities because they realize that the government’s most likely remedy—the trailer park’s closure—would leave them homeless.

The deal that Tobin strikes with the city, to clean up the park by evicting problem tenants, only deepens tenants’ desperation. As Desmond writes, “When city or state officials pressured landlords—by ordering them to hire an outside security firm or by having a building inspector scrutinize their property—landlords often passed the pressure on to their tenants.” Even worse, Desmond documents the perverse effects of nuisance property ordinances that hold landlords responsible for excessive 911 calls from their properties. When a tenant calls the police to report getting beaten up by her partner or phones for an ambulance because her son is having an asthma attack, she risks losing her home for the sake of her own or her family’s health and safety.

To whom, then, can tenants turn when they are behind in their rent and run into problems? They rarely impose on the family members best equipped to help them, as these ties are far too important to call upon during an everyday crisis. Instead, they often turn to strangers with whom they have “disposable ties” and—to a surprising extent—to landlords themselves. Despite the conflicts between them, landlords and tenants share an uncomfortable intimacy: Sherrena gives a ride home to Arleen even though she has just brought Arleen to housing court to evict her. Tobin occasionally bails his tenants out of jail. These are not relations of equality. But it is nonetheless true that the tenants feel greater trust in their landlords than they do in the people and institutions putatively there to protect them from landlord misconduct.

Domination, Desmond’s book reminds us, is often keenest in close relationships. Sherrena dominates her tenants but is also invested in getting her tenants to understand her own struggles. She ruins her tenants’ credit in housing court—a “shove deeper into the pit”—at the same time as she shows them bills she has to pay, in an attempt to garner their sympathy. Most tenants in Milwaukee, Desmond finds, actually think highly of their landlords.

Historically, Desmond explains, tenants organized into tenants’ unions to take on the power of landlords, and the police were also more ambivalent about throwing people out of their homes. In many communities, there was a widely shared sense that evictions were unjust. But in Desmond’s story, there is not even a glimmer of political consciousness or group solidarity. Why not? For one thing, Desmond suggests, “No one thought the poor more undeserving than the poor themselves.” Scott, a drug addict, watches Ned and Pam, two other addicts, get evicted and decides that they deserve what was coming to them—they were addicts, after all. People in the trailer park are reluctant to identify with those around them since they see themselves as likely on their way out, too. The tenants feel little confidence in one another’s political capacity: They see suffering around them, but no potential for collective action.

The book is smart and beautiful, but it is not hopeful, and it has no real reason for hope. The least compelling chapter is the conclusion, which reads like an obligatory “all is not lost” call to action common in writing about seemingly intractable social problems. Housing should be a right, Desmond argues. The state ought to provide housing vouchers for everyone below a certain income threshold and should determine—through “fine-grained analyses” and “algorithms”—both how much housing the poor really need and how much rent the landlord should be able to charge.

I’m not so sure. I worry, as Desmond does, that such vouchers would merely pad the profits of landlords in the ways that current housing vouchers seem to. Furthermore, such a solution seems to treat housing as more central to well-being than the myriad other gnarled thickets that Desmond spends the bulk of the book untangling: joblessness, welfare reform, drug addiction, health care, criminal justice, domestic violence, food security, racism. Why a housing voucher and not a basic income?

If the problem is power, the more general question is whether change is possible unless constituencies are organized to fight for it. Are tenants necessarily as impotent politically as they appear here? Perhaps the difference between tenants’ more militant history and their passivity in Evicted is that no one has been organizing tenants in Milwaukee. The lack of tenant organizations (and poor people’s organizations more generally) may be as much a cause as a consequence of the poor’s quiescence.


ALEXIS HARRIS'S A Pound of Flesh is a very different book from Evicted. While Desmond’s book is written for the general reader, Harris’s is more traditionally academic. This is an early exploration of a critically important but understudied social problem: the rising financial penalties (fees, fines, surcharges) exacted on those caught up in the contemporary criminal justice system.

For those worried about the toll of mass incarceration in contemporary society, the last few years have brought glimmers of hope. For the first time in nearly four decades there is a broad consensus that mass incarceration is a failed policy. Some modest attempts to scale it back have begun, and in the last few years state and federal incarceration rates have actually begun to decline. On the right, the most vocal reformers are fiscal conservatives concerned about the runaway costs of prisons. Some Christian conservatives who believe in redemption and small-government conservatives worried about government overreach have also joined in rethinking criminal justice policy.

Harris, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Washington, effectively dispels the hope of a new era. Or, at the very least, she shows that state fiscal concerns need not lead to the dismantling of the carceral state. State and local governments have been turning the proverbial “debt to society” owed by those who violate the law into actual, monetary debts. Strapped for cash, governments are trying to balance their budgets by extracting money from those who are least able to pay.

The world of legal financial obligations (LFOs) with which Harris is concerned is murky. States impose different costs at various points in the process of punishment, and no systematic national data are currently available to estimate the prevalence or ubiquity of monetary sanctions. Enough is known, however, to suggest that the use of such monetary sanctions is on the rise: Whereas 25 percent of inmates had reported receiving LFOs in 1991, 66 reported receiving them in 2004. Within Washington state, the mean sentenced LFO for a single felony conviction is $1,300. Among the subset of adults in Washington involved in the criminal justice system whom Harris interviews, the average amount of LFO debt was over $9,000.

Many of Harris’s findings read almost as satire. In Louisiana, people who are acquitted of charges must still pay $100 to have their records cleared of the arrest. Arizona charges offenders a surcharge on top of any fines and fees, part of which is used for a clean elections fund. Yet Arizonans cannot vote while they have legal debt outstanding; in fact, legal debtors’ voting rights are restricted in more than half of U.S. states. Many states charge prisoners daily rates for staying in their facilities (in Beverly Hills, you can even pay a higher rate for a cleaner, safer cell). Remember the rights people purportedly have to legal defense and a jury trial? These rights are pricey: Two-thirds of states allow judges to require defendants to pay for a public defender. In Washington state, the price of “choosing” to have one’s case tried by a jury has been increasing.

So much is known already about the collateral damage of incarceration that it takes quite a lot to generate fresh outrage. Yet Harris powerfully illustrates the devastating lifelong consequences of monetary sanctions, as the mark of a criminal record is coupled with the lasting stain of ruined credit and the forfeiture of legal rights. Monetary sanctions can even lead people back to jail, a revival of the debtors’ prison among those who owe the state and “willfully” shirk payments (the Supreme Court has found it unconstitutional to imprison people solely for their inability to pay).

The definition of such “willfulness” is, of course, ambiguous. And the bureaucrats with the authority to differentiate between indigence and intransigence—and to decide on what to do with each category—have tremendous power over the future of those involved in the justice system. Unsurprisingly, this discretion leads to unequal treatment.

While the first part of Harris’s book documents the vast scale and scope of LFOs across the country, the second part explores the dramatic variation that exists even within the state of Washington in the everyday practice of—and justifications for—monetary sanctions. Alexander County, the state’s wealthiest and most liberal county, has the lowest average fine or fee per sentencing of the five counties in the study ($600) and uses the highest percentage (67 percent) of this money to pay restitution to crime victims. (Harris changed the names of the counties to protect those she interviewed.) People in the county are rarely incarcerated for non-payment compared with elsewhere. In contrast, Warren County, the second-wealthiest but whiter and more conservative county, has the highest average LFO per sentencing ($2,530) and uses the majority of this money for county expenses.

Harris explains this local variation by referring to the idea of different “cultures of punishment.” People in different communities understand the purposes of monetary sanctions differently and so use their discretion in different ways. Although I don’t find this explanation convincing, since it just seems to describe existing beliefs, the point about discretion is crucial. The tremendous leeway given to judges, clerks, prosecutors, and defense attorneys in the imposition of LFOs opens the door to huge inequalities. While Harris does not have sufficient data on racial disparities, it seems almost certain that the burden of LFOs falls disproportionately on poor communities of color. In the aftermath of the police killing of Michael Brown, Harris recounts, local and federal investigations revealed a shockingly high burden of LFOs on the black residents of Ferguson, Missouri.

In different ways, both Evicted and A Pound of Flesh convey the feeling of hopelessness that accompanies the domination accrued via debt. Desmond writes, “[T]hose at the bottom had little hope of climbing out even if they pinched every penny. So they chose not to. Instead, they tried to survive in color, to season the suffering with pleasure. They would get a little high or have a drink or do a bit of gambling or acquire a television. They might buy lobster on food stamps.” Small, ephemeral pleasures take the place of life plans. Trying to survive replaces efforts to thrive. The sorts of collective action that might change the laws governing housing policy or challenge the state’s penal policy become less likely. And the bottom keeps falling out. Harris quotes James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name: “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” As the costs compound, there seems to be no way up and no way out.

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