I joined a non-fiction book club and this was my first book. It’s interesting to be in a book club with strangers, because you don’t necessarily know who they are and why they picked the book they did. But I’m pretty happy about this first choice. It was a short read that took less than 2 days, and gave me a glimpse into a community that I frankly did not have a strong desire to get to know.
The book is an in depth exposé into the slums of Milwaukee. One story line begins in a white trailer park, while the other follows strangers whose lives entwined at a run down apartment complex on the black north side. While the stories are dramatic enough by themselves, the author masterfully juxtaposed them in a way that made the book even more riveting. The characters were vibrant and full of life, there were no caricatures, and sometimes you pause to wonder if the scenes were made up.
There was one landlord Shereena, who sometimes seemed to pity her tenants, yet can be ruthless in other moments, throwing out a family two days before Christmas. Then there was the trailer park landlord Tobin, who did not even pretend to care about anyone all. There was the nurse turned drug addict Scott who eventually pulled himself back up, and the sweet Larraine who makes decisions like a child who feared no consequences. There was the legless Lamar, who is genuinely try to be a great father, and the Hinkston family, which includes three generations of teenage mothers trying to care for children on SSI.
To be quite honest, I don’t want to associate with any of these people. Every time they make a bad decision, I cringe and yell at them like the tiger mother I have the potential to be. Yet as you follow their lives, one thing becomes clear. Poverty and bad decisions are chained like a never stopping circle. It’s not that bad decision causes poverty, and once you stop making bad decisions you can get out. It’s a downward spiral that seems to suck out all your energy and ambition, and finally life.
One major point Desmond brings out is the idea of exploitation. He quotes Martin Luther King Jr.: “Every condition exists, simply because someone profits by its existence. This economic exploitation is crystallized in the slum.” One fact that surprised me the most is that rent in the slums for a barely habitable apartment is equal if not higher than rent in a well maintained apartment in a nice neighborhood. Due to discrimination, eviction records, and criminal records, even if one somehow finds themselves able to maintain steady payments, there is no escape from the slum as the nice apartments will simply reject these people who are actively trying to get out of poverty. The slum landlords take advantage of this lack of choice, and maintains the high prices of their ghetto apartments, knowingly leaving them in terrible conditions since the demand outstrips the supply, and the desperate will not care if the toilet doesn’t flush and the stove doesn’t turn on.
The government does not help much in this situation. Whatever low income housing assistance out there is too little to make a large scale difference, and the rigidity of regulations exacerbate the problem. For example, calling the authorities to fix up the building or to report domestic violence will often result in an earlier than usual eviction. They are not unwarranted, often the tenants have been behind on their rent and the landlords have legitimate reason to evict them. However, the landlords prey on these people because they know the powerfulness of the threat of eviction, and profit shamelessly off of this already destitute group.
One issue that is not addressed much is the shortsightedness of many governmental programs today, with short term goals aiming at temporary relief. Unfortunately, many of the impoverished require more than just a little help. Whatever help they get will get them through the day, the week, possibly the month if they plan really well and no emergency happens. They don’t allow people to set goals and actually leave the situation. Some may cringe and ask, why should I pay taxes to help these people who can’t or won’t help themselves? The answer is — selfishness. Just because you are not paying for their housing, doesn’t mean that you are not paying for these people in other ways. Increased homelessness or poverty increases crime rates and emergency healthcare, which all end up as bills for the tax payer. It’s just hard to see past the idea of giving your hard earned money to people who seem to sit around and do nothing and buy lobster with their food stamp.
That is actually a true story. Lorraine, the sweet lady in the trailer park, spent $80 worth of food stamps to buy lobsters and other gourmet foods and ate it all herself in one meal. She had a simple and sad explanation for it. She knew she was never going to get out of her situation, and no longer has the drive to even try. So if everyday was going to be miserable, she would rather have one moment of great happiness than a month of tolerable misery. If that meant she had to starve or go to the food bank for scraps the rest of the month, so be it.
It would be easy to say, there is no helping someone who thinks that way. I’m inclined to agree that if everyone on welfare is like Lorraine, it would be much harder for me to want to support her for the rest of her destitute life. But with every Lorraine, there might be a Scott, who made some really dumb decisions in life, but with the right help, can get up on his feet again. Perhaps a little bit of optimism is needed, but I’d rather believe that for every hopeless case, there are a few more hopeful ones that are worth the risk.
While I enjoyed the personal stories, which opened my eyes to many issues and raised a number of questions as to how we ended up here, I really appreciated the epilogue, where the author goes through his methodology, brought out the numbers (as a data person I love numbers!), and thoughtfully poses a few potential solutions to address the issues he raised. Some of them sound too easy and good to be true. I think one of the biggest issues of policy making is scaling. Things that work on the local level can only be expanded so far, and at scale any program requires more regulation, which in turn creates loopholes and inefficiencies that are exploited by people and drive up implementation costs. There is also the difficulty of getting people to vote to give more money to the poor, especially in an era where people increasingly believe they are where they are because of their abilities, not because of life’s circumstances.
Eviction is one of many symptoms of much deeper issues in our increasingly divided society. This comic strip from Toby Morris was a wake up call for me personally. As someone who wasn’t born into privilege, I’ve always had the idea that I earned what I have in life and so should everyone else. Yet it is not hard to imagine, had my family experienced any major illnesses or misfortunes during our first years after immigrating, I would not have had the stable home life that allowed me to concentrate on my studies, get scholarships, and have the freedom to choose my own path. So at the very least, I can find some sympathy and empathy for those who are not so lucky, and not think that just because one person bought a lobster with her food stamps, we should let everyone in need fend for themselves because they don’t deserve our help.