By Rachel Schmidt
America is the richest democracy with the worst poverty and one in four Americans spend 70 percent of their income on housing, said an urban sociologist and 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner who is working to end poverty.
“The home, it’s the center of life,” said Matthew Desmond, an author and a professor of sociology at Princeton University.
Desmond spoke to a sold out crowd of nearly 600 community members, faculty, staff and students in Schofield Auditorium on the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Thursday night about his book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City”, and his experience with poverty.
Growing up, Desmond’s family was evicted. Ultimately, he said, it inspired him to follow eight families and two landlords in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, through the eviction process, as well as their journeys after.
In a Q&A session with UW-Eau Claire students, faculty and staff Thursday afternoon before the forum, Desmond said he wanted to write a book about poverty that wasn’t about poor people. He found that he was able to do this by approaching the issue of poverty from an eviction standpoint because he believes that eviction is a cause of poverty, not just a condition.
During this session he told a story about one of the women named Larraine who was his neighbor in the trailer park where he did research for his book. He said that she went out and bought lobster with her food stamps, which shocked him at first. Eventually, he said, he came to the realization that this woman wasn’t poor because she lived like that, she lives like that because she was poor.
This was one of many anecdotes Desmond shared with everyone throughout the afternoon session and the evening forum.
Another point that Desmond touched on was the evolution of how society deals with those being evicted. A hundred years ago people would show up to defend their neighbors, but as for current times Desmond said “evictions have become so commonplace that there’s really no resistance.”
One way Desmond has responded to this disconnection is by creating Just Shelter. Just Shelter is an organization founded by Desmond and his wife to raise awareness about the lack of affordable housing and to allow people to more easily find ways to get involved locally to end poverty.
“If poverty persists in America it’s not for a lack of resources,” Desmond said.
Roxanne Backowski, an electronic resources librarian at UW-Eau Claire, read “Evicted” for a book club and attended the forum.
“It’s really cool that he [Desmond] has a connection to Wisconsin,” said Backowski. “I would like to see how this can now make a change in Eau Claire.”
After Desmond received his Ph.D. in 2010 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison he became the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard according to their website, and began teaching at Princeton University as of July 1, 2017.
During the forum he also discussed how eviction impacts the futures of those forced out and who is more likely to be evicted.
Desmond’s next stop will be Foss Center at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minnesota on Oct. 21 at 7 pm.