After spending years interviewing tenants and landlords and reporting on urban evictions, Matthew Desmond reached a conclusion that surprised him: Conventional liberal and conservative explanations that heap blame on everything from deindustrialization to out-of-wedlock childbirth overlook the actual root causes of poverty in this country.
Poverty comes not from an absence of resources, Desmond discovered, but from a national unwillingness to confront a profound moral problem. With empathy and effort and understanding, the communal choices that lead to unstable housing for this country’s neediest can be collectively rethought and made anew.
That rethinking about poverty and housing and that moral challenge took center stage Tuesday night in the auditorium of Hill Regional Career High School.
Organized by Christian Community Action (CCA) as part of a series of events celebrating the local social service organization’s 50th anniversary, “From Compassion to Action: The Road to Hope” featured an hour-and-a-half conversation between Desmond, a Harvard sociologist, journalist, and Pulitzer-prize winning author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City; and Juan Salgado, the president and CEO of Instituto del Progreso Latino in Chicago and the recently appointed chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago. Yale historian Beverly Gage moderated the event, which drew 100 people.
CCA Executive Director Rev. Bonita Grubbs introduced the panel with the promise that the two featured guests, both of whom were MacArthur Genius grant winners in 2015, had accomplished work that would truly inspire. But the inspiration to come was far more sobering than uplifting.
Desmond told the audience about how he temporarily lived in a trailer park in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee, where the landlord made $470,000 every year after expenses. That was 55 times more than how much one of his tenants earned while working a full-time job at minimum wage.
He also noted that it is often more cost-effective for a landlord in a poor neighborhood to evict a tenant than it is to bring a building up to code.
Traditional political convictions about economic inequality simply cannot explain such gaping profit margins and uncharitable incentives.
“We’re good about talking about relationships with respect to inequality when it comes to the top 1 percent, because that’s about their gain and our losses,” he said. “But I don’t think that we’re that great about talking about the relationship between our lives and the poor, when it comes to our schools, and our tax returns, and our mortgage interest deductions. The only real way to reform is if some of us with more on our plate choose to share.”
Heeding the CCA’s action-oriented mission, Desmond pointed to several examples of cities that were actively working to remedy such structural inequality.
New York City recently guaranteed the right to counsel for all tenants facing evictions.
At the other end of the country, Seattle, in a self-conscious effort to avoid becoming the next San Francisco, passed a housing levy which will raise $300 million over the next seven years. The tax increase passed with 70% of the vote, and all the money raised will go directly towards funding local affordable housing programs.
“It started with a moral and cultural argument,” he said. “They said, who do we want to be as a city.”
Tracing the origins of his own social activism and advocacy for Chicago’s underemployed Latino populations, Salgado recalled growing up on the South Side in a stable home with two parents, two grandparents, five brothers and sisters, and six uncles.
“There were a lot of people in the home,” he said with a laugh. “But we had a home. And my dad had a regular job that paid enough for us to be in that home, and for me to go to community college. I know that it’s so possible in our country for every family to experience the same stability that my family experienced. That’s not a goal that is beyond our reach. It’s a goal that we choose not to reach for. And that’s really triste. That’s really sad.”
For Salgado, whose expertise lies in bringing together educators, politicians, and businesses to help create meaningful work opportunities for Chicago’s immigrants and their families, the prevailing assumptions around what constitutes a successful education need to be reexamined. Only then can unemployment and poverty in 21st century American cities truly be addressed.
“Every human learner is unique and different,” he said. “In our churches, in our schools, if you celebrate the young person who got a four-year ride to Harvard, you have to celebrate the student that got a license for practical nursing from their local community college. If you don’t celebrate them equally, that’s a human error on our part. Because they’re both successful, in different ways.”
By the end of the conversation, Desmond, Salgado, and Gage had traversed wide and troubling territory about the current state of inequality in this country. They spoke about how most poor families spend over 50 percent of their income on housing; about how the Trump administration’s proposed budget would reduce funding for HUD by 13% and would completely defund the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness; about how poverty rates have stayed pretty flat since LBJ was president, hovering at around 15% regardless of whether a Republican or a Democrat sat in the Oval Office.
But the panelists also agreed that this current political moment could be, and must be, a critical turning point in Americans’ approach to tackling poverty. Desmond and Salgado said that they no longer see many of their fellow citizens clinging to old narratives about how poverty and homelessness are simply a matter of laziness or bad behavior. People are looking for new ways to understand the economy, and their neighborhoods, and their country.
“There’s a real opportunity here to ask serious questions about who we are as a country and to be repairers of the breach,” Desmond said. “We want a different conversation about inequality in America. We want a different conversation about racial legacies in America. We’re just done with these old explanations. And that gives me a massive amount of hope.”