Since moving to Seattle, a city with some of the highest rents in the country, and observing homelessness on a daily basis, I have become interested in better understanding poverty. I’ve worked hard and made smart decisions to afford my fancy condo, so the people I see on the streets must be homeless because of laziness and poor decisions, right?

Matthew Desmond’s ethnography on the practice of eviction in Milwaukee is an excellent way to begin understanding the uncertainty of housing for poor people in American cities. The exquisitely researched book is full of insights into what happens when people must spend greater than 75% of their monthly income on substandard housing. Desmond tells vivid stories of families facing enormous stress over basic shelter that most of us can hardly fathom. His characters, living under conditions of scarcity, “prioritize the now and lose sight of the future, often at great cost”. Their psychological health is not only damaged from their awful living conditions, but “because of what living in those conditions tells them about themselves”.

Like so many social problems, the causes and solutions to inadequate and uncertain housing are complex and challenging. Desmond’s work is remarkably illuminating for both social scientists and fancy condo dwellers like myself.

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