Review: Desmond’s Evicted

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

Matthew Desmond

An examination into how housing insecurity leads to general insecurity and upends lives. A brilliant book. It follows a number of different people in the Milwaukee area struggling with housing issues and uses their stories, and plenty of social science, to tell explain the way housing in this country keeps the poor, poor, and communities segregated by race and class.

Books like this, where a reporter/social scientist parachutes into a poor community and comes out with a heartbreaking story can often feel exploitative. To me, this one never did. Desmond lived amongst the people he chronicles here, and it shows. He treats their predicaments with a bit of distance, for sure, but also with a level of compassion and humanity I found admirable. In the notes at the end, Desmond explains that not only did he know these people, live in their neighborhoods, eat in the their homes, but he also at times lent them money and supported them. That might cross some social science rules, but I found it humanized the situation and, frankly, was the right thing to do.

We talk a lot about the housing crisis in this country, but never have I seen anyone examine exactly how it works, and how clearly we could create a world in which it didn’t leave people broken and desperate. I left this book convinced that the housing situation in this country is both horrific and preventable. We just need the national will to change things.


Review: Collier’s Bottom Billion

The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It
Paul Collier

Here is the basic argument – while it sucks to be poor in countries like India, India is heading for relative prosperity, and therefore some hope for its poorest citizens. Where is really, really sucks to be poor is in a number of countries, concentrated in Africa, where there is little hope of breaking out of a cycle of severe poverty.

Collier pinpoints four ways in which these countries stay at the bottom – (1) they are racked by civil wars; (2) they’re rich in a specific natural resource which stifles economic group in other areas; (3) they are surrounded by awful neighbors; and/or (4) they are a small country which is consistently horrifically governed. Collier proposes a number of concrete steps to deal with some of these problems, steps which I find to be realistic if perhaps politically unlikely at times. For example, Collier is totally in support of military intervention, of course he thinks there is a right way and wrong way to do it, but still, you’re not hearing Jeff Sachs talk about sending in guns to cure poverty and with the disaster that has been the Iraq war, I think it will be a long time before the developed world is interested in dangerous humanitarian missions.

This is the book of a man who has spent a long time in world of bureaucracies whose mandate is to fight poverty, and some of Collier’s ideas are a bit gun-ho in reaction to what he rightly thinks is a lack of will power from the developed world. I don’t think all of his ideas are good ones, and many of them I think are unlikely given the developed world’s current lack of commitment to fighting poverty, but if you have any interest in development and poverty reduction you have to read this book.