Income Inequality: The Housing Struggle

“I was in Newark and Harlem just this week. And I walked into the homes of welfare mothers. I saw them in conditions—no, not with wall-to-wall carpet, but wall-to-wall rats and roaches. . . . [One mother] pointed out the walls with all the ceiling falling through. She showed me the holes where the rats came in. She said night after night we have to stay awake to keep the rats and roaches from getting to the children. . . . And the tragedy is, so often [poor Americans] are invisible because America is so affluent, so rich.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke these words during his last Sunday sermon on March 31, 1968 at Washington National Cathedral calling for support for a Poor People’s Campaign. Almost fifty years later questions about how much poor Americans are forced to pay for housing – and what happens when they can’t afford it – are back in the national spotlight. The new book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Harvard University sociology professor and Justice and Poverty Project co-director Matthew Desmond, is calling renewed and urgently needed attention to a tragic eviction cycle invisible to many but all too familiar to families trapped in the cruel prison of poverty.

Dr. Desmond found that in the face of stagnating or falling incomes and soaring housing costs eviction has become more commonplace in America than ever. He spent months in Milwaukee, Wisconsin living first in a trailer park and then in an inner city rooming house documenting the experiences of eight families he met. In a recent interview he explained: “Most Americans, if they don’t live in trailer parks or in the inner city, think that the typical low income family lives in public housing or benefits from some kind of housing assistance, but the opposite is true.” In reality, only one in four families who qualify for housing assistance receives it: three in four are forced to struggle on their own. Dr. Desmond says, “We’ve reached a point in this country where the majority of poor renting families are giving at least half of their income to housing costs and one in four are giving over 70 percent of their income just to pay rent and keep the utilities on.”

When Dr. Desmond met Arleen, a single mom with two boys, she was paying 80 percent of her income to rent a run down two bedroom apartment in Milwaukee: “I saw Arleen confront terrible situations. Should I pay my rent or feed my kids? Should I pay my rent or get the kids clothing they need for a new school year? Should I chip in for a funeral for when my sister dies?”

Arleen and her boys were evicted so many times as he followed her trajectory, they lost count. One time her son threw a snowball and hit a passerby, and that person retaliated by kicking in the door to their apartment. The landlord evicted Arleen’s family because of the damage to the door. Dr. Desmond says Arleen then missed an appointment with a welfare caseworker because the letter about the appointment went to her old address. So she got evicted from the new apartment. The crises families face trying to pay for housing are “not just a consequence of poverty, but a cause of poverty” he says. He also noted Black women are often overrepresented in eviction proceedings, just as Black men are in prison: “Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”

Last year, the Children’s Defense Fund included in our Ending Child Poverty Now report an expansion of housing vouchers to all households with children below 150 percent of poverty whose fair market rent exceeds 50 percent of their income. Of the nine policy improvements to alleviate child poverty we proposed, this had the single greatest impact. It would reduce child poverty 20.8 percent and lift 2.3 million children out of poverty. How then do we build the political and public will to do what works?

Dr. Desmond also met Vanetta in Milwaukee who said in a recent interview: “I grew up in every shelter, basically, in Illinois and Milwaukee. I didn’t have a stable place over my head. I didn’t have proper food, or I didn’t even know a few times how I was going to eat that night. We missed meals multiple nights, and it was hard. And all I ever wanted for my kids was not to put them through that.” Her troubles started during the recession when her hours at the Old Country Buffet were slashed from five days to one day a week. Suddenly she had to choose between paying arrears to keep the electricity on or paying the rent. Falling further and further behind, she received an eviction notice. Terrified of being homeless and losing her children, and desperate to pay the bills, Vanetta participated in a robbery. She’d been on the waiting list for public housing for two years, but after the robbery she became a convicted felon, which meant her chances of ever being approved were almost zero.

In that final Sunday sermon Dr. King reminded us: “Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. America has not met its obligations and its responsibilities to the poor. One day we will have to stand before the God of history and we will talk in terms of things we’ve done. Yes, we will be able to say we built gargantuan bridges to span the seas, we built gigantic buildings to kiss the skies . . . It seems that I can hear the God of history saying, ‘That was not enough! But I was hungry, and ye fed me not. I was naked, and ye clothed me not. I was devoid of a decent sanitary house to live in, and ye provided no shelter for me.’” Dr. King said, “this is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it.” For millions of Americans, including all those who still can’t afford decent shelter for their families, that question remains unanswered.