Evicted Themes

The main themes in Evicted are poverty, profit, and home.

  • Poverty: In Evicted, Matthew Desmond details the ways in which an absence of affordable, stable housing keeps people in poverty.
  • Profit: The book also explores how inner-city landlords profit by exploiting tenants who are unable to secure any other housing, including by underpaying tenants to maintain properties and evicting them at will.
  • Home: Desmond demonstrates the devastating effects of being denied a stable home, which he argues is not only essential for basic survival but is “the wellspring of personhood,” a place from which to pursue goals and improve one’s life.

Themes

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Last Updated on June 11, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1103

Poverty

Poverty is one of two central themes in Evicted, the subtitle of which is "Poverty and Profit in the American City." Desmond's central thesis is that poverty is a condition not only exacerbated by but, in some cases, caused by the lack of affordable housing. Poverty (in addition to racism) keeps the characters in Evicted from moving into safer, higher-class neighborhoods, which aren't actually that much more expensive, but which generally require clean criminal and eviction records (things that poor whites and people of color in the inner city rarely have). More than that, poverty means that many of the people in Evicted rely on welfare, which comes with its own problems: when on welfare, the recipient is not allowed to have more than $2,000 in their bank account at any given time; welfare checks typically amount to $700 or less, depending on the case; and seventy percent or more of that money is put toward rent, making it near impossible for welfare recipients to save and pull themselves out of poverty. Add to that the costs associated with evictions, the potential loss of possessions and assets when forcibly removed from a dwelling, and the difficulty of maintaining steady work when being forced to move every few months, and poverty seems less like a temporary situation and more like a state of being.

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Profit

Profit is the other central theme in Evicted, going hand in hand with poverty. As Desmond notes, a landlord can make much higher profits in the inner city than in higher-class neighborhoods (even if taking into account the potential loss of income from late rent payments and evictions). Sherrena specialized in renting to the black poor not out of the goodness of her heart but because she saw an opportunity there. Rents in the inner city are consistently the same or just slightly lower than rents in better neighborhoods, but the quality of housing drops significantly in the inner city, where most landlords don't feel the need to maintain their properties. It's easy for them to maintain greedy practices like this because their renters—people with criminal and eviction records—quite literally have nowhere else to go. No other landlords will rent to them. This allows the inner-city landlords to essentially set their own rules. Sherrena allows tenants to work off their debt by doing all of the maintenance work but doesn't always pay them fairly, and she pockets the money she saves by not hiring professionals. Even after tenants pay their debt, she sometimes evicts them anyway. If they lived anywhere other than the inner city, this wouldn't be allowed to happen; but, as Desmond shows, the plight of poor black people in the inner city is largely ignored.

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Home

As Desmond writes, home is a safe place, "the wellspring of personhood" where someone's life can either blossom or wither on the vine. Without a stable home life, an individual is statistically less likely to pursue higher education, maintain steady employment, and devote enough time to their children. Similarly, children who live in unstable homes tend to do poorly in school, have developmental or emotional problems, and become involved in gang and criminal activity. Home in this context isn't just a roof over one's head, but a place of shelter where one can focus on more than just basic needs. With a home, the immediate demands of survival give way to the higher-order concerns of pursuing an education, finding higher-paying jobs, and building a better future for one's children. It should come as no surprise, then, that homelessness strips one not only of shelter and safety but of the opportunity to think of anything other than poverty, starvation, and where to find drugs.

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Race

Race is inextricably tied to poverty, and the theme runs throughout Evicted. Desmond notes a sharp divide between housing opportunities available to whites and people of color. In nice neighborhoods, all or most of the landlords are white and are statistically more likely to rent to white tenants. The few white landlords who do rent to people of color don't overlook criminal and eviction records. Conversely, landlords in the inner city are predominantly black or Latino and are statistically more likely to rent to people of color. Inner-city neighborhoods are often unsafe and riddled with crime, and the War on Drugs has resulted in disproportionate levels of police scrutiny on the actions of the black population. Money might be the source of all evil, but racism is just as prevalent.

Work

Many of the people Desmond profiles are unable to work, some due to illness (Larraine's fibromyalgia, Lamar's lost limb) and some due to circumstance (their lack of education, no means of transportation). Many receive some form of welfare in order to pay bills. It should be noted, however, that welfare was designed to help feed the poor, not to house them, so the money currently allocated to each recipient is so meager that it simply covers rent and utilities, if that. In order to cover expenses, they are forced to take low-paying jobs in factories or fast food industries that offer little to no hope of advancement. If someone has to miss work to go to eviction court or if their car happens to break down, their bosses show them no leniency, and the subsequent loss of work only exacerbates the poverty in which they already live.

Drug Addiction

Drugs are ever-present in Evicted: in the pot Lamar and his children smoke, in the crack to which Pam and Ned become addicted, in the fentanyl patches Scott drains in order to feed an addiction to painkillers. Drug abuse destroys Scott's life, consuming his day-to-day activities as he searches for his next hit and resigns himself to the fact that he might never be able to resume his career as a nurse. In addition to devastating his career and health, drug use wastes precious resources, and the many people suffering from drug addiction in Evicted seem not to realize how much money they're spending on drugs—money that otherwise could, of course, be put toward rent.

Education

Access to education, and the lack thereof, helps to explain why the characters in Evicted are in such dire financial straits. Many have little formal education, no college degree, and no specialized skills, which relegates them to jobs in factories and fast food chains and prevents them from finding higher-paying work. Even when they do want to further their education, such as by earning a GED or a community college degree, they find it impossible to do so, given their schedules and their need to move every few months in search of decent housing.

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