Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

920x920Book–Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond immersed himself in the lives of 8 poverty-stricken Milwaukee families and constructed this book out of hours of recorded conversations. His account takes place in both a mostly white run-down trailer park and in a mostly black set of tenements; he also spoke to the two landlords that own these properties. Desmond argues that there is one common thread that destabilizes the lives of all the people he spoke to: eviction. The old well-known advice says that one should spend no more than 1/3 of one’s income on housing. However, when subsisting on government benefits and food stamps, one has no choice but to drop 80%+ of one’s meager income on housing, and, as Desmond puts it, “if you’re spending 80 percent of your income on rent, eviction is much more of an inevitability than an irresponsibility.”

For the most part, this book is a litany of sad stories, depressing outcomes, poor choices, and petty injustices. I found it to be somewhat repetitive after a while. However, the repetitiveness proves Desmond’s point. Even when these families get a lucky break, be a it a tax refund, benefits coming through, or a win at gambling, the precariousness of their situation and their predatory landlords keep them locked in a cycle of poverty where they owe their landlord more than they can pay, until they are evicted and need to start their Sisyphean journey toward stability in a new, often more squalid, place. If Evicted caught your attention, I would also recommend White Trash by Nancy Isenberg and Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich

$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer

two dollarsBook – Composed of material gleaned from personal interviews, Edin’s account focuses on the most disadvantaged in our society: those who have heads of household who are not working and who do not receive welfare, with cash incomes of about $2 per person per day. For comparison, even those just below the poverty line have about $18 a day per person. While the very poor may have food stamps, and sometimes even rent assistance, what they lack is access to cash. Those Edin interviewed would report donating plasma, recycling cans, and even (illegally) selling food stamps for $0.60 on the dollar just to get some cash income, a necessity to buy clothes, school supplies, and other incidentals not covered by food stamps.

The very poor can be found all over the United States. Edin interviewed, for example, a large family in rural Appalachia, a single mother and daughter in Chicago, and an extended family living all under one roof in Cleveland. The events that triggered extreme poverty varied, but the constant that Edin observed is that it only takes a little bit of misfortune to go from poor to extreme poverty. Triggering events such as losing a job at Wal-Mart because of no gas in the car and getting fired because of a $10 cash register discrepancy were enough to catapult two of Edin’s subjects to extreme poverty.

$2.00 a Day will appeal to fans of Edin’s other works on poverty and, for a more personal take on poverty, Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America will appeal.

Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh

Book – What do a PhD candidate and a gang leader have in common? They both have a vested interest in the life of gang members and their actions. Sudhir was a graduate student at the University of Chicago during the late 80’s and throughout the 90’s. In Gang Leader for a Day Sudhir befriends J.T., the leader of the Black Kings, a gang on the Southside of Chicago. The two have a chance encounter when Sudhir is trying to get surveys filled out by tenants at a Chicago projects high-rise. This meeting will lead them to develop an interesting relationship that will span over 10 years.

J.T. shows Sudhir what it takes to lead a gang and how the gang operates. Sudhir learns that gangs are structured and operate very similar to most corporations. The major difference being the products (drugs), and employee discipline delivered when gang members do not meet organization expectations, which comes in the form of violence.

Sudhir broke the mold for sociological studies when he performed this research. Normally sociologists use surveys to collect data on why subjects feel the way they do. Sudhir decided to immerse himself in gang culture in order to find out what gang life was like, how the community dealt with the gang, and why J.T. returned to the gang life after having attended college and a job at a downtown business. Sudhir also develops relationships with several community members and leaders allowing Sudhir to obtain a better understanding of life in the projects of Chicago’s Robert Taylor homes.

I listened to the audiobook and would like to recommend it for those trying audiobooks for the first time. The reader had a voice that made me want to listen and kept a good pace. Audiobooks can be tricky because many factors will affect the listener’s experience. Readers with interest in true crime, gang culture, and sociological studies will enjoy this book.