Poverty, Eviction, Homelessness and Spiraling Inequality = An Income-Inequality Achievement Gap

Last Thursday evening, about 2,000 greater Clevelanders drove downtown to attend a free program at the State Theater, the largest of the old movie palaces now restored to become a theater district. The program was supposed to be at the much smaller Ohio Theater, but ticket distribution exceeded all expectations—for a book discussion. As the culmination of a region-wide One Community Reads project—a collaboration of all of the public libraries in Cuyahoga County and the City Club of Cleveland—author and Princeton University sociologist Matthew Desmond had come to Cleveland to present the book everybody had been reading, his 2017 Pulitzer Prize winning Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.  As I watched the crowd look for seats in the huge old theater, I was amazed that so many people had come to hear an ethnographer talk about poverty, homelessness, and eviction.

Desmond launched his presentation by naming the reality that never comes up in today’s politics: The United States is the richest nation in the world and at the same time tolerates a level of extreme poverty no other similar society would condone. Most of his talk featured one of the eight families his book profiles—Arleen’s story and the story of her two boys, Jori and his younger brother Jafaris. With public housing filled up and a years’ long waiting list for a Section 8 voucher, Arleen must find housing in the private market. Because her rent in a succession of Milwaukee apartments and dilapidated houses requires 80 percent of her monthly welfare check, each eviction spins her and her children even deeper into poverty: “There is nothing special about Milwaukee when it comes to eviction. The numbers are similar in Kansas City, Cleveland, Chicago, and other cities.  In 2013, 1 in 8 poor renting families nationwide were unable to pay all of their rent, and a similar number thought it was likely they would be evicted soon… Eviction’s fallout is severe.  Losing a home sends families to shelters, abandoned houses, and the street. It invites depression and illness, compels families to move into degrading housing in dangerous neighborhoods, uproots communities, and harms children… We have failed to fully appreciate how deeply housing is implicated in the creation of poverty.” (Evicted, p. 5)

Through Desmond’s presentation ran the thread of the impact of poverty and eviction on children and on their education. Desmond spent months living as an ethnographer among the tenants and landlords whose stories he tells, but he also verified his observations with an enormous data analysis, highlighting the role of children in eviction: “The data show that the median age of a tenant in Milwaukee’s eviction court was thirty-three. The youngest was nineteen; the oldest, sixty-nine. The median monthly household income of tenants in eviction court was $935, and the median amount of back rent owed was about that much… When I analyzed these data, I found that even after accounting for how much the tenant owed the landlord—and other factors like household income and race—the presence of children in the household almost tripled a tenant’s odds of receiving an eviction judgment. The effect of living with children on receiving an eviction judgment was equivalent to falling four months behind in rent.” (Evicted, p. 332)

As Desmond described his research at the State Theater last week, he mentioned the impact on the children who have been evicted as a constant footnote to the stories of their mothers: “Most evicted households in Milwaukee have children living in them, and across the country, many evicted children end up homeless. The substandard housing and unsafe neighborhoods to which many evicted families must relocate can degrade a child’s health, ability to learn and sense of self-worth. And if eviction has lasting effects on mothers’ depression, sapping their energy and happiness, then children will feel that chill too. Parents like Arleen and Vanetta wanted to provide their children with stability, but eviction ruined that, pulling kids in and out of school and batting them from one neighborhood to the next.  When these mothers finally did find another place to live, they once again began giving landlords most of their income, leaving little for the kids. Families who spend more on housing spend less on their children. Poor families are living above their means, in apartments they cannot afford. The thing is, those apartments are already at the bottom of the market. Our cities have become unaffordable to our poorest families, and this problem is leaving a deep and jagged scar on the next generation.” (Evicted, p. 299)

I thought more about Matthew Desmond’s presentation when, over the weekend, I read education historian Jack Schneider’s reflection on the failure of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top and the new Every Student Succeeds Act, all part of the education accountability juggernaut driven by annual standardized tests for children, aggregation of data from all the test scores, and sanctions for the schools that cannot quickly raise scores.  Desmond’s ethnography illuminates the daily realities beneath Schneider’s analysis: “(M)ost education researchers have agreed that economic inequality and social injustice are among the most powerful drivers of educational achievement gaps. What students achieve in a school, in other words, reflects their living conditions outside its walls.  Yet rather than addressing the daunting issues like persistent poverty that shape children’s lives and interfere with their learning, education reformers have largely embraced a management consultant approach.  That is, they seek systems-oriented solutions that can be assessed through bottom-line indicators… This approach fails to address the core problems shaping student achievement at a time when researchers like Sean Reardon at Stanford University find that income levels are more correlated with academic achievement than ever and the gap between rich students and less affluent kids is growing.”

Schneider provides a short video clip of Sean Reardon presenting the implications for children of the rapidly widening income-inequality achievement gap Reardon has documented across America since 1970. Please watch Reardon present his ground-breaking research. Reardon describes the implications not only of the kind of poverty Matthew Desmond describes for the children living in families in the bottom 10 percent of the income distribution, but also the growing educational privileges accruing to the children in the top 10 percent.  Reardon concludes that today’s income inequality is driving a spiraling gap in the opportunities for children at the two ends of the economic continuum.  Schools alone, however excellent, cannot compensate for exploding inequality.

6 thoughts on “Poverty, Eviction, Homelessness and Spiraling Inequality = An Income-Inequality Achievement Gap

  1. Always interesting, Jan, these things you highlight and elaborate.
    I listened to Mr/Dr. Reardon. One thing i think he is missing or I am misinformed on: whether education ‘continues’ to be the defining criteria for ‘success’ economically. I note the widening difficulty for even college graduates to find viable work. But maybe, that observation is mistaken. Or it could be that his analysis of 1960-2007 limits its currency to the recent collapse of economic stability/progress for even the college-educated. Perhaps, then, college education becomes a minimum, with much variation and precarity in our US and global version of ‘disaster capitalism’ that destroys human life and the prospects for economic stability. Additionally, aggregate data that Dr./Mr. Reardon is using doesn’t (often enough) grasp how many individuals don’t fit the pattern and therefore, those who, even with a college education, are fragile economically.
    Also, if college is so essential, we want to be sure that students are not taken advantage of by loan sharks, contra Betsy DeVos’ version of ‘disaster capitalism,’ also known as ‘uncreative destruction,’ that is, simply ‘destructive.’
    But central is Reardon’s main point that prior-to-schooling is the starting point where so much of the gross difference of economic hope for young people in poverty occurs. That is obvious from Howard’s analysis (Eviction book) and intuitively so. But it doesn’t hurt to have qualitative and quantitative research (coupled with personal experience) to nail it to the door of government failure and responsibility.
    What strikes me is that these structural injustices just keep piling up. We have the analysis and the knowledge and we fail, as a country. We might not fail in many individual cases, as schools and teachers and families rise to the individual moment and student.
    But we fail as a nation. And there are consequences, both personally and nationally and for our future. Grief is the beginning of wisdom when the pain is so unimaginable. Such grief seems to initiate daily a call to love in action, in the moment. Trying to love and loving the children right in front of us, as teachers and schools do every day. While the structures of economic violence speak volumes to our destiny, so many daily stave off such a destiny with powerful works of love. And I am grateful.

    • Excellent blog. I do not believe that social problems are solved by just analysis and knowledge but more by having caring people working at the top of the government and throughout the government. I also think that people who learn that welfare over a few generations is normal is what is bad for the human experience. The work ethic must be, somehow, cultivated, instead of the free-hand-outs. Most people in our society ges a job and do not expect handouts. My grandmother was a single mom with 3 kids and she lived in the projects in Detroit but she obtained factory jobs early on. Bill Clinton was putting moms back to work when their kids were 2 years old. Please check out my blog: https://electqualifiedmiddleclass.org/

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