A Cause of Poverty: Because We Can

In his opinion piece in today’s issue of The New York Times, “The Eviction Economy,” Matthew Desmond argues that the cycle of poverty breeds its own special forms of exploitation. He chronicles the ways in which a landlord of a mobile home park on the south side of Milwaukee (who makes over $400,000/year) preys on the economic insecurity of his residents. Jobs and increasing the minimum wage won’t necessarily extricate the folks who live there from poverty, Desmond says.

America stands alone among wealthy democracies in the depth and expanse of its poverty. Ask most politicians what we should do about this, and they will answer by calling for more and better jobs. Paul Ryan, the Republican speaker of the House, thinks we need to do more to “incentivize work.” Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, thinks we should raise the minimum wage. But jobs are only part of the solution because poverty is not just a product of joblessness and low wages. It is also a product of exploitation.

Desmond supports housing vouchers as a possible solution to the cycle of poverty poor folks, especially those with an eviction record, find themselves in, sometimes generation after generation.

Expanding our current housing voucher program to cover all low-income families would re-balance landlords’ desire to make a living and tenants’ desire to have a home. Eligible families would dedicate 30 percent of their income to rent, allowing them to pursue education, start a savings account and buy enough food.

When families finally receive housing vouchers after years on the waiting list, the first place many take their freed-up income is to the grocery store. Their children become healthier in the process.

A universal housing voucher program would fundamentally change the face of poverty in the United States. Evictions would plummet, and so would the other social problems they cause, like family and community instability, homelessness, job loss and depression. Suicides attributed to evictions and foreclosures doubled between 2005 and 2010. A universal housing voucher program would help reverse this disturbing trend.

It’s not news that neighborhoods where poorer residents live need more services and that it’s actually expensive to be poor in the US. Check out the essay “Fifth Avenue, Uptown” by James Baldwin (writing in 1961).

Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor; and if one is a member of a captive population, economically speaking, one’s feet have simply been placed on the treadmill forever. One is victimized, economically, in a thousand ways — rent, for example, or car insurance. Go shopping one day in Harlem — for anything — and compare Harlem prices and quality with those downtown.

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