Matthew Desmond at The Morrison Center: Housing is a Right 

click to enlarge Matthew Desmond

John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Matthew Desmond

Matthew Demond, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, opened his Oct. 9 talk at the Morrison Center with a paradox.

"America's weird," he said. "We're the richest country with the worst poverty."

In 2009, the number of people living on less than $2 per day was double the number of people living in the same conditions in 1996, and in 2013, UNICEF determined that the U.S. had the second-highest child poverty rate in the developed world. More to Desmond's point, poverty is wrapped up in a cycle with housing, and in particular, eviction.

"Eviction seems to push people into disadvantage," he said.

During his talk, which was the season opener for The Cabin's Readings & Conversations series, Desmond outlined how evictions and housing discrimination against families, women of color and sources of income create situations in which some people pay upwards of 70 and 80 percent of their incomes to keep roofs over their heads, which means making tough choices between food, medicine, clothing and other essentials, and having a place to sleep at night.

Evicted focuses on the lives of multiple people living in just those conditions in Milwaukee,  and using a combination of hard evidence, fact-finding and the lived experiences of people in poverty with eviction records, Desmond makes the case that "we don't fix poverty in America without fixing housing."

On stage at the Morrison Center, he said the problem of housing approaches the complexity of the problem of rising healthcare costs; and there may not be a silver bullet to solve it. He dismissed a proposal to build more housing—after all, just prior to the Great Recession, both the availability and cost of housing increased—but he did toss up one idea: Offer everyone living below the poverty line housing vouchers that would enable them to spend not more than one-third of their incomes on housing. Such a program, he estimated, would cost $22 billion.

"That would fundamentally change poverty in this country," he said. "I think housing should be a right in America."
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