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Jan. 27 2010 - 1:00 pm | 1,279 views | 4 recommendations | 23 comments

Eviction is for black women what incarceration is to black men

ADAMS COUNTY, CO - FEBRUARY 02:  Adams Country...

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Among young black men in America, about 10 percent are currently incarcerated. It’s shocking, but we’ve almost grown used to it.

But while those young men are in prison, what’s happening to their wives, girlfriends, mothers and sisters?

Eviction. A new study coming out of Milwaukee shows that eviction is for black women what incarceration is for black men. One in 20 households there are evicted every year. In predominately black communities, that rate doubles to 1 in 10 families.

For those of us who are affluent, with relatively stable incomes, we’ve never even had to think about what it would be like.

Getting the eviction notice in the mail. The knot in your stomach, knowing you can’t pay the rent you owe. The court case, and the eventual knock on the door from the sheriff, telling you it’s time to go.

We’ve been talking about eviction a lot lately, from the near eviction of three orphans and their guardian, to the protested eviction of a Cabrini-Green mother, to the Chicago campaign to stop evictions from happening this winter.

Matt Desmond

Matt Desmond

When I heard about Matt Desmond’s research out of Milwaukee, I was shocked and intensely interested. It turns out, while many people have studied poverty and poor communities, no one has ever really studied evictions before, at least not the way Matt has.

“Eviction is probably the most under-studied process affecting the lives of the urban poor,” said Matt, a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We know nothing about it.”

To figure it out, Matt dove into neighborhoods where evictions are common place. He took up residence in a trailerpark outside of Milwaukee, living there for several months before he moved into an inner-city neighborhood. He talked with people, poured over eviction records, and asked people to record their experiences with eviction through a large survey effort.

What he found, he said, surprised him.

“Eviction isn’t rare. It’s quite common in the lives of poor families,” he said

I asked him about families that he got to know – people he spent hours talking with. Was it hard to see them face these troubles?

It’s always hard to tell over the phone, but I could swear I heard a quiver in his voice as he replied.

“It was difficult,” he said, “It’s a bit hard to talk about, actually.”

It’s not just that eviction happens a lot in poor neighborhoods, but Matt’s was also stunned by who eviction was happening to.

“Eviction is disproportionately experienced by women and black women. It’s the feminine equivalent of incarceration,” he said. “There’s a lot of young black men being locked up and young black women being locked out.”

And eviction has consequences, more consequences than just getting put out on the street. One eviction on your record makes it harder to find your next apartment. Your security deposit might be higher. Your rent might be greater. For families who are already struggling that much, that kind of pressure leads to more trouble, more evictions. Many of the families Matt talked to were paying 80 to 90 percent of their income in rent per month.

It’s just not sustainable, he said. We’ve got to do something about it.

“We’ve reached a breaking point, Megan,” he told me. “We can’t go on like this.”

The solutions, he says, aren’t so easy. Just because eviction is bad, he says, doesn’t mean no one should be evicted. It means we have to pay more attention to this process that’s directly impacting the lives of the poor.

“We know a lot about the consequences of incarceration. That doesn’t mean that no one should be locked up,” he says. “But it probably means that not so many people should. It may be the same for eviction.”

That means anti-poverty programs need to listen up. Free school lunches are nice. But no amount of school lunches make up for not having a home and not being able to get one. We’ve got to figure out what’s going on in our communities and what solutions can help.

We’ve still got a lot to learn. But to  begin, I think we need to start seeing eviction – witnessing what’s happening in our city.

Imagine it’s you. You lost your job. The bills are piling up. The rent is three months late. You’ve borrowed money from everyone you can think of, and there’s nothing left. The notice comes, and you pray it won’t happen, but it does. Your stuff – in boxes. Your children don’t have a place to come home to after school. Where will you go? And how will you put your life back together?

Hundreds of families in Chicago are experiencing this right now. We have to listen to their experience, open our eyes and figure out what can be done.


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  1. collapse expand

    Educate, Educate and Educate.

    1. Stop having Children you can’t afford and putting them in this position.

    2. If your man is in Jail, let him go or go down with him.

    3. Stop thinking and voting the Democrat ticket, make these folks earn your support. (If you can’t see change in your neighborhood or financials year after year rethink your vote.)

    4. Take African-American Leaders to task….When you see Jessie Jacksons ex-wife running around town shopping with an American Express Blackcard..Question how she got that kind of money…Jessie Jackson has never had a job..that money had to come from somewhere.

    and finally

    5. Stop having children you can’t afford for men who will stay and support you and this child.

  2. collapse expand

    “Among young black men in America, about 10 percent are currently incarcerated. It’s shocking, but we’ve almost grown used to it.”

    I would offer that many of us have not “grown used to” the unacceptable levels of black male incarceration.

    That’s why there are efforts ranging from the 21st Century Foundation’s national “Black Men and Boys Initiative” to the longtime work of Jim Brown’s Amer I Can organization.

    Perhaps if we weren’t so comforted as a society by overwhelming black male incarceration and criminal behavior (from all parts of the political spectrum), black female eviction rates would not be as severely elevated. There is a correlation.

    • collapse expand

      Hi Bill –

      I feel like you’ve misunderstood my point. I wasn’t saying that it was good that we’ve grown used to it, or that I was comforted by it. But it’s talked about a lot more than eviction rates. There’s study after study on incarceration rates and the effect of incarceration on a person’s life and family. This is the one and only study on evictions, which have much impact on the family left behind.

      There’s definitely a correlation, and we should be working to help both causes.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    This is another great article, Megan, and we can never talk enough about how eviction displaces and breaks up families, forces kids into repeatedly changing schools and (likely) increasing drop-out rates. There are teachers on the south and west side also attributing some school violence to the stress and destabilization of eviction.

    I also agree with the comment that as a society, “we” are comforted by overwhelming black male incarceration–the stinging indictment of that word, but so true. I wish we could start using words like IDP, or internally displaced persons re. the evicted and the incarcerated–it may help us see this in the proper context.

  4. collapse expand

    Another insightful, thought provoking post, Megan. The comparison of eviction to prison is shocking – and it makes sense.

    I, for one, am not at all comforted that our society puts so many young black men in jail. I doubt the penal system turns them into better men.

  5. collapse expand

    Why do these people have families if they can’t afford to pay the rent. Many women don’t even pay the hospital for the birth of their child, they leave that to the state.

    A three bedroom apartment could accomidate three single women and when the split the costs the rent would be low. But if the women all have families and mouths to feed they can breed themselves into an eviction situation.

    I think we should put more stress on telling these young women to wait until they can shoulder the responsibility of being a parent. If not they are a burden to society and most likely will condemn their children to a life of poverty. What mother would want that? Not a good one.

  6. collapse expand

    Here’s an effective solution if black men don’t want their wives, girlfriends, and families to be evicted: don’t do anything that will get you incarcerated. Novel thought, right?

  7. collapse expand

    I never thought to equate incarceration with eviction but it makes perfect sense. Thanks for your eye opening comments.

  8. collapse expand

    I never thought to equate incarceration with evictions but it make perfect sense. Thanks for you eye=opening insight.

  9. collapse expand

    Thanks for this. This scholarship on evictions is very intriguing. In my work on education stratification and for-profit colleges the data shows that being a single female parent is the strongest predictor of for-profit college enrollment. I personally witnessed this during my tenure in a for-profit college: many of the young woman — mostly minority — had very unstable housing situations that greatly impacted their education and labor decisions.

    I have been thinking lately about what this says about larger issues of gender equality; public policy about childbirth, daycare, and education; and, how this all converges to strengthen the cycle of poverty.

    Anyway, was happy to track-back to you: http://tressiemc.com/2012/01/21/eviction-is-for-black-women-what-incarceration-is-for-black-men/

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    About Me

    I'm a journalist living in Chicago writing about poverty and public housing. I don't come from the streets - I grew up on a farm. But I'm passionate about urban issues and getting to know people who are completely different from me. I'm quirky, funny and friendly.

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