One of the major themes in sociological research on poverty is the way in which impoverished people have so few choices and opportunities that they become desperate, hopeless, and cynical. This leads to problems like violence and substance abuse, and prevents people from making decisions that could potentially help them get out of poverty. Desmond emphasizes that those who face housing insecurity are in such dire circumstances that it is nearly impossible for them to make choices that would improve their lives. Housing is such a fundamental part of life that housing instability (and especially eviction) frequently destroys people’s mental health, physical wellbeing, and self-worth. It is thus absolutely vital that everyone is able to access stable, good-quality housing.
Desmond explores the way in which hopelessness and desperation lead poor tenants to “accept” inequality and exploitation not because they agree that this is right, but rather because their focus is on the more urgent and challenging issues of surviving in incredibly difficult circumstances. He notes, for example, that even though Tobin is in the top 1 percent of earners and most of his tenants are in the bottom 10 percent, the tenants largely do not complain about this vast injustice: they “had a high tolerance for inequality.” This does not mean that the tenants agree with the system, but rather that they feel powerless to change it. Faced with so few choices and such challenging circumstances, they remain trapped in a mindset of desperation and hopelessness.
Another way in which inequality leads people to accept further exploitation and injustice is through the cycle of eviction itself. Desmond notes that “the high demand for the cheapest housing told landlords that for every family in a unit there were scores behind them ready to take their place. In such an environment, the incentive to lower the rent, forgive a late payment, or spruce up your property was extremely low.” In other words, the increase in evictions is cumulative: the more evictions take place, the more desperate people exist who will take the place of existing tenants. This allows landlords to increase rent while offering poorer-quality housing. Furthermore, those caught in the cycle of eviction are less likely than others of their same income level to eventually achieve housing stability. Desmond notes that eviction makes people 25 percent more likely to experience “long-term housing problems” than other low-income renters. The increased likelihood of further eviction makes people even more desperate and hopeless than they otherwise would be.
Desmond also explores how the desperation and hopelessness caused by housing insecurity affects other aspects of people’s lives. He points to the high rates of crime, substance abuse, suicide, and incarceration among people who experience housing instability, and argues that if a person does not have secure housing, there is little hope that they will be in the right state—physically, psychologically, and financially—to make good decisions in the rest of their lives.
He demonstrates this point through Scott, a drug addict who turns to substance use due to his feelings of hopelessness and cynicism when he is unable to find housing. Of course, Scott’s substance abuse in turn makes him more unlikely to be housed due to the interference of drugs in his professional life, his corresponding lack of money, and the fact that landlords discriminate against drug users. It is only when Scott is able to secure cheap, stable housing through a charity that he is finally able to get clean and sober and return to work. Without housing, he would remain trapped in a hopeless cycle of poverty, homelessness, and drug use forever.
Desmond’s description of Larraine, meanwhile, shows that even people who do not have criminal records or substance abuse issues still remain trapped by lack of choices simply because they are poor. At one point, Desmond describes Larraine spending all her food stamps for the month on a single lobster dinner to commemorate her anniversary with her late husband. Larraine’s poor choices of spending welfare checks and food stamps on expensive or frivolous items may seem like a case of bad decision-making: “To Sammy, Pastor Daryl, and others, Larraine was poor because she threw money away. But the reverse was more true. Larraine threw money away because she was poor.” No matter how much Larraine scrimped and saved, it would always be impossible for her to lift herself out of poverty. Furthermore, she believes that she has a right to give herself moments of pleasure where she can, and knows that this right does not disappear simply because she is poor. It is thus absurd to blame people for the decisions they make when no decision would actually improve their lives. Without secure, affordable housing, all “choice” is really an illusion, and it is completely unsurprising that people surrender to hopelessness and desperation.
Hopelessness and Lack of Choice ThemeTracker
Hopelessness and Lack of Choice Quotes in Evicted
When city or state officials pressured landlords—by ordering them to hire an outside security firm or by having a building inspector scrutinize their property—landlords often passed the pressure on to their tenants. There was also the matter of reestablishing control. The most effective way to assert, or reassert, ownership of land was to force people from it.
Poor families were often compelled to accept substandard housing in the harried aftermath of eviction. Milwaukee renters whose previous move was involuntary were almost 25 percent more likely to experience long-term housing problems than other low-income renters.
When tenements began appearing in New York City in the mid-1800s, rent in the worst slums was 30 percent higher than in uptown. In the 1920s and ‘30s, rent for dilapidated housing in the black ghettos of Milwaukee and Philadelphia and other northern cities exceeded that for better housing in white neighborhoods. As late as 1960, rent in major cities was higher for blacks than for whites in similar accommodations. The poor did not crowd into slums because of cheap housing. They were there—and this was especially true of the black poor—simply because they were allowed to be.
Men often avoided eviction by laying concrete, patching roofs, or painting rooms for landlords. But women almost never approached their landlord with a similar offer. Some women—taxed by child care, welfare requirements, or work obligations—could not spare the time. But many others simply did not conceive of working off the rent as a possibility. When women did approach their landlords with such an offer, it sometimes involved trading sex for rent.
The power to dictate who could stay and who must go; the power to expel or forgive: it was an old power, and it was not without caprice.
But for the most part, tenants had a high tolerance for inequality. They spent little time questioning the wide gulf separating their poverty from Tobin's wealth or asking why rent for a worn-out aluminum-wrapped trailer took such a large chunk of their income. Their focus was on smaller, more tangible problems […] Most renters in Milwaukee thought highly of their landlord. Who had time to protest inequality when you were trying to get the rotten spot in your floorboard patched before your daughter put her foot through it again? Who cared what the landlord was making as long as he was willing to work with you until you got back on your feet? There was always something worse than the trailer park, always room to drop lower.
To Sammy, Pastor Daryl, and others, Larraine was poor because she threw money away. But the reverse was more true. Larraine threw money away because she was poor.
Then there is the toll eviction takes on a person’s spirit. The violence of displacement can drive people to depression and, in extreme cases, even suicide. One in two recently evicted mothers reports multiple symptoms of clinical depression, double the rate of similar mothers who were not forced from their homes. Even after years pass, evicted mothers are less happy, energetic, and optimistic than their peers.