One day on a whim, Arleen stopped by the Housing Authority and asked about the [housing assistance] List. A woman behind the glass told her, “The List is frozen.” On it were over 3,500 families who had applied for rent assistance four years earlier. Arleen nodded and left with hands in her pockets. It could have been worse. In larger cities like Washington, DC, the wait for public housing was counted in decades. In those cities, a mother of a young child who put her name on the List might be a grandmother by the time the application was reviewed.
Most poor people in America were like Arleen: they did not live in public housing or apartments subsidized by vouchers. Three in four families who qualified for assistance received nothing.
If Arleen wanted public housing, she would have to save a month worth of income to repay the Housing Authority for leaving her subsidized apartment without giving notice; then wait two to three years until the List unfroze; then wait another two to five years until her application made it to the top of the pile; then pray to Jesus that the person with the stale coffee and heavy stamp reviewing her file would somehow overlook the eviction record she’d collected while trying to make ends meet in the private housing market on a welfare check. (59-60)
Evicted, by Matthew Desmond. Broadway Books 2016.
Professor Desmond is teaching a class called Poverty in America (SOC 207) this semester. For this week, we read the first part of his book on eviction, one of the most common issues facing poor communities in the United States. The book won the Pulitzer Prize, was a New York Times bestseller, and received lots of attention from the press because it is both well-written and well-researched. Notably, the research was not just done in a library. As a sociologist, Desmond also did fieldwork. He went out into communities in order to interview and interact with people who face some of the problems related to eviction.
Professor Desmond’s book is a wonderful example of the benefits of conducting ethnographic research and how it can be used to give a more holistic understanding of the issues at hand. Statistics can report the basic numerical facts, but if one has not experienced it, it is hard to have an understanding of what being evicted actually looks like from numbers alone. Desmond uses his detailed observations and his knack for storytelling to give the statistical skeleton some meat. His quotes and the situations in the book are all nonfiction, as Desmond says in his author’s note, yet he is able to use particularly telling moments to get his point across.
In this passage, Desmond explains the problems with trying to take advantage of public housing, which could theoretically be an alternative to the private rental market. Desmond tells the statistical story by following Arleen into the Housing Authority when she asks about getting on a list to receive rent assistance. After the reader hears the woman in the Housing Authority tell Arleen that the list is frozen, Desmond is able to explain to us what that means and why it might be frozen. Most effectively, I think, Desmond uses Arleen in a conditional paragraph to explain all of the steps Arleen would have had to go through to get public housing. Arleen has been established as an individual whom we know, but here, Desmond uses her to stand in for anyone who might want to go through this process. In this way, we understand this long, bureaucratic process in reference to our character Arleen.
This deft movement between the large and small scales is worth examining and emulating. Learning how to use particular examples, to have the material being analyzed speak for itself in order to prove a larger point, is important for writing in all disciplines.
–Tess Solomon ’21