“America is unmatched by any developed democracy for the depth and extent of its poverty.” With those words, Matthew Desmond launched into a description of his research into evictions at an event this morning at the Boston Foundation.
Desmond is a professor of sociology at Harvard and a MacArthur “genius” winner. I am reading his recently published book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, which has received a great deal of attention. I think what is most remarkable about it is the way it zeroes in on a problem hiding in plain sight and makes it visible in an extraordinarily compelling way.
It’s worth considering how Desmond does that.
The book certainly has me reflecting on my own bias towards “hard data.” In my performance management and evaluation consulting I often advise nonprofit clients on how to use quantitative data to improve their program outcomes. But Desmond’s work reminds me of the enormous power of real stories told well.
Desmond lived in two Milwaukee neighborhoods for months documenting the struggles poor people have finding and keeping housing, and his book chronicles their real life experiences. At the same time, his book employs hard data to demonstrate that these stories are emblematic of a pervasive problem in the housing market.
There’s a lesson here for any organization trying to get the importance and impact of its work understood. Our goal should be the skillful marriage of quantitative data documenting the scale of the problem with stories that substantiate its impact on the lives, health, and well-being of families.
As for the substance of Desmond’s conclusions, this one got my attention: “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”
Desmond’s research certainly seems to me to provide definitive evidence for circumstances being the culprit in the story of America’s eviction crisis. Even so, a review of Evicted by Howard Husock of the Manhattan Institute—which bills itself as “a leading free-market think tank,” describes Desmond’s subjects as anti-heroes. As Husock reads it, “…Drugs and a range of other bad decisions and bad behaviors number among the most common causes for the looming evictions of his characters.”
Of course, no matter how strong the data and well-told the stories, not everyone will be convinced by strong findings. The debate about the deserving vs. the undeserving isn’t going to die anytime soon.
But Evicted shows the way to using quantitative data and storytelling to report on research and touch readers’ hearts. The book left me hopeful that this approach will touch not only us “bleeding hearts” but at least some of the “hard hearts” of those who still belong to the free-market blame-the-victim crowd.