Tuesday, May 11th, 2010

Megan Cottrell: Eviction Is to Black Women What Incarceration Is to Black Men

[ Here’s another piece from Megan Cottrell’s incredible blog on poverty and housing issues, One Story Up. If you saw the article on Matt Desmond’s work in the New York Times, just for the record, Megan had the story first – Aaron. ]

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.

This article originally appeared in One Story Up. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

Megan Cottrell: Don’t Fall in the Poverty Trap – You May Never Get Out

[ Megan Cottrell’s One Story Up blog might be one of the most important in the United States. It is certainly a must-read for anyone in Chicago. She covers housing and poverty, two un-glamorous subjects that have all but been abandoned by newspapers. These aren’t topics beloved of urbanist blogs either, but they are critical to understanding our cities and building successful lives for all citizens. As Megan notes, the phenomenon she describes affects up to 40% of all Chicagoans. I encourage you to check out her work. ]

Until you earn about $40,000 a year, you’re pretty much stuck in poverty, an economist’s numbers show.

In fact, until you get past $40,000 a year, any raise or higher paying job you get might actually sink you deeper into poverty.

Take a look at this story from economist Jeff Liebman, who now works in the Obama Administration.

The poverty trap is still very much a reality in the U.S.

A woman called me out of the blue last week and told me her self-sufficiency counselor had suggested she get in touch with me. She had moved from a $25,000 a year job to a $35,000 a year job, and suddenly she couldn’t make ends meet any more. I told her I didn’t know what I could do for her, but agreed to meet with her. She showed me all her pay stubs, etc. She really did come out behind by several hundred dollars a month. She lost free health insurance and instead had to pay $230 a month for her employer-provided health insurance. Her rent associated with her section 8 voucher went up by 30% of the income gain (which is the rule). She lost the ($280 a month) subsidized child care voucher she had for after-school care for her child. She lost around $1600 a year of the EITC. She paid payroll tax on the additional income. Finally, the new job was in Boston, and she lived in a suburb. So now she has $300 a month of additional gas and parking charges. She asked me if she should go back to earning $25,000.

Take a look at this chart by economist Clifford Thies, via Greg Mankiw’s blog.

The Dead Zone

From the green dot, you can see that earned income rises… for a while. Then there’s this screwy wavy line. That’s the mother making a little more, but earning a little less.

$40,000 a year is about $19 an hour. Over 40 percent of Chicagoans don’t earn that much.

There aren’t that many jobs out there that make $19 an hour. Bank Teller? $13.33 an hour. Office clerk? $15.60. Retail salesperson? $11.80. Security guard? $16.14. (Statistics via Chicago Rehab network).

Our tax incentives work… initially. Then they only serve to hurt people. They say the poor don’t work hard enough, but that single mother sounds like a pretty hard working person to me. The story goes on to say that she got a weekend job, to try to make ends meet. Except after childcare and gas, it didn’t help at all.

So if working harder means people might actually earn less, how is it that we expect people to work harder?

This article originally appeared in One Story Up. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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