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Exposing the realities of eviction

February 22, 2017

"Eviction" is a term that has become increasingly familiar to Americans over the past decade as one of the most visible symbols of poverty and economic misfortune. But research by social scientist and ethnographer Matthew Desmond shows that the reality of eviction is more complicated than traditional narratives might indicate.

Notably, Desmond says, eviction can actually serve as a cause of poverty, rather than an effect.

"One of our studies shows eviction can cause higher rates of job loss," said Desmond, a professor at Harvard University, whose work received support from the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate. "Prior to that, I thought it was the other way around -- that job loss causes eviction. It certainly does in some cases, but we have stronger evidence showing that eviction leads to job loss."

Desmond said eviction can destabilize people who were already in economically vulnerable positions. "It causes folks who didn't have great jobs in the first place to lose those jobs," he said.

Work by Desmond and his team of researchers has proven influential in the social science world, as have his methods for gathering and analyzing data on a topic where reliable information can be difficult to find. His research team draws on state-level data, court records, police reports and personal interactions. Desmond spent months living in a trailer park and inner-city apartments to meet families experiencing poverty and affected by eviction.

The team's work in Wisconsin led to the creation of the Milwaukee Area Renters Study, a synthesis of data that sheds light on the causes and consequences of eviction.

The researchers are currently expanding their work to other areas of the country, and the MacArthur Foundation recognized Desmond's efforts by naming him a 2015 fellow.

Evictions were once rare enough in the United States that they could draw protests from neighbors trying to prevent them, Desmond said. Today, he says, "low-income families are used to the rumble of the moving truck," making evictions more important to study now than ever.
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National Science Foundation

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