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Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

Matthew Desmond
Published by Crown Publishers in 2017

$2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in the U.S.

Katherine J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer
Published by First Mariner Books in 2016

Unequal City: Race, Schools, and Perceptions of Injustice

Carla Shedd
Published by Russell Sage Foundation in 2015

Rebecca C. Burwell is a faculty member at Chicago Semester, where she teaches courses in race, social justice, and vocation.

In 1942, during the Second World War, British academic William Beveridge developed a report entitled “Social Insurance and Allied Services” that identified five social issues that the British government would need to address once the war was over. These challenges included “squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease.” In short, Beveridge’s report was a call for concerted government action to rebuild the infrastructure and opportunities for British families to succeed after the devastation of the war.1

Though he did not know it at the time, Beveridge’s report would become the vision for a post-war British society. His report is significant because he understood what many researchers and social scientists studying the intractable issue of poverty in the United States have come to understand: that poverty is a part of a broader constellation of issues that make disadvantage multidimensional. Poverty, understood too narrowly as just a lack of money or income, only examines one piece of the complex problems facing low-income families. Thus, any society that wants to address poverty will have to also examine the “5 evils” Beveridge identified and their analogs today: housing (squalor), universal education (ignorance), income for the poor (want), full employment (idleness), and health care (disease).

In a 2016 report by the Brookings Institution, “Five Evils: Multidimensional Poverty and Race in America,” Richard Reeves, Elizabeth Kneebone, and Edward Rodrigue delve into how these five dimensions of disadvantage cluster in various ways to marginalize families—and in particular, families of color—so acutely.2 The job of researchers, policy experts, and other institutions that are trying to address poverty is to see how these dimensions overlap and to “de-cluster” them in a way that makes social mobility more of a reality for people living in poverty.

The books chosen for this essay—Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer’s $2.00 a Day, and Carla Shedd’s Unequal City—address the dimensions of inequality and poverty that make social mobility difficult for families living on the margins. Though not exhaustive, these authors help us parse out some of the mechanisms that make poverty and inequality so intractable for economically vulnerable families living in the U.S.

Sociologist Matthew Desmond examines the patterns of eviction and housing dislocation in his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016). Evicted follows eight families—some black, some white, some with children, some without—who are experiencing the eviction process in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Obtaining affordable housing has been a growing problem in the U.S.; on average, poor Americans spend half their income on rent. And, in fact, about one in four poor Americans spends about 70% of their income on housing.3

Looking at the private rental market in which many low-income families must find housing, Desmond found some disturbing trends. Formal and informal evictions in Milwaukee between the years 2009 and 2011 forced roughly one in eight of the city’s residents to move. In a city of over 600,000 with only 105,000 renting households, Milwaukee landlords evict approximately 16,000 adults and children a year, which is roughly 16 families a day. For decades, we have focused on addressing poverty in the U.S. by tackling issues related to living wage jobs, workforce development, the stress of single parenthood, and the lack of access to quality education for all communities. However, Desmond reminds us through his insightful, carefully researched, and heartbreaking work that we have not fully appreciated the extent to which issues around housing are deeply implicated in the creation and maintenance of poverty.

In Part 1 of Evicted, Desmond introduces us to the families he has been following. He briefly grounds their stories in the history of Milwaukee’s industrial boom, its deep segregation, and its subsequent loss of industry and jobs. Within this context, families have found themselves afflicted by the loss of jobs, economic instability in neighborhoods, and the proliferation of the drug economy and addiction that plagues some of the individuals he profiles.

One family Desmond follows—single mom Arleen and her sons Jafaris and Jori—called on or applied to 82 apartments during just one of Arlene’s multiple home searches over the years. She was accepted to none of them, and most apartments in the city were out of her reach financially. The constant movement from one rental to another, the practice of doubling up or living with relatives in their cramped apartments, and Arleen’s experience of formal and informal evictions meant instability for her sons in terms of their schooling and health care (one son was an asthmatic). In addition, the housing search was full time, making time for obtaining stable employment almost untenable. Arleen received some disability payments because of her ongoing struggle with depression, but the money did not go very far and the public housing list for vouchers was frozen in Milwaukee with over 3,500 families on the list. The private rental market was Arleen’s only option after exhausting the help of family and friends. By the time she called landlord #85, he asked her a list of questions related to her dating habits and familial situation. One landlord subjected Arleen to a litany of complaints about the presumed problems that Black women have staying in relationships. He said, “Let’s bring back family. If you ain’t trying to be about family, then I don’t care about sister here, in helping you any sort of way” (233). The poor, but particularly poor people of color, have every part of their life scrutinized even when just going about the very normal business of trying to rent a home.

One of the most interesting things Desmond examines in Part 2 of the book is the gendered experiences of eviction. By this he means that women got evicted more often than men. His research found that men could pay off or avoid eviction by laying concrete, patching roof tops, or generally doing other odd jobs to make up for the lack of payment. Women were far more likely to have their options circumscribed by their need to care for children or by the fact that they had children and that landlords were less likely to rent to them in the first place. When Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968, it did not consider families with children a protected class. As Desmond explains, “Children caused landlords headaches.” Fearing violence in the streets, many families kept their children inside where children “used the curtains for superhero capes; flushed toys down the toilet; and drove up the water bill. They could test positive for lead poisoning which could bring a pricey abatement order” (230). By 1988, Congress finally outlawed discrimination of families in housing, but families with children are still on average turned away from 7 out of 10 house searches. This was one of the most interesting findings of the book and an important reminder that experiences of poverty and housing insecurity are gendered as well as racialized experiences.

Finally, Desmond suggests a few things to think about to address the eviction crisis, which he concludes leads to personal, psychological, and social instability in households and neighborhoods. He suggests the affordable housing crisis should be at the top of the domestic policy agenda of any president and administration. Additionally, he recommends expanding legal aid to help poor families in housing court, which would stay a lot of evictions. Furthermore, he states that expanding our universal housing voucher program could help low-income families and give them more choices. With that he also suggests stricter policies for enforcing discriminatory practices by landlords, those practices which disproportionately affect women and children. Desmond proposes that housing is a basic human need and right and that countries all over the world invest in programs to ensure that people are housed. The one critique of his book is that these recommendations seem to fall short in light of such an intractable problem and one which very few people care much about, especially those already housed. However, his ideas are an important first step. We can likely do many things in the U.S. just by expanding our programs already in existence.

In $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America (2015), Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer seek to understand how the number of American families living on $2 a day per person has skyrocketed to 11⁄2 million households, including 3 million children, in the last two decades. Their research attempts to understand how these families became so poor and how they survive.

While teaching at Harvard University, Edin—who has spent her career as a sociologist doing groundbreaking research on American poverty—began to notice something in her data that she had not seen before: a growing number of families surviving on virtually no cash income at all. She asked Shaefer, a leading expert on the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), to see if he could detect a trend in the SIPP data over time. SIPP is a survey done each year by the U.S. Census Bureau to obtain as accurate as possible a reading of the incomes of the poor and the degree to which they use government programs; it is the most comprehensive data set that we have on poverty in the U.S. In order to pursue her observations, Edin needed a data set that might show these extreme economic patterns as well.

What Shaefer found proved Edin’s observations correct: that the number of families that were extremely poor had grown in the last two decades. Working with the SIPP data, Edin and Shaefer found that the one out of every twenty-five families living in the U.S. was surviving on $2 a day and that that number had more than doubled in a decade and a half. Though single mothers were most at risk, about one-third of these households were headed by a couple. Edin and Shaefer found that the rise in this population of extremely poor families cut across all racial groups. Though Latinx and African American families had higher rates of this extreme poverty, about half of the families were white. The research summarized in this book attempts to understand the shift in circumstances for families at the very lowest rung of the economic ladder and gather evidence about the rise in $2-a-day poverty.

Using the findings from the SIPP data, Edin and Shaefer realized that they needed to understand from the perspective of those surviving on $2 a day how people live with virtually no cash in one of the world’s most advanced capitalist economies. Beginning in 2012, they began setting up four ethnographic field sites across the U.S. to learn from families about this type of grinding poverty: Chicago, IL; Cleveland, OH; Johnson City, TN; and the Mississippi Delta. After following 18 families for several years of research, their findings confirm the rise of a new form of poverty that defies every assumption about economic, political, and social progress made over the last three decades.

To frame their research and to give a context for what they found, Edin and Shaefer introduce the reader to the complicated terrain that “welfare”—or Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF)—has traversed in the recent past. They chronicle the alterations in the welfare program as the poverty alleviation program transitioned from AFDC (Aid for Families with Dependent children) to TANF in 1996, as well as what led to these historic changes. David Ellwood, a researcher and policy expert at Harvard, had long studied welfare and the uneasy relationship Americans have had with the institution over time. The 1980s images of the “welfare queen”—replete with racial stigmatizing and unsupported assertions that welfare engendered laziness and out-of-wedlock births—characterized many of the stereotypes Americans carried of recipients using the welfare system. The fact was that the typical family using welfare was white, and on average, spent less than 2 years in the system. Nonetheless, in the popular consciousness, welfare families were anathema to American values of hard work and independence.

With that in mind, Ellwood sought to rethink the welfare system in such a way that people would be more accepting of the idea of a social safety net. He created a plan that suggested term limits, but only accompanied by meaningful education and job programs that enabled families truly to leave the bottom rung of the labor market. In addition, he championed an expansion of the EITC (Earned Income Tax Credit), a tax credit to working families. He also suggested the creation of a public jobs program for workers that could not leave welfare in the allotted time period.

When Bill Clinton became President and campaigned on a promise of “ending welfare as we know it,” he tapped Ellwood to shape the new program. Ellwood came to Washington, D.C., tasked with the job of revamping and expanding EITC—which would become bigger and more costly than any AFCD/TANF program ever was or was intended to be. And after the mid-term elections handed Republicans a majority in both houses, it was their opportunity to craft their own version of welfare reform.

What Ellwood found when he arrived in Washington, D.C. was a welfare reform bill that was nothing like the policies and programs he had been proposing. The switch from a federally administered program to the proposed block grants to states allowed the states to reduce their welfare rolls by any means necessary; it did not require states to engage meaningfully in creating the types of programs that poor families really needed to leave the underclass permanently, such as expanded jobs programs, more education, and training. The reform legislation also allowed states to cap their limits and not pay out past that set number despite families’ needs if the state had only budgeted so much money for the program. It consequently meant that some families, though eligible for aid and destitute, might not ever receive any kind of assistance. While a cornerstone piece of AFDC was that families had a legal right to cash assistance, this was not a part of TANF. Ellwood quit working for the administration when he felt the new welfare reform was incomplete and harshly treated the very recipients it was intending to serve. Thus, Edin and Shaefer begin their analysis and story within the context of these welfare changes that have seemingly thrust poor families into even more precarious economic conditions.

The researchers found several things in common in the families they interviewed. The first was that despite the views of poor families as being lazy and dependent on the state, very few used TANF or even knew it existed. The reasons many did not seek out welfare included that the process for applying and receiving welfare was onerous and that the system often left families still very short of cash. Many also described the process of working as important for their advancement and psychological wellbeing. Thus, few were willing to use the TANF benefits even for a short period of time.

Jennifer and her two children, Kaitlyn and Cole, are one family in Chicago that Edin and Shaefer follow in their research. Jennifer worked in the low-wage economy, cleaning foreclosed homes. She finally landed that job after applying to over 100 positions while she and her children were living in a shelter called La Casa. The work was hard: cleaning boarded up homes, some with mold, no heat or water, with rotting floor boards, and the cleaning crew was expected to make these homes look like new. The team often did not have running water or enough cleaning supplies to finish the job. Still, Jennifer proved herself an able worker and was given more shifts as she was one of the quickest cleaners. However, Jennifer also had asthma, and the chemicals (as well as the unheated homes) left her with infections and shortness of breath. She began missing work because of her illness, but she did not receive any sick days. Consequently, her boss started giving her fewer hours. Once those hours dwindled, she realized she would need to find another job in order to keep her housing subsidy she had secured through La Casa’s housing subsidy program. Thus, she had to commit to looking for a job almost full time.

Edin and Shaefer found that “few families in the $2 a day poverty are chronically disconnected from the work force. Rather, most of them are workers who fall into extreme poverty only when they can’t manage to keep or find a job” (42). Jennifer really wanted to work and felt that she needed the job not just financially, but because it also boosted her “psychologically.” Of the families they surveyed, roughly 70% of the children who experienced being in families that were living on $2 a day lived with an adult who held a job at some point in the year. How is it, they ask, that a “solid work ethic is not an adequate defense against poverty?” (45). In Jennifer’s case, she had a very high work ethic and worked through her illness when she could, despite sometimes having to visit the emergency room for her asthma. Yet her work ethic and her ability to secure low-wage work still did not enable her to move out of poverty.

As Edin and Shaefer found, Jennifer’s case is not rare: about one in four jobs in America pays too little to lift a family of four out of poverty. And the authors suggest that “the sectors of the economy populated by low wage workers now dwarf those that the country once relied on to provide jobs in the working class trades that paid a respectable wage” (43). It is not a problem that likely will go away anytime soon.

In addition, those who did work found themselves in jobs that were temporary and sometimes dangerous. Few people who worked made more than minimum wage, nor did they receive any kind of benefits. Many worked brutal, health-compromising jobs that often led to their inability to keep the job, as in Jennifer’s case. Another thing that happens is that many extremely poor workers work in fields where they cannot get enough work hours to make ends meet. Employers limit hours so that they do not have to pay benefits or overtime. Finding reliable child care also proved to be a huge hurdle, especially if one’s schedule changed daily or weekly.

Another issue that families encountered—similar to what Desmond found— was that housing, or lack of housing, was a barrier to economic stability. Almost all families had problems finding and keeping affordable housing; the housing they did find was almost always substandard, with no running water or heat, or with other poor structural conditions. Edin and Shaefer posit that housing instability is the hallmark of the $2-a-day poor. Before the Great Recession of 2009, housing costs had been rising, with rents rising faster than inflation, while real income was falling. Also, the supply of affordable housing has remained flat while housing subsidies only cover a small percentage of families in need. There is solid evidence, the authors assert, that programs subsidized through HUD do help low-income families keep afloat and avoid homelessness. But, since the 1980s, there has been a reduced government investment in housing programs. Thus, families find their options for stable housing diminishing.

Furthermore, though many of the families Edin and Shaefer encountered had members that were officially labeled as “unemployed,” very few of them did not work in some capacity. They might engage in collecting and trading in scrap metal, selling aluminum cans for recycling, or doing odd jobs here and there for cash.

One of the weaker elements of the book is the authors’ examination of the effects of “Adverse Childhood Experiences” or ACEs, which are experiences of abuse or trauma that many people have during their lifetime but that seem to affect poor people more frequently. Edin and Shaefer suggest that these events push people into poverty, but do not fully address how poverty itself is trauma. They only analyze one direction of the cycle—that is, that trauma can push people into poverty—but fail to ascertain how poverty sets people up to be vulnerable and more likely to experience trauma. While ACE is important, they could examine its role in the lives of the $2-a-day poor in more complex ways.

Finally, the authors asked, how do families survive on so little for so long? “By any means necessary,” is what they found. This includes a combination of engaging in somewhat dangerous economic strategies (selling drugs, plasma, bodies for sex), running small, illegal enterprises out of their homes (selling candy, renting out their car for rides), or surfing private charities (or sometimes public ones) for items of need (dental check-ups, school supplies, canned goods). Those who lived in larger cities could navigate this network of private charities where shelters, food pantries, and other resources abound. However, the destitute in rural areas had no such network and relied on a system of other poor persons to make it through, sharing housing, cars, or disability checks.

Edin and Shaefer end their analysis with some ideas for how to address this deep poverty. They suggest that we increase the EITC and housing subsidies and create a subsidized jobs program that would help employ people. In addition, they marvel at the resiliency of the people they have come to know and suggest that there is much worth “protecting and nurturing” in the families they have encountered. We have models for these programs already and would be wise to think about how to implement and invest in them more fully.

The final book I examine in this essay is Unequal City: Race, Schools, and the Perceptions of Injustice, by Carla Shedd (2015). Through in-depth interviews and observations with youth that attend a variety of Chicago public high schools (neighborhood, magnet, and selective enrollment), Shedd investigates the ways young people from Chicago neighborhoods navigate the boundaries of their communities. She assesses their access to economic and educational opportunities, how they perceive safety in their communities, and their experiences with law enforcement. As I suggest at the beginning of this essay, to understand the depth and complications of inequality and poverty in this country, we must examine a constellations of challenges—housing, income, education, health, and so on—to tease out concrete solutions to the problem of poverty. We also must understand that for communities of color, many households are affected by multiple levels of challenges, not just one (such as poverty or a loss of a job). In that case, examining educational disparities and the inequalities within which young people navigate their daily lives gives us another window into the complex ways persons experience marginalization. Shedd’s analysis illuminates for readers the intersection of race, place, and opportunity and demonstrates the role that schools play in reinforcing adolescents’ perceptions of themselves and in their ability to access opportunity in their lives.

Chicago’s neighborhoods are scarred by the city’s long legacy of residential segregation, poverty, and racial discrimination. The inequalities in resources dramatically shape the landscape of public schools in the city and reinforce young people’s racially divergent social worlds and their encounters with authority figures, both within their schools and within their neighborhoods. Shedd begins her analysis by grounding her work in the voices of adolescents—we call youth “the future,” but very often we do not center young people’s ideas, experiences, and voices in the debates around the issues that affect them most intimately. Adolescence is fraught with many challenges: adjusting to new schools, finding jobs, making sense of life, building more independent relationships, and navigating often tough social circumstances. This developmental time is a formative period for young people; exploring their ideas of inequality and injustice and giving their voices scholarly attention are important to forming a more accurate picture of young people’s lives in the unequal world in which we live.

Shedd chose four very different schools spread across the city from which to survey and interview young people. The four schools represent different parts of the city. They include those that are neighborhood-based and must take all who come through their doors and others that are lottery- or test-based, which means they have more discretion in terms of who they admit into their programs. The schools she samples include Walter Payton College Prep, a selective enrollment school (with test-based admission) in a near North Side neighborhood that has quickly gentrified in the last two decades. She also interviews students from Lincoln Park High, a neighborhood high school from one of the wealthiest zip codes in the city, but a school that also accepts many students from outside of the neighborhood boundaries, making it one of the most demographically diverse high schools in all of Chicago. The other two schools she chooses—Tilden Career Community Academy, and Harper High—are in two South Side communities. Tilden is situated between the Fuller Park and Canaryville neighborhoods; demographically, the school is majority African American, with about a one-third of its students being Latinx. Harper High is a bit farther west, nestled in a residential block of West Englewood, again a majority Black school and neighborhood. While both schools endured white flight and many demographic changes over the last few decades, they are now experiencing a decrease in student enrollment, which affects their overall financial viability. These schools are neighborhood-based and must accept everyone within their boundaries. However, when neighborhoods lose young people to out migration, then the schools lose some of their funding. Thus, both schools endure a number of funding challenges that affect the curriculum and services they can offer students.

In her interviews, Shedd asked students to share their own experiences of their neighborhoods, the police, their schools, and the opportunities their schools afford. She also asked them to describe their encounters with security at their schools. Shedd points out that the growth in the prison industry and police surveillance of communities of color extend into schools situated in poor Black and Brown communities. One of her most interesting findings was how the security apparatus at Walter Payton and Lincoln Park High Schools, both in wealthy white neighborhoods and with a substantial population of white students, was more relaxed than in the other two schools. However, several of the students of color that she interviewed at Lincoln Park and Walter Payton expressed how neighborhood police outside of the schools seemed to profile the students of color more frequently than the other students, asking them to not congregate on corners, moving them away from bus stops, or forcing them to leave public spaces such as parks.

In contrast, the students at the majority Black and Brown schools, though they had just as much of a police presence in and outside of school, did not always perceive the police presence in the community negatively, nor did they necessarily see the differences in how white and non-white students were treated. One informant, David, from Harper High School, had a perception that discrimination against African Americans in his community happened mostly in terms of hiring practices and did not see it as much in his observations of policing in the community. He says, “They should just be doing their job, just watching and making sure the neighborhood … is safe … they can question people to keep the environment in order.” When asked if he thought that police do this more often to Black people than people from other racial groups, David concludes, “it happens to everybody” (142).

One of Shedd’s most interesting findings was how students of color who were at more demographically diverse schools were confronted more powerfully with the fact that the neighborhoods where they lived and the institutions there were far less equal than what they encountered in their school neighborhoods. One informant, Angela, contrasted her neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago where she lives and the police presence there with what she saw in Lincoln Park, where her school is located. Angela says,

Every day I go home and there is somebody getting pulled over … they can just be walking and they’ll pull them over … and they throw you in the car [but in the school neighborhood] it can be a whole group of White kids walking down the street, the police will ride by … and say “hello.” (142)

Shedd’s analysis and the youth narratives she shares help us understand the geography of opportunity that many young people navigate on a daily basis as they travel to and from school. One’s neighborhood context matters, and it can mean access to opportunity, isolation, and sometimes protection within the confines of the environment one knows. Though I appreciated Shedd’s grounding of youth voices in her analysis, I would have liked to see a fuller narrative of each youth’s life and choices. That is, while we hear about their perceptions of school and why they chose to be there, not much else about her participants’ lives was shared, from their familial context, to how they came to the decisions they did about school, to where they hope to go next. Her conclusions, though, are helpful in demonstrating the importance of our educational structures to social mobility and access to opportunity.

In her conclusions, Shedd suggests that

[The] confluence of declining budgets and wholesale educational reform with increased correctional spending has created an educational system that stratifies the paths taken by young people toward the next institution in their lives—whether the University of Chicago, a community college, or a correctional center—at ever earlier stages. The “restoration of apartheid schooling,” in our nation’s urban, public schools, to use Jonathan Kozol’s term, underscores the racial, spatial, and socioeconomic dimensions of the educational trajectories of our youth. (158)

She argues that schools have become the more powerful agents of social stratification, more so than neighborhoods themselves. And the increased physical mobility in moving out of one’s neighborhood to another school does not guarantee social mobility. Thus, Shedd argues that “transmitting a sense of fair treatment and procedural justice should be central to the organization” of urban institutions, but especially schools through whom urban youth learn much about fairness, inequality, and how “the other half” lives.

While the three books I review give voice to the complexity and challenges of poverty and inequality, they each provide a window into how the dimensions of housing, schools, living wage jobs, poverty, and access to health care overlap. Desmond situates housing at the center of his discussion, finding that very little can be attended to—schools, job security, saving money—until one obtains a stable home of some sort. Likewise, Edin and Shaefer suggest housing is integral to keeping and maintaining a job, and not just any job, but one that allows you to pay your bills and access health care. Finally, Shedd’s analysis of the opportunities schools offer (or do not offer) urban youth and the ways our educational system still treats students unequally suggests that neighborhood change cannot happen without schools being part of the solution to challenging stratification. In all, the books propose that any attempt to address poverty and inequality without attention to these dimensions will keep us still struggling to address the fact that more and more families have fallen more deeply into severe poverty in this country.

While none of the books touch on the role of faith communities in challenging poverty and inequality (nor do they set out to do this), I was nonetheless as a Christian scholar compelled to think about my own responsibilities as a person of faith to addressing the trials faced by families living on the margins. How do faith communities respond to and challenge unjust systems? Where do we continue to fall short in these matters? One concept I keep returning to is Desmond’s premise that we cannot just explore poverty and housing issues by examining only individual or structural/systemic level explanations for people’s lack of housing and experiences of vulnerability. He names these relationships as exploitative and calls the reader to examine the connections between families that are poor and those that are economically comfortable and indeed well off.

As I reflected on these deeper questions, I was reminded of Dr. Willie Jennings’s The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010). Jennings’s work prompts me to re-examine the “logic” of eviction, displacement, and poverty as events that do not happen in a neutral space or without relationship to people and places with resources. Likewise, Christian scholar David P. Leong, in Race and Place: How Urban Geography Shapes the Journey to Reconciliation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2017), asks Christians to contemplate more deeply how race, place, and economic marginalization operate in neighborhoods that we share. Similarly, the three books reviewed in this essay have obliged me to examine that, if I am of the comfortable class, what is my role in maintaining these unequal relationships?

Edin and Shaefer remind us that we should be deeply disturbed by the reality of families in one of the richest nations surviving on less than $2 a day. The families they interviewed, the households Desmond followed, and the young people Shedd encountered have given us, the readers, windows into the very complicated yet resilient lives of people living on the margins. As we witness oppressive structures at work in our own communities, and reflect on our personal tendencies to ignore these challenges, Leong prays that we will be “disturbed with our complicity in these problematic walls of hostility to the point of further study, research, contemplation, and lament” (199). After reading these three books, I was left at the end wanting more, disheartened by the rather tepid policy initiatives the authors suggest to remedy inequality in this country. However, just as Leong encourages us to lament the pain we see in our communities, the authors have reminded us that the deep fault lines in our economic system are not to be carried by the marginalized alone. They are our burdens, as well.

Cite this article
Rebecca C. Burwell, “Families Living on the Margins— A Review Essay”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 47:3 , 293-304


  1. Sir William Beveridge, “Social Insurance and Allied Services,” 1942. <accessed June 30, 2017 at
  2. Richard Reeves, Elizabeth Kneebone, and Edward Rodrigue, Five Evils: Multidimensional Poverty and Race in America (Brookings Institution, 2016).
  3. American Housing Survey, 2013.

Rebecca C. Burwell

Chicago Semester
Rebecca Burwell is a faculty member of the Chicago Semester and primarily researches topics surrounding race, inequality, and social justice.