Leonard Quart: Living in poverty; undermining CUNY


NEW YORK >> I am tempted to add my voice to the mountain of columns about the Trump phenomenon, a spectacle that depends much more on his blunt, macho, gifted performer's style and personality than any of the nebulous, barely thought through policies that he proposes and often retracts. But there is no point in my merely angrily repeating the same critiques other writers have offered. I'm holding back writing the column until I can provide some fresh insight into the constantly shifting black comedy orchestrated by "The Donald" that we laugh off at our peril.

However, I have been reading a book on another subject that is worth writing about. It's by a Harvard sociologist, Matthew Desmond: "Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City" (Crown), that follows the lives of landlords and tenants in some of Milwaukee's poorest neighborhoods. Milwaukee is the fourth poorest city in the country, and the poverty rate among African-Americans in the city is 39.9 percent.

Disorder reigns

Much of Desmond's book is ethnography — a detailed account of his living in a trailer park where mostly poor whites live — and a rooming house. He immerses himself in their worlds by listening to and observing the people facing eviction.

He also did extensive research revealing just how commonplace eviction is in the lives of poor people, particularly for residents of the segregated inner city. Analyzing court records of formal evictions, he found that in Milwaukee's majority-black neighborhoods, 1 in 14 renting households is evicted each year. For them disorder reigns. According to Desmond, "without a stable home, and the ability to plant roots because you're paying 60, 70, 80 percent of your income to rent, eviction becomes something of an inevitability." Given the high cost of housing, and the fact that government housing assistance has failed to expand to meet rising rents, and public housing has huge waiting lists, for the poor it usually means financial ruin.

Desmond's book vividly describes everyday life for those facing eviction; one that is permeated with misery — roaches, sewage, broken families, depression, illness, crime and drugs. Of course this confusing, chaotic and painful world has been depicted in many other books dealing with life in the inner city. Still, Desmond's centering on housing has added one more powerful dimension to what it means to be poor in America. He states: "Housing is not something we've decided as a country to universalize, to treat as a right. If families were turned away for food stamps, we'd see it as an outrage."

Women usually head Desmond's evicted families, and he always avoids turning them into abstractions, instead allowing them to come alive in the fullness of their flawed humanity on the page. He also follows a couple of landlords, and never treats them in a stereotyped manner as predictably avaricious villains, explaining that their jobs can be difficult and tricky — the tenants often missing rent payments, and some making their places more unlivable then they already were.

Still, the landlords may use dubious tactics to remove tenants, and in many housing courts 90 percent of the tenants lack legal representation. In addition, the landlord's profit margins for dangerous and substandard housing (building codes are rarely adhered to by landlords) are often large.

Poverty, according to Desmond, is not only caused by low incomes, but is also based on what things cost for the poor, including housing. The poor are vulnerable to exploitation; they rarely have the knowledge or resources to defend themselves against a variety of predators.

Given how persistent American poverty is, Desmond sees a stable place to live as allowing people "to become better parents, workers, and citizens." He views residential stability as helping psychological stability, and advocates a universal voucher program, which would provide everybody below a certain income level with a housing voucher. To make it effective, he feels would require regulating housing costs. It's a proposal that the Sanders campaign should adopt, though I know the social and psychological problems of the poor will not be miraculously resolved with an affordable apartment.

There is another political issue that has more direct impact on my own life. I spent my whole teaching career in CUNY, where I was once an extremely active and then a more passive member of the teacher's union, the PSC. For the last six years this union of 25,000 members has worked without a contract.

I asked a long-time activist and head of the union's retiree's chapter for an analysis of what has transpired. He stated: "A governor (Andrew Cuomo) who boasts that New York State is the "progressive capital" of the nation seems to have no problem promoting austerity for CUNY when the state has a budget surplus. More and more, CUNY is funded out of the pockets of students as tuition escalates and state funding diminishes."

Cuomo vs. CUNY

According to him Cuomo has also applied the same austerity to faculty and staff, which has made it difficult for CUNY to attract faculty to an institution that still successfully serves a preponderantly working class, minority and immigrant student body.

Still, when the state budget was finally agreed on (by the usual secretive three men in the room), Cuomo backed off the half billion-dollar cut in state funding of CUNY, but still continues Albany's policy of underinvestment in CUNY. The budget also fails to include any mention of back pay for CUNY employees, though another year of tuition increases has been eliminated.

I am relatively optimistic that a fair contract with the aid of a mediator will finally be achieved. But one may ask again what motivated Cuomo to undermine CUNY for so long. It couldn't be something so pettily vindictive as punishing the union for not supporting him in the primary, or sticking it to his rival De Blasio?

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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