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ASU alum and urban sociologist winner of MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’

Matthew Desmond
October 03, 2015

In the span of a dozen years, Matthew Desmond has made the academic leap from ASU undergrad to renowned researcher of entrenched poverty and social inequality.

On Monday, the Harvard sociology professor was announced as one of 24 winners of the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, commonly known as a “Genius Grant.” Each recipient of the grant earns $625,000 to further his or her work.

For Desmond, that means he can further his research on worldwide eviction and the impacts on the child-welfare system.

In 2009, he and a team of 10 scholars commenced research on the Milwaukee Area Renters Study, a groundbreaking work that culled court records, ethnographic fieldwork and collected questionnaires from approximately 1,000 households to design a portrait of the high rates of eviction and the ways in which it disrupts the lives of low-income families.

Desmond spoke to ASU News about his reaction to the award, his research and how ASU was the starting point for his life’s work.

Question: How did you react to the news of winning the Genius Grant?

Answer: I received a phone call from the MacArthur Foundation a few weeks ago and was sworn to secrecy. At first I was in disbelief and thought they were pulling my leg. Then I realized they were serious. The funny thing was I took my kids to lunch that day and I wanted to tell them about this great thing that happened. My daughter wanted to talk about “Star Wars,” and my son wanted to discuss Luke Skywalker. So that was the experience on the day we found out.

Q: How did Arizona State University prepare you for the work and research you conduct today?

A: I’m originally from Winslow, Arizona, and when I came to ASU I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. I started taking these classes in justice studies and communication, and some of the narratives of the stories I heard haunted me. The family I grew up in, the money was always tight but there was always social mobility that could be gained through education. What I learned in the classes at ASU unsettled me so much that I wanted to figure something out. I worked all through college, but when I wasn’t working I was studying in the library, trying to figure out the contours of poverty. I also got involved in community service at ASU and worked with outreaches that dealt with poverty like Habitat for Humanity. At the end of my four years, I even started an outreach organization that dealt with the homeless population around the Mill Avenue area so I could get to know them on a more personal level. I see ASU as fundamental in introducing me to those issues and shaping my work.

Q: You once stated that eviction is a “cause rather than a symptom” of poverty. Can you explain that?

A: A lot of times when you think about eviction, you think of it as a consequence of poverty. “You lose your job, you get evicted.” Eviction is this harshness that you encounter, but we don’t think of it as something that actually drives poverty. That’s a big thing we’re running into when examining the data. Getting evicted is a very stressful event — it causes you to miss work, it directly affects job performance and it can also result in being fired. This is just one example of how the outcome of eviction can actually make people poorer. People end up moving to poorer neighborhoods, even more dangerous neighborhoods and in worse housing than they were before. The reason for that is because eviction often ends up in civil court and comes with a record. Landlords are now using eviction records as a screening technique, and because of that many families are excluded from opportunities to get better housing.

Q: One of your other findings was that poor families used to turn to kin for help, and now poverty-stricken families are turning to strangers to form brief and intense relationships for assistance, creating a network of “disposable ties” to meet pressing needs.

A: The disposable-ties theory is that a half-century ago you might turn to your family for help and swapping money and goods daily to help try and make ends meet. I loan you $25 today and you feed me tomorrow … that’s how it worked. It didn’t end their poverty, but it allowed them to survive. During the study period I saw people reaching out to virtual strangers to meet their fundamental basic needs. There could have been family around to help, but I didn’t see it. I saw how people need the help of strangers and when they were helped, it accelerated their friendships. Often these friendships did burn out because of the trying conditions. Maybe incarceration or federal policies on family play a role in this and why things have changed, but it’s a very interesting question to pursue.

Q: What are some of the emotional issues that eviction can cause in a person that the public might not know or understand?

A: One thing that I think everyone should understand is that eviction affects the entire community. In the African-American areas of Milwaukee, one out of 14 people are evicted every year. That’s a lot of people, and there’s a constant turning over in neighborhoods. It dwarfs the opportunity to build strong community ties and affects civic engagement. It also affects crime. We’re just now starting to realize all of these issues, and municipalities are starting to understand this as well. On a personal level, eviction is a very traumatic event. You lose all of your possessions and then you’re out on the street. You are literally starting over. Then there’s the toll that it takes on one’s spirit. One thing we’ve found is that eviction is tied to depression, and it seems to have a real effect on mental health. The moment itself seems to leave a really deep impression on happiness, so it has these consequences that are multi-dimensional and sticky.