KATHRYN EDIN gets out of the car in one of the poorest neighborhoods in East Baltimore. Of the 11 rowhouses on the east side of the block, all but one are abandoned. The windows are shattered and the doorways are boarded up. House numbers are spray-painted on the plywood. 

Edin, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton, stops at the single occupied home with Christine Jang-Trettien, a Johns Hopkins graduate student working with her. A young boy in a white T-shirt peers out at them from behind the screen door of the two-story house, its brickwork painted red. His great-grandmother — who has been interviewed several times over the last few years for Edin’s research on redevelopment in Baltimore — comes outside and settles on the front steps.

“I’ve been on this block since the fourth grade,” says the woman, whom Edin has given the pseudonym Mae. 

“Paint us a picture of what it was like,” Edin says.

“It was beautiful,” Mae says, her hand pulling on her graying cornrows. “Then the druggies started coming.” She points to the methadone clinic on the corner. In the house next to hers — where a decaying roof affords a view of sky — a fire started “when they go in there and get high.” 

Kathryn Edin, above, talks with members of the Blackwell family, residents of the Baltimore neighborhood she is studying. From left: Wayne, son Terry, and grandson Jeremiah.

Mae, who is 73, was a custodian at Johns Hopkins Hospital for more than two decades, where she moved furniture and stripped floors, giving her a hernia. She retired at 62, and collects a pension of just under $500 each month. 

Edin says she has heard that heating bills in rowhouses can be as much as $400 a month because of drafts from adjoining vacant homes. They discuss Mae’s other expenses, including $52 a month for life insurance, “just enough to bury me.” 

Edin, dressed in shorts and flip-flops, squints in the sunshine. She doesn’t take notes, just listens. “What do you think’s going to happen?”

“They’re going to tear down the block.” Mae’s daughter — who lives across the street in one of three occupied houses on that side — is looking for a place outside of the city “with a little grass,” and she will bring her mother to live with her. “My kids take care of me.” There are long-range plans for development on Mae’s block, but no one knows when that goal will be realized.

“It feels like the end of an era,” Edin says. “You raised your family here.”

“I’ve been here so long. You just got to roll with the punches,” Mae says, before Edin bids her goodbye with a hug. 

The visit is one of hundreds Edin and her team have made to residents of some of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods as part of her four-year project, now in its final year, to examine where redevelopment is happening — and not happening — in Baltimore, where it’s estimated that more than 16,000 houses are abandoned. The next neighborhood that Edin visits — though just a mile away — has dozens of renovated homes and “Coming Soon” signs on some still boarded up, as well as a coffeehouse. The transition, Edin notes, is already well underway. 

Since 2015, Edin and her students have studied every structure on 50 blocks across 16 Baltimore neighborhoods and conducted sit-down interviews with every resident they could find on those blocks. They are creating a house-by-house account of each block for the project to assess whether a top-down, government-sponsored approach or a renewal led by a local not-for-profit group leads to a better outcome, which would include ensuring that longtime residents like Mae are not displaced. The project is emblematic of Edin’s approach to her work — intimate, in-depth engagement with people to look closely at some of the most entrenched problems connected to poverty.

Edin and her colleague Matthew Desmond joined Princeton’s sociology department in the last year, bringing with them a strong focus on poverty in America (they jointly teach an undergraduate course on the topic) and a shared commitment to ethnographic research: They spend long periods interviewing and observing their subjects to paint detailed, nuanced portraits of individuals and communities. Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, known for his groundbreaking work on urban poverty, says he considers Desmond and Edin two of the most important sociologists working today. 

Both researchers plunge themselves into understanding the lives of those who are poor, affording attention and dignity to a sector of society that is easily overlooked. Their immersive, on-the-ground portraits offer a devastating view of how poverty and displacement roil individual lives. Moreover, they suggest real-world solutions to improve the lives of those on the margins of society. 

“To me, ethnography is what you do when you try to understand people by allowing their lives to mold your own as fully and genuinely as possible,” Desmond wrote in an afterword in his 2016 book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in The American City. “You do this by building rapport with the people you want to know better and following them over a long stretch of time, observing and experiencing what they do, working and playing alongside them, and recording as much action and interaction as you can until you begin to move like they move, talk like they talk, think like they think, and feel something like they feel.” 

To do that kind of research, Desmond lived near the people he was writing about for 18 months as he pursued his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison: first in a rundown Milwaukee trailer park, and later in an inner-city rooming house. His book went on to win the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction for its heart-wrenching look at how eight families struggling with poverty, illness, and joblessness endured multiple evictions.

SHERIFF’S DEPUTIES knocked on the door of a duplex on Milwaukee’s North Side on a cold spring day, a moving crew waiting a few steps behind them. Desmond was accompanying them. A teenage girl, maybe 17, answered. The eviction order the deputies showed her bore the name of the mother of several of the children — the youngest 7 or 8 — living there. The deputies learned she had died two months earlier, and her kids had continued living in the apartment alone. Nevertheless, the eviction continued. The landlord arrived and changed the locks with a power drill. The movers removed all the children’s possessions, lining them up on the wet curb.

The eviction was one of several dozen that Desmond witnessed in Milwaukee. In 2016, there were 2.3 million evictions filed in America, Desmond says. He captures their toll in precise detail: possessions strewn on the curb or sent to storage, where they are discarded if the fee is unpaid for 90 days (the fate of roughly 70 percent of stored items in Milwaukee). Children yanked out of school. Roots in a community severed. He found that eviction often leads to job loss, not the other way around. “Without stable shelter, everything else falls apart,” says Desmond. He knew his subject perhaps too well: His parents lost their house to foreclosure when he was in college, and the experience left him “deeply sad and embarrassed,” he recalls in the book. Back at college, he began volunteering to help build houses with Habitat for Humanity and later started a student group that connected undergraduates with homeless people living near the campus.

Because of budget limits — “due to moral choices” by public officials, he says — only one in four families who qualify for federal housing assistance gets any, according to Desmond. The federal Housing Choice Voucher Program, formerly known as Section 8 housing, provides vouchers that subsidize private housing, so that very low-income renters spend no more than 30 percent of their income on housing. But the program needs to be expanded, Desmond says: “When people get vouchers, they do one thing consistently — buy more food. Their kids become healthier, and they move less often.” But because most eligible families don’t receive housing vouchers, they spend more than half their income on housing in the private market, with some homes in deplorable condition. Desmond describes one Milwaukee apartment that has no working sinks, another that’s riddled with cockroaches. Both are occupied by tenants. He finds many units are rented without a stove or a refrigerator, which is legal. 

Matthew Desmond, right, sits on a sidewalk in Milwaukee with Kendall Belle. When Desmond was doing his fieldwork, the two men lived together.
Michael Kienitz

DESMOND WROTE about a woman he calls Arleen, a single mother of two boys; she paid 88 percent of her income to live in an apartment with filthy carpeting and a fist-sized hole in the living-room window. Her son Jori attended five different schools between the seventh and eighth grades because the family moved frequently — including to a shelter for homeless people, where they remained for several months. Eventually the family found another place, but a few weeks later, the city deemed it “unfit for human habitation” and removed them.

In graduate school, he wrote in his afterword, Desmond learned about two main explanations for inequality. One, favored by liberals, blamed structural forces such as discrimination or economic transformation. The second, favored by conservatives, emphasized cultural practices and individual issues, such as insufficient education or having children young and out of wedlock. Desmond didn’t like either. He felt the poor were written about as though they were “cut off from the rest of society” — disconnected from wealthier people who wielded influence over their lives, setting high rents and determining who could stay in an apartment and who had to leave. “Poverty was a relationship ... involving poor and rich people alike,” he writes. “To understand poverty, I needed to understand that relationship.” 

As a result, Desmond doesn’t just talk to those who live in rundown properties. He also profiles the landlords, who explain why owning in poor neighborhoods is lucrative. The Milwaukee rooming house where Desmond lived when researching his Ph.D., for example, was purchased for less than $20,000. The landlords spend little on maintenance. If tenants fall behind on the rent, evictions are easy to complete. In some housing courts, which are common around the country, 90 percent of landlords had attorneys, and 90 percent of tenants did not, according to statistics published in 2010. But he resists turning landlords into villains, instead providing a more nuanced portrait. Arleen’s landlord brought her groceries when she first moved in — but when Arleen couldn’t pay the rent, she was evicted a few days before Christmas. “Love don’t pay the bills,” said the landlord, who was netting about $10,000 a month on the 36 properties she owned in inner-city Milwaukee. 

Desmond’s conversations with his own landlord, whom he calls Sherrena, brought to his attention a law that was leading some domestic-violence victims to be evicted after they called the police. Sherrena was warned by police that she could be fined up to $5,000 because there had been three 911 calls within 30 days from one of her properties. Required to “abate the nuisance activities,” the landlord explained that the calls were related to domestic violence, but to no avail. To comply, she evicted the tenant. Desmond says the ACLU drew on his research in a campaign to modify such nuisance ordinances, and recent lawsuits have put a stop to their enforcement in several states.

Desmond also discovered there was no comprehensive data on evictions, so he created an online database that brings together 83 million eviction records gathered from all over the United States, going back to 2000. The Eviction Lab at Princeton University, unveiled last April, is the first public archive of nationwide data on evictions. It is available at evictionlab.org. Desmond hopes scholars, public officials, and the public will use the data to shed light on issues such as which housing laws are most effective and which landlords have the highest eviction rates. He has presented the data to Congress and to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and believes that federal legislation to address the housing crisis is being crafted.

How can the nation address the eviction crisis? Addressing housing policies would be a start, Desmond suggests. He notes that in 2008, the federal government paid $41 billion annually in direct housing assistance to the needy, while homeowner tax benefits such as the mortgage-interest deduction — which mainly go to families with six-figure incomes — cost the government $171 billion. “We give most of our housing benefits to families that need it the least,” Desmond said on NPR’s Fresh Air this year.

The professor proposes that the poor receive aid to pay for a lawyer in housing court, which, he argues in the book, “would be a cost-effective measure that would prevent homelessness, decrease evictions, and give poor families a fair shake.” Having social workers in housing court is another way to curb eviction. This has been implemented in Cleveland’s Community Court system, where full-time social workers in the courtroom go to work on the spot to help tenants and landlords hammer out a compromise to avoid eviction. Often the amounts of money at issue are small, though not to the family being evicted: In Richmond, Va., for example, which has a high rate of eviction judgments, the median amount owed to a landlord in 2016 was $686. 

EDIN’S NEARLY three decades of research on American poverty addresses some of the most stubborn questions about the poor: How do single mothers survive on welfare? Why don’t more go to work? And how have the lives of those single mothers been affected by changes in the welfare system? 

Her interest in the field was sparked during her undergraduate years at Chicago’s North Park University, when she volunteered in the city’s Cabrini-Green housing project, which was considered one of the nation’s most dangerous public-housing developments. During graduate school at Northwestern, she taught a class to low-income women in a church basement and learned — by chatting with her students — that they couldn’t survive financially on welfare without working off the books. Her 1997 book, Making Ends Meet: How Single Mothers Survive Welfare and Low-Wage Work, written with Laura Lein, demonstrated that unskilled working mothers often were financially worse off than those on welfare in the years before welfare reform. The authors also found that a woman collecting a full range of welfare benefits — such as food stamps, Medicaid, and housing subsidies — could meet only three-fifths of a family’s expenses. 

Another project ­— a 10-year study of parents and children living in Baltimore public housing, published in 2016 — showed how some young people thrived by escaping that housing, thanks to a number of housing policies enacted in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Edin and co-authors Stefanie Deluca and Susan Clampet-Lundquist found that young adults who had been able to move to better neighborhoods were much more likely to complete high school and enroll in college than their parents were. Many who did well said they were motivated by a passion project — a love of art, music, or a dream job, says Edin. 

WHILE RESEARCHING that project, Edin learned something that startled her: The number of families living in extreme poverty — those reporting cash income of less than $2 per day per person — had skyrocketed in 2013 to 1.5 million American households, double what it had been in the mid-1990s. Those impoverished households are home to about 3 million children. How do they survive? In $2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America (written with University of Michigan professor Luke Shaefer), Edin tells the stories of eight people who resort to such measures as selling their blood plasma twice a week or selling a child’s Social Security number, so the buyer can claim a dependent on tax returns.

“People want to contribute — they say that over and over again. It gives them a sense that they are valued members of the community.”

— Kathryn Edin

In that book, Edin profiles Rae, a 24-year-old single mother who was abandoned by her own mother at age 11 after her father died. Rae largely raised herself in a high-crime neighborhood in Cleveland, and after years of struggle, she had landed a job at Wal-Mart. Memorizing the codes on the most popular produce items earned her “cashier of the month” twice in six months. But when she came up short on gas money one day, she was forced to ask her manager for a loan or a ride. He refused. Rae was told that if she couldn’t get there on time, she might as well not come in at all. After losing her job, she and her young daughter had no income, only food stamps. She went to the welfare office and was discouraged from applying by a caseworker, a “soft diversion” that Edin says happens all over the country. 

Rae’s story illuminates the situation of many poor mothers. They want to work, but are easily pushed out of the workforce by a confluence of factors, Edin says. The first is plentiful low-wage workers, which means a Wal-Mart manager can easily replace a tardy employee. That also means employers don’t need to offer benefits like sick leave or health coverage to attract employees. The women’s weak support systems — their relatives and friends are as likely to drag them down as to lift them up — mean they often have nowhere to turn in a crisis. 

Many women don’t receive welfare because President Bill Clinton’s 1996 reform resulted in dramatic cuts to the rolls by states. That legislation gave states wide discretion on how to spend the lump-sum grants they received from the federal government, and most states diverted the money, created stricter rules, or imposed more entry requirements. In 1970, 90 percent of those eligible for welfare were receiving it. Today, that number is roughly 30 percent, according to Edin. She wants the federal government to stop allowing states to divert federal funds for welfare to programs that do not directly aid the poor. She also supports the creation of a federal emergency-assistance program for people like Rae, who need only a little help to keep their jobs.

One way to help women like Rae, Edin says, is with a government-subsidized job-creation program that would offer incentives to private-sector companies to expand hiring, creating new jobs for low-skilled workers. She suggests coupling it with child care and transportation assistance, two factors that can pose huge hurdles for workers. Another idea: providing information about how low-wage workers are treated at individual companies, so consumers could help push for better wages and fairer scheduling. 

Edin says women such as Rae want to work. “People want to contribute — they say that over and over again. It gives them a sense that they are valued members of the community. I think it is an essential ingredient to moving people out of poverty.”

When Edin lived in Cleveland for three summers, she usually saw Rae once a week — they would walk the neighborhood or take Rae’s daughter to McDonald’s, a huge treat. (Participants in the study got $50.) Sometimes Rae wouldn’t respond to texts, so Edin would go by the house where she was staying to track her down, making four or five trips before finding her. Rae shared the house, which had just two working electrical outlets and no water on the main floors, with seven other people. The able-bodied adults hauled water from a broken pipe in the basement. 

Years later, Edin and Rae are still in touch — they had lunch together recently. “I feel such a sense of honor” listening to people’s stories, Edin says. “There’s this moment of connection. This person knows that you’ve gotten them, and you’re not judging them.” Desmond, too, remains connected to many of the people he has written about. He started the Evicted Book Foundation in 2016 to help the families he interviewed. It has paid medical bills, housing costs, community-college tuition, and even stepped in to purchase interview clothes for a relative getting out of prison. Despite the improvement in the economy, two years later, Desmond says the eviction problem is “the same.”

Both professors share their writing with the people they interviewed. Edin recalls how she was nervous before reading part of one book to a woman who had grown up in the Mississippi Delta, enduring many traumas. But the woman was glad her story would be shared. She told Edin: “I never thought my suffering would mean anything.” 

Jennifer Altmann is a freelance writer and editor who formerly worked at PAW.