Child Watch® Column:
Income Inequality: The Housing Struggle

Release Date: April 8, 2016

Marian Wright Edelman

“I was in Newark and Harlem just this week. And I walked into the homes of welfare mothers. I saw them in conditions—no, not with wall-to-wall carpet, but wall-to-wall rats and roaches. . . . [One mother] pointed out the walls with all the ceiling falling through. She showed me the holes where the rats came in. She said night after night we have to stay awake to keep the rats and roaches from getting to the children. . . . And the tragedy is, so often [poor Americans] are invisible because America is so affluent, so rich.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke these words during his last Sunday sermon on March 31, 1968 at Washington National Cathedral calling for support for a Poor People’s Campaign. Almost fifty years later questions about how much poor Americans are forced to pay for housing – and what happens when they can’t afford it – are back in the national spotlight. The new book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Harvard University sociology professor and Justice and Poverty Project co-director Matthew Desmond, is calling renewed and urgently needed attention to a tragic eviction cycle invisible to many but all too familiar to families trapped in the cruel prison of poverty.

Dr. Desmond found that in the face of stagnating or falling incomes and soaring housing costs eviction has become more commonplace in America than ever. He spent months in Milwaukee, Wisconsin living first in a trailer park and then in an inner city rooming house documenting the experiences of eight families he met. In a recent interview he explained: “Most Americans, if they don’t live in trailer parks or in the inner city, think that the typical low income family lives in public housing or benefits from some kind of housing assistance, but the opposite is true.” In reality, only one in four families who qualify for housing assistance receives it: three in four are forced to struggle on their own. Dr. Desmond says, “We’ve reached a point in this country where the majority of poor renting families are giving at least half of their income to housing costs and one in four are giving over 70 percent of their income just to pay rent and keep the utilities on.”

When Dr. Desmond met Arleen, a single mom with two boys, she was paying 80 percent of her income to rent a run down two bedroom apartment in Milwaukee: “I saw Arleen confront terrible situations. Should I pay my rent or feed my kids? Should I pay my rent or get the kids clothing they need for a new school year? Should I chip in for a funeral for when my sister dies?”

Arleen and her boys were evicted so many times as he followed her trajectory, they lost count. One time her son threw a snowball and hit a passerby, and that person retaliated by kicking in the door to their apartment. The landlord evicted Arleen’s family because of the damage to the door. Dr. Desmond says Arleen then missed an appointment with a welfare caseworker because the letter about the appointment went to her old address. So she got evicted from the new apartment. The crises families face trying to pay for housing are “not just a consequence of poverty, but a cause of poverty” he says. He also noted Black women are often overrepresented in eviction proceedings, just as Black men are in prison: “Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”

Last year, the Children’s Defense Fund included in our Ending Child Poverty Now report an expansion of housing vouchers to all households with children below 150 percent of poverty whose fair market rent exceeds 50 percent of their income. Of the nine policy improvements to alleviate child poverty we proposed, this had the single greatest impact. It would reduce child poverty 20.8 percent and lift 2.3 million children out of poverty. How then do we build the political and public will to do what works?

Dr. Desmond also met Vanetta in Milwaukee who said in a recent interview: “I grew up in every shelter, basically, in Illinois and Milwaukee. I didn’t have a stable place over my head. I didn’t have proper food, or I didn’t even know a few times how I was going to eat that night. We missed meals multiple nights, and it was hard. And all I ever wanted for my kids was not to put them through that.” Her troubles started during the recession when her hours at the Old Country Buffet were slashed from five days to one day a week. Suddenly she had to choose between paying arrears to keep the electricity on or paying the rent. Falling further and further behind, she received an eviction notice. Terrified of being homeless and losing her children, and desperate to pay the bills, Vanetta participated in a robbery. She’d been on the waiting list for public housing for two years, but after the robbery she became a convicted felon, which meant her chances of ever being approved were almost zero.

In that final Sunday sermon Dr. King reminded us: “Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. America has not met its obligations and its responsibilities to the poor. One day we will have to stand before the God of history and we will talk in terms of things we’ve done. Yes, we will be able to say we built gargantuan bridges to span the seas, we built gigantic buildings to kiss the skies . . . It seems that I can hear the God of history saying, ‘That was not enough! But I was hungry, and ye fed me not. I was naked, and ye clothed me not. I was devoid of a decent sanitary house to live in, and ye provided no shelter for me.’” Dr. King said, “this is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it.” For millions of Americans, including all those who still can’t afford decent shelter for their families, that question remains unanswered.

Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

Sign-up to receive CDF President Marian Wright Edelman's weekly Child Watch Column.

Let us know what you think about this column:

Enter this word: Change

Here's what others have said:

Submitted by Riana at: May 3, 2016
Landlords are deliberately raising rents to keep minorities and other low income folks out. HUD already knows this. People have come out and clearly state that this is a deliberate attempt to keep decent housing out of the hands of certain people. Recently, in Beverly MA, the city decided to let Whole Foods come into the neighborhood. We know that anytime a Whole Foods takes over a neighborhood, the price of renting or buying a home exceeds that which was otherwise possible in the neighborhood. New roads are being built to accommodate this upscale grocery store, while landlords from Boston and other areas are taking over local properties and hiking up rents. They openly come out and state that MA is "underpriced", especially te Northshore, and have colluded to hike up the cost of living. In the old days, this would be considered fraud, but predatory capitalism has taken hold. People in the area are paying nearly 50 percent of their meagre incomes to live in the same place they have lived for decades, all this because of the greed of landlords and the desire to keep poor people or those struggling out of decent neighborhoods and confine them to bad areas where gangs, drugs and other ills run the show. The Federal Government is helpless in the face of private landlords raising rents in order to keep subsidy receivers out. The subsidy program in itself is flawed, in that it keeps the poor forever poor by mandating they pay more rent, if their income goes up even a little bit. Because of rental hikes from HUD as well as landlords, people who are not the 1 or 10 percent or have several people in the household contributing towards rent, are unable to buy clothing, shoes, fix cars and pay for food. The system does not work. It only continues to maintain a permanent underclass in order to provide slave labor to corporations and to the rich real estate owners. When will this change? Why should there be search a dearth of decent housing for all?

Submitted by chris at: April 21, 2016
please send me the load down of up coming programm.Thanks for your understanding

Submitted by Donna Dee at: April 21, 2016
The truth is the light. A heart that creates poverty for a nation with in a nation to gain wealth will create it's own destruction.

Submitted by Pam at: April 11, 2016
This article is the truth. It is an eye opener. America has rich and wasteful people, everyone needs to help the poor. God will be pleased.

Submitted by shalommakers at: April 9, 2016
I'm deeply troubled by the uncounted throngs of people living in hotels and motels. Most of these families cannot save enough for move in costs for apartments and, if they could, the screening processes put in place by landlords and their risk management attorneys exclude renters because of criminal backgrounds, poor financial histories and other challenges. Couple this with public policy ordinances and regulations that severely limit the length of stays in hotels and motels (i.e. Ashland, VA and Chula Vista, CA); and the result is more people on the streets and in homeless shelters. Then, add to this the criminalization of the homeless (i.e. no camping in public places), where are people of little to no means supposed to live? What issues of Toxic Stress (i.e. upon children) will yield even greater costs to society? There are better ways and as a wealthy nation, we simply must do better.

Submitted by Anonymous at: April 8, 2016
Why is America so mad at those receiving assistance for housing to live in places where they would not want to live? The lack of affordable and public housing is criminal. Not everyone can buy a house.