Meritocracy is where our life outcomes are solely the result of our own individual efforts and actions, thus, undeserving subjects only have themselves to blame. Based on the idea of meritocracy, governments impose neo-liberal polices, which preserve laissez-faire capitalism while adding a role for a minimal state, where neo-liberal subjects are solely responsible for their own well-being and the poor are underserving. However, Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, an ethnography on housing evictions in Milwaukee among eight families, challenges this myth. The core to understanding meritocracy is understanding the structure and agency dynamic: structure is what falls outside of the individual that enables or constrains their choices while agency is the capacity of individuals to make choices.
In this paper, I will analyze how housing issues in Milwaukee, including evictions and dilapidated housing conditions, intersects and deepens poverty through the lens of the structure-agency dynamic. In the context of the United States, a neoliberal society, dominant conceptions of poverty places pervasive housing issues entirely on the agency of an individual. Grounded on this assumption, tenants’ hardships in Evicted are individual failings caused by poor, autonomous decision-making. In the Hinkston household, their choice to misuse various household appliances from their original purposes, such as washing dishes in the bath tub and dumping excessive water down the toilet, caused the kitchen sink, bathtub and toilet to break.
The Hinkstons live in dilapidated housing solely from individual shortcoming. However, this perspective fails to take into consideration the element of structure, where agency takes place within a social context that provides opportunities and places constraints. While the Hinkstons’ broke many household appliances, their landlord, Sherenna, refusal to fix and improve their household reinforced these poor conditions. Due to the high demand for affordable housing in Milwaukee, it is more cost-effective for landlords to evict tenants than maintain rental property. Many landlords neglect repairs as they can transfer the responsibility of household maintenance to tenants. A cumulative of structural forces – the mismatch between the number of affordable houses and the pool of individuals searching for housing in Milwaukee, unfair advantages in the legal system that gives landlords leverage over their tenants, and landlords’ pursuit of their profit-making – leaves impoverished families unable to bargain their right to decent housing and instead, compelled to accept housing that barely meets “basic habitability requirements”.
Evictions are not an individual phenomenon as individuals are not solely responsible for their own economic predicament. Rather, social institutions constrain the capacity of human action, which produces high rates of evictions among the poor in Milwaukee. Thus, it is imperative to not disregard structural forces in understanding evictions and the formation of everyday experiences, as this approach may risk the misleading assumption that the impoverished individuals remain poor due to poor choices and that they are undeserving of help. Instead, we need to understand how social institutions force the impoverished to be victims of economic exploitation, making their choices not agential in a meaningful way. On the other hand, some view evictions as a structural phenomenon, where impoverished tenants are persistently trapped in poverty and face housing issues as they have no agency over their life outcomes.
Through processes of socialization, social institutions reinforce social norms and practices that support the stable societal structures. This exerts a powerful force on individuals to behave in a certain way to maintain social order. In 2008, the economic recession reduced the working hours of Vanetta, a twenty-year-old African American mother of three. Desperate to pay her electricity bill to prevent Child Protective Services from taking away her children, Vanetta participated in an armed robbery, but was arrested, and eventually fired from her job and evicted. Structural forces placed Vanetta in a desperate position, which left her with little choice but to rob the two women. This violation of social norms inflicted more constraints on her situation, as it left a blemish on both her eviction record and criminal record, which marginalizes her from accessing public housing – that is even if the Milwaukee rental assistance list weren’t frozen – and from the private housing market where landlords tend to reject tenants on the basis of their evictions and criminal history. Evictions can lead to a loss of home, loss of possessions, social isolation, increase material hardships, worsen mental health, and overall destabilize an individuals’ life, which encourages them to commit to crimes as a last resort to survive, and repeat the cycle.
While the structure of society organizes human behaviour, structure does not solely dictate individual outcomes. Rather, individuals possess some degree of autonomy over their decisions, which can recreate and reinforce the opportunities individuals those very structures. Evictions are not simply a structural phenomenon. Vanetta’s agency perpetuated a reciprocal cause-and-effect manner between poverty, crime, and evictions, where impoverished individuals are trapped through structural forces, which leads to poor individual choices, then even more structural constraints. Rather than viewing structure and agency as separate entities which cause evictions and poverty, it is imperative to conceptualize the two as a dialectic that bounces back and forth between each other – individual decisions are shaped by social structure whereas agents’ reactions reinforces structural forces.
The structure and agency dynamic helps us understand the lives and choices of tenants as well as social life and organization, to learn about the challenges and hardships that accompany evictions, as well as the choices and decisions that causes and deepens poverty in Milwaukee’s economy. The structure and agency dynamic challenges the meritocracy myth, which claims that individuals are able to succeed purely on their hard work and effort. In Evicted, Crystal and Vanetta as well as Pam and Ned have similar circumstances – both have children, welfare support, eviction records and criminal records. However, Pam and Ned were able to find an apartment more easily because “they were white” while the Crystal and Vanetta, 2 black women were denied certain apartments because they were Black, which holds the stereotype that they will “trash the place anyways”. In Milwaukee, a black-white racist binary system marginalizes Black people from the housing market, due to historical processes and racial stereotypes that still prevail in spite of laws. Since landlords’ rental decisions are still heavily influenced by race, this creates structural inequalities that constrains the housing that individuals have access to on the basis of identity features. Crystal and Vanetta were persistently unable to rent housing not because they are underserving, but because Black people are at distinct disadvantage compared to white people, which prohibit them from advancing.
This subverts the idea that people in Milwaukee are able to succeed on the basis of their merits, as it fails to account of social location, and how it circumscribes the choices available to individuals to begin with. Furthermore, it highlights the disparities to accessing opportunities among people of a similar social class due to intersecting identities. It is crucial to understand the structure and agency dynamic to recognize its utility to lift impoverished individuals from the vicious cycle of evictions and poverty. Scott, a former nurse and recovering addict, exercised his agency and stuck with his rehabilitative treatment, despite the temptations to relapse, and maintained his job as a cleaner, despite its dreary and lacklustre nature. As a result, structural forces rewarded his decisions: government assistance lowered his treatment costs, while upward mobility in the workplace and job benefits helped him acquire affordable housing.
In return, his apartment “made (him) feel affirmed” and motivated him to believe that he had the capacity to for a better future – one where he was a nurse again. The dialectic between structure and agency empowered Scott was able to lift himself from poverty and work towards regaining his nursing licence: his agency to choose the “right option” – to stay on the treatment and keep his mundane job – and the organization of external forces which provided him with various benefits.
This also demonstrates how structure and agency simultaneously strengthen each other, as the transformation of the individual consciousness cannot occur without support from external forces. However, it is important to recognize that part of the reason Scott was able to lift himself from poverty, unlike the other households in Evicted who were persistently trapped, was because he had different circumstances which placed him at an advantage: he didn’t have to bear childrearing burdens unlike Arleen, he didn’t have a physical handicap that prevented him from working unlike Lamar, and he wasn’t discriminated on the basis of his race unlike Crystal. Thus, it is important to acknowledge the systems of oppression entrenched within society to recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all plan to pull people out of poverty because of varying intersectional identities and life circumstances influence existing agency and human capacity, thus a multi-faceted approach needs to be taken. Nonetheless, Scott’s situation shows that the cumulative of individual lifestyle changes, including sacrifices, and structural forces of social institutions can help evicted, impoverished people acquire the necessary resources to overcome poverty and work towards a better future.In conclusion, understanding the dynamic between structure and agency is central to not only Evicted, but to Sociology as well. Social structure can enable or constrain individuals’ access to resources, opportunities, and effectively human agency, while individual actions can reinforce those social structures.
The interplay between structure and agency challenges the meritocracy myth, as social locations influence individual choices and outcomes. In Evicted, structure and agency explores poverty and eviction through understanding the nature of logic behind each individuals’ behaviour in reinforcing their impoverished state, and how social institutions persistently fail to lift the individuals out of poverty. Since a single eviction destabilize an individual’s life, we need empower impoverished households to regain control of their lives through making wise decisions while simultaneously advocate for strategies to change structural injustices such that everyone has equal access to resources and opportunities to change their lives. Hence, it is important for key actors of evictions – policy makers, landlords, and citizens – to adopt this sociological thought of thinking in terms of both structure and agency.