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Poverty and the Individualizing of #MeToo

I have been listening to Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (the book website gives a pretty good overview of the book). Desmond followed I think 11 different people around Milwaukee in 2011 as they were evicted and tried to make do with very little money and an eviction on their record. The most striking revelation of the book is the perverse incentives that housing policies and laws create for landlords as well as tenants. For example, federal housing vouchers enable their holder to pay only a third of the rent, encouraging landlords to evict current occupants and jack up the rent to what is a good deal for the voucher holder but way above market value for the property, in effect making federal housing vouchers good for individuals but bad for poor people (public housing turns out to be much better than this privatizing move).

At the same time, I’ve been reading a number of things that have been written about the direction of the #metoo movement. Alecia Simmonds reviewed Linda Martín Alcoff’s book, Rape and Resistance, in the Australian Review of Books. Simmonds calls attention to questions Alcoff raises of the colonial history of juridical concepts of consent and property as they pertain to sexual violation and rape to ask how far they get us. Also this week I came across Ann Snitow’s piece, “Talking Back to the Patriarchy” in Dissent Magazine. She begins by averring that the #metoo movement is “simply marvelous.” But she goes on to articulate some worries. Generally, I find that the worries people raise (what about due process?!) tell us more about their investment in the status quo than real concerns about justice. But one line struck me in Snitow’s list of pressing worries: “fear of a misdirection of the eye toward individual “monsters” and away from the need for systemic change.” Indeed, this point seems most important.

The focus on individuals instead of systems is part of what allows #metoo to be for better off women. Even the systems that the women of Hollywood are trying to change seem far away from the systems of power non-celebrities work within and even further away from the systems of power that affect the poor. 

In Evicted, Desmond talks about the perverse incentives that discourage poor women in danger of eviction from reporting on domestic abuse. In Milwaukee and elsewhere in the country, in an effort to make landlords responsible for possible criminal activity occurring in the units, and to devolve policing responsibilities from police departments to private citizens like landlords, nuisance ordinances encouraged landlords to evict tenants who had any sort of encounter with the police. Desmond details the story of a woman whose downstairs neighbor called the police on her boyfriend when he was beating her. City officials sent a bill to the landlord, including $4 per 9-1-1 call, asking what she was doing to resolve the situation. When the landlord proposed to keep an eye on things and discourage the tenant from allowing the boyfriend on the premises, the city said it was not sufficient. When the landlord then responded that she would evict the tenant, the city said this solution was acceptable.

Note the work of neoliberal principles of privatizing public services like 9-1-1 calls and making private citizens responsible to pay for them as well as for the visit of police. This neoliberal drive toward privatizing responsibility ends up producing a situation in which the institution works against the supposed purpose for which it is ostensibly set up–to protect and serve. It becomes quite clear that a pay-per-service police system will not be concerned with poor victims. As they say, perhaps this is the feature, not the bug. More, the city’s supposed interest in decreasing domestic violence by requiring landlords to be responsible for what goes on in their units results instead in penalizing the victim of domestic violence who reports on such crimes by making her homeless.

It isn’t just that the cost of this person speaking out seems so much higher than the costs that many better-positioned women face. The systems in place to discourage this person speaking out are so much more clearly and explicitly working to keep her silent. Her calculus in calling 9-1-1 about domestic abuse is not whether her friends will believe her or she will be shamed on Twitter, as real as those concerns are, but about whether she will have a place to live.

I think Snitow is on to something about the concerns for systems over individuals. I think patriarchy succeeds by making us suppose it is always about individuals and not about structures. But I want to add to that concern for systems that different women face different systems. Since 2011, Milwaukee changed this law that led to victims of domestic violence being evicted for calling the police, and that’s good. We should get rid of all nuisance laws, because they are clearly penalties on the poor.

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