In 2017, Princeton professor and sociologist Matthew Desmond won a Pulitzer Prize for his book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.” The book brought the issue of eviction to national attention.
In his book, Desmond famously argued that eviction, which affects more than two million U.S. households each year, “isn’t just a condition of poverty; it’s a cause of poverty.” In other words, being expelled from homes directly causes ex-tenants’ financial conditions to worsen.
Inspired by Desmond’s work, a Yale-affiliated paper published in the National Bureau of Economics Research in August sought to investigate the impact of eviction using data.
“We wanted to do something quantitative to understand the causal impacts of eviction,” said John Eric Humphries, economics assistant professor at Yale and coauthor of the study.
Humphries said that while his group found a causal effect of being evicted on financial distress, the effect was relatively moderate, especially when compared to the high baseline levels of financial distress faced by those under the threat of eviction.
According to Humphries, a key takeaway of the findings was that intervening in eviction court itself would be unlikely to prevent broader financial disruption for evicted individuals.
“We likely need to focus on policy starting earlier to target the broader disruption,” he said.
Daniel Tannenbaum, economics assistant professor at the University of Nebraska and coauthor of the study, said that while the group did not observe eviction driving tenants into poverty, “one nuanced exception is that the eviction order has a damaging effect on people’s access to credit — we see that, for example, it decreases tenants’ ability to have access to a credit card or any other source of revolving credit.”
Tannenbaum also added that the study’s data reveals gaps in legal representation in eviction courts — which could potentially be addressed in future reforms.
“In our dataset, 97 percent of tenants have no legal aid in eviction court, and around 75 percent of landlords do have a lawyer — that’s a really striking fact we see in our data,” he said.
Humphries described the research as a “new contribution in the data space,” marking the first time researchers can directly compare evicted tenants to other defendants who faced an eviction case but won.
Winnie van Dijk, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago and coauthor of the study, said that, “We think this is a nice example of how qualitative and quantitative methods from across the social sciences can complement each other and move forward policy debate.”
The study’s dataset included hundreds of thousands of eviction cases spanning 17 years of court history in Cook County, Illinois — the second most populous county in the U.S., which includes Chicago and some of the surrounding areas. For each tenant in the historical data, the researchers also traced financial data for a few years before and after their eviction case.
“There’s just really little data on eviction in the U.S. — and now that’s changing a little bit,” Tannenbaum said.
Tannenbaum also emphasized the group’s approach to establishing a causal relationship between eviction and poverty. While the “gold standard of evidence” would be to randomly select tenants to appear in eviction court, that would be extremely unethical. The researchers were able to approximate random assignment by leveraging the fact that Cook County randomly assigned defendants to judges.
The national average eviction rate is 2.34 percent, according to the Hartford Courant.
Jessica Pevner | firstname.lastname@example.org .