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Another Job for Another Crisis

Published onJun 16, 2023
Another Job for Another Crisis
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“If it were not for the despicable money, I would [come home] right away. But with our future so insecure, I have to take everything I can get.” — Franz Boas (1969:194)1

I pulled my key out of the ignition and reached for a letter.

“Dear TENANT,” it began, “an ORDER OF EVICTION was filed for this property. You may be at immediate risk of eviction. We are a non-profit working with the City of Detroit to help renters PREVENT EVICTION and have housing. Our services are free. CERA (COVID Emergency Rental Assistance) can PAY BACK RENT or utilities for many renters. Apply today for assistance.”

I sighed. The flimsy language of the letters made canvassing difficult, especially in a city plagued by housing scams and predatory tax foreclosures — they felt suspicious, even with court case numbers printed in the center of the page.

This was the twelfth house that day, a brick duplex with a wide double-story porch. I climbed out of my car, clipboard and pen in hand. The nonprofit put our canvassing team together in a rush after the eviction moratorium ended, so fast they hadn’t made nametags or other identification for us. This oversight had led to serious consequences for my coworkers, all of whom were low-income Black Detroiters. Many had been threatened in the course of canvassing, one woman so badly she quit the same day she started, dropping her letters off so others could finish delivering them.

My experience canvassing had been much quieter, save an aggressive pair of dogs in a darkened apartment hallway. When people saw me at their doors, a tall white man carrying a clipboard, many assumed I was an official in the nonprofit or with city or state government. The nonprofit claimed it was important to have canvassers who looked like the tenants we were trying to reach, saying it built trust in the program. It proved hard, however, to trust a program that would not even associate itself with its canvassers through official identification. In this landscape, my whiteness became the closest thing I had to an ID, and it made a marked difference.

When I started my dissertation fieldwork in Detroit in the fall of 2021, money was the main issue on my mind. Through two brutal and historically competitive grant cycles, I had come up short. I had no external funding to support me but could not delay any longer. I had to start my fieldwork on a skeleton of a budget, in a major American city, in the middle of a housing crisis. As I prepared to leave for the field, my husband and I made budgets, trying to find a way to make paying two sets of bills work. It did not take long to realize that, if we were going to make it, I needed to get a job.

Ethnographic fieldwork is incredibly expensive, an issue we too often ignore in anthropology. Given our valuation of long-term fieldwork, I find this a curious oversight. We rarely discuss how granting institutions privilege projects in countries where limited funding stretches further in currencies weaker than the imperial American dollar. For anthropology students working in the U.S., securing a major award of $30,000 barely places them over the poverty line for projects spanning 18 months — even students receiving generous stipends cannot escape this basic economic problem as grants replace rather than augment stipends, exchanging economic security for abstract senses of “prestige.” Our discomfort with discussing funding has allowed granting institutions to shape who can become anthropologists and the kinds of fieldwork they do. Like all funding regimes, grants presume ideal subjects, and they discipline applicants toward those ideals through their unquestioned control of essential and esteemed financial means. In anthropology, this control has kept fieldwork a privileged pursuit for lone subjects, preferably with the finances to smooth over funding gaps grants cannot. For students supporting children, partners, or family, the sums we expect anthropologists to subsist on are clearly unlivable, a reality that continues to profoundly shape the gender, racial, and class makeup of the field.

When I arrived in Detroit to begin my fieldwork, I moved into a friend’s guestroom, temporarily, as I looked for work through connections made during preliminary fieldwork. Within a few weeks, rumors about the canvassing job reached me. The nonprofit running the program was well-known, and they needed people to reach tenants in eviction proceedings so they could triage CERA applications faster.

Trying to get a sense of the job, I called up a friend who had worked for this nonprofit in the past. They told me they left over a year ago, there was no way to know whether the job was good or bad because nonprofits change so rapidly. I could always quit if needed, they said.

Over the weekend, I received calls from other folks I knew who had heard about the job. Like me, they asked what they were getting themselves into. Even in the unpredictable nonprofit aid economy, where low-income people make up a large portion of the workforce, these were discerning gig workers consulting each other about what kinds of jobs they were willing to take.

Six of us attended an initial meeting with the nonprofit, which was less an interview than an on-boarding. We were given a script to inform tenants about their court cases and the availability of CERA funding and a digital form for collecting contact information for the office’s use. After reading through the script, and filling out W-9s, we were handed letters with addresses and names on them and told to begin. That was the extent of our training.

As the six of us left, we gathered on the front steps, organizing an informal workflow. Several workers there had canvassed before, but mostly with paper forms. This nonprofit was asking us to fill out digital sheets and submit our hours as PDFs converted from Excel spreadsheets. All eyes turned to me, the youngest person there by two decades. I became the team’s tech support, submitting hours each week and fielding questions about the online form. My visibility to the accounting department also meant that I was the one accounting called when checks became available, which won me quite a bit of goodwill with the team on paydays when I called to inform them their checks were ready.

Kent was the oldest canvasser there, and the first person notified about the canvassing work, so he became our unofficial head. When canvassing letters were ready, Kent picked them up and sorted the letters by zip-code to minimize the distances we had to travel. The letters came sorted numerically by case number, which often placed addresses on near-opposite sides of Detroit’s 143 square miles next to each other. When the letters fit neatly into manila envelopes, this additional labor was not too burdensome. Then the letters swelled into multiple boxes, a material symbol of the mounting eviction crisis.

As the letters grew, our team did not. Our canvassing days grew longer and stretched over further distances as we stacked our cars with armfuls of letters. During the worst of it, we were a month behind on cases, and the nonprofit blamed us for this backlog even though they had failed to scale our team alongside the crisis. It took four months before the nonprofit agreed additional canvassers were needed. They agreed to four more but told Kent it was our job to hire and train new canvassers — a task we could not count as billable time.

Perhaps the worst part of the job, however, was that the CERA program was not working. In the best-case scenarios, CERA zeroed out clients’ outstanding debts without changing the basic problem of too-few jobs and too-low wages. It was May, another canvasser, who asked if CERA was just becoming a bailout for landlords, many of whom had driven up prices when the CERA program was rolled out.

“Landlords feel like they got stiffed [in 2020],” May said, “but if nobody is making any money, there’s no money circulating — how am I supposed to pay you when I’m not getting paid? Now with [CERA] relief, they get to make that money and still throw these people out — I feel they should not be allowed to get the money [if they] throw people out.”

We had all knocked on hundreds of doors with no answer, some swinging open to reveal empty apartments stripped to studs, others where neighbors told us the family had moved out months ago, still others where the windows and doors had been boarded shut. I also knew clients who were denied CERA because their income was too high. These were mostly families who had multiple incomes, families who still became homeless because their “too high” incomes were not high enough to pay the back rent plus late fees and interest. Like all funding regimes, CERA presumed ideal subjects, and disciplined those that failed to measure up.

Somehow these injustices made us work more — cases were successful sometimes. Many of us canvassers thought, “if we worked harder things could be different.” It became impossible to think that way, however, when the same things happened to us. Two canvassers became homeless themselves after receiving the same eviction aid we were passing out. Others were saddled with crippling debt when their cars suffered breakdowns from long-deferred maintenance. And all of us became ill with COVID-19 without the protection of health care.

When I told people what I did, they said I was doing important, morally virtuous work. I struggled to see the virtue in it; “virtue” painted over the quotidian violence of aid and justified a culture of overwork.

When the nonprofit we worked for received $13 million to continue eviction prevention in 2022, the canvassers traded messages that our jobs might go full time. Instead, the letters stopped coming.

When Kent asked why, he was told the canvassing program cost too much, more than $120,000 for the year, with just over a quarter of cases being positively affected.

“Those numbers don’t support extending the program,” Kent said to us. We were in his living room, all eight of us sitting on folding chairs in the glancing sun.

“Man,” Gerard said, the second-oldest canvasser among us, “they pimped us real good,” he laughed. “We were out there trying to make a difference in people’s lives, but all we were doing was giving them numbers that got them paid. Now they got their money, so they don’t need us anymore — they were never planning on doing anything more than pimping us.”

Heads nodded in agreement.

I wondered how I was going to get through the next four months.

When I woke the next day, Gerard’s words were stuck in my head. I had come to Detroit to study how people navigated the complex world of nonprofit aid and took this job to support that work, thinking it was a distraction from it. Now I realized I, too, had been caught up within this aid economy, paid a pittance to connect clients to aid in ways that justified aid’s existence without changing the underlying reasons it was distributed.

My coworkers, many of whom had been homeless before, knew the stakes of this work, and the likelihood of its success from the start — but like me they had been seduced by the promises of stability that the huge sums casually tossed around during the pandemic had conjured. What was $120k, after all, within a scheme of $13 million? Canvassing lent us the respectability of the nonprofit and state institutions behind us, and our work made us believe for a moment in the possibility of institutional remedies, that there was help to change the conditions of economic desperation that drove us into this work, if only we knew how to apply for it. That belief was proved deeply wrong.

Unlike me, however, my coworkers were more accustomed to the boom and bust of this economy, and to the fleeting nature of aid work.

“Don’t feel too bad,” May said to me later that week. “There will always be another job for another crisis.”

Notes

1 During coursework, I remember skimming through the sections of Boas’s letters that talked so frankly and desperately about the financial burden he and his family faced during fieldwork. I wish now I had spent more time paying attention to the central importance of funding in what it means to be an anthropologist, and what it is to do fieldwork. I wish also that such discussions were not relegated to the archival dustbins of history, or to the often-overlooked letters of one of our discipline’s most complicated founders. Thanks are due to my husband, George Wu Bayuga, for reminding me of these passages from Franz Boas (1969:194).

2 I have changed the names of all mentioned persons and chosen to obscure the name of the nonprofit that hired us to protect the privacy of my coworkers and the places where I conducted research.

3 For an overview of Detroit’s tax foreclosure crisis, fed by the predatory overassessment of taxes by the Wayne County Treasurer, see Atuahene (2020). For an ethnographic perspective on the impacts of this crisis on Black homeowners whose property was taken without the possibility of reparation, see Jefferson (2013:92-112).

4 These differing apprehensions of myself and my coworkers reveals how much the practice of hiring Black workers to “connect” with Black clients has worked to produce the opposite effect; my Black coworkers were more likely to be apprehended as potential “scammers” by clients because of how commonly Black workers were hired to represent dubious aid and housing programs. My whiteness, precisely because it did not fit this presumed model, disrupted these tacit assumptions – in so doing, these relationships refract how white supremacy remains deeply embedded within the aid economy where whiteness is associated with authority, and Blackness is subject to violent reproach. My thoughts here are informed by Stuart Hall’s (1978) conceptualization of race as a reflective “prism,” in “Race and ‘Moral Panics’ in Postwar Britain,” as well as Ana Y. Ramos-Zayas’s (2011) discussion of race as a learned practice of embodiment.

5 Even cursory attempts to discuss the complexity of fieldwork so often avoid discussing its costs. See Sanjek (1990) as well as Wu (2022).

6 In 2023, the U.S. poverty line for individuals was set at $14,580. $30,000 distributed over 18 months is exactly $20,000. Even with modest inflation of just 3% per year, this same award amount of $30,000 will be below the poverty line by 2036 if substantial changes to granting programs are not made (United States Department of Health and Human Services 2023).

7 Perhaps no one more memorably underscores the disciplinary function of grants in anthropology than Michael Taussig (2011:48-50), who calls grant-writing norms “dishonest,” arguing that we camouflage and twist ethnographic norms to fit laboratory models, tacitly accepting a scientism that cultural anthropology claims to have roundly rejected in service of pursuing lucrative funds “which makes it dishonest in an especially insidious way, that of a ‘public secret,’ like the emperor’s new clothes.”

8 Much of the writing on gig work has described it as a decentralized working space designed to hyper-fragment workers to prevent unionization, displace liability away from the corporation, and increase worker dependence through fractional wages paid per job rather than hourly. In the aid economy, I see an example of a gig-based workforce that understands itself as a market and strategically decides where and how to labor according to conceptions of what work is worthwhile to them. See Sheldon (2022), Ravenelle (2019), and Schor (2020).

9 CERA helped prolong evictions but did not prevent them. Quantitative sociological research conducted on evictions in Detroit shows that, following the ending of the eviction moratorium, eviction rates quickly rose back to pre-pandemic levels, and then exceeded them. They have yet to return to pre-pandemic “norms.” See Eisenberg and Brantley (2022a, 2022b).

10 See Eisenberg and Brantley (2022a).

11 Here I am deeply indebted to all the scholars who contributed to Exertions thematic collection on “Essential Labor,” especially Deepa Das Acevedo’s (2020) and Johannes Lenhard’s (2020) work.

12 My coworkers uniformly referred to experiences with homelessness as homelessness and referred to themselves as being “formerly homeless.” I choose to reproduce the language my coworkers used here rather than etically impose other descriptors.

References

Acevedo, Deepa Das. 2020. “Essentializing Labor Before, During, and After COVID-19.” Exertions. Available at: https://saw.americananthro.org/pub/essentializing-labor?readingCollection=d660ea15;

Atuahene, Bernadette. 2020. “Predatory Cities.” California Law Review 108(1):107-182.

Boas, Franz. 1969. The Ethnography of Franz Boas: Letters and Diaries of Franz Boas Written on the Northwest Coast From 1886 to 1931. edited by Ronald P. Rohner (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 194.

Edmonds, Hallie. “Off to the Field We Go,” Ask an Anthropologist. Tempe, AZ: University of Arizona. Available at: https://askananthropologist.asu.edu/stories/field-we-go.

Eisenberg, Alexa and Katlin Brantley. 2022. Crisis Before the Emergency: Evictions in Detroit Before and After the Onset of Covid-19. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Poverty Solutions.

Eisenberg, Alexa and Katlin Brantley. 2022. A Public Health Crisis, Not a Property Dispute: Learning from Covid-19 Eviction Response Measures in Detroit. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Poverty Solutions.

Hall, Stuart. [1978] 2021. “Race and ‘Moral Panics’ in Postwar Britain.” In Selected Writings on Race and Difference. Durham, NC: Duke University Press

Jefferson, Anna. 2013. “Narratives of Moral Order in Michigan's Foreclosure Crisis,” City & Society 25(1):92-112.

Lenhard, Johannes. 2020. “Balancing Support: Essential Work for Homeless People during COVID-19.” Exertions. Available at: https://saw.americananthro.org/pub/balancing-support-essential-work-for-homeless/release/1?readingCollection=d660ea15.

Ramos-Zayas, Ana Y. 2011.“Learning Affect, Embodying Race: Youth, Blackness, and Neoliberal Emotions in Latino Newark.” Transforming Anthropology 19(2):83-218.

Ravenelle, Alexandrea K. 2019. Hustle and Gig: Struggling and Surviving in the Sharing Economy. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Sanjek, Roger, ed. 1990. Fieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press

Schor, Juliet. 2020. After the Gig: How the Sharing Economy Got Hijacked and How to Win it Back. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Sheldon, Zachary. 2022. “Teaching Time and Labor: From the Factory Act to the Gig Economy.” Exertions Available at: https://saw.americananthro.org/pub/f66368d3/release/1

Taussig, Michael. 2011. I Swear I Saw This: Drawings in My Fieldwork Notebooks, Namely My Own. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 48-50.

United States Department of Health and Human Services. 2023. HHS Poverty Guidelines for 2023. Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, Available at: https://aspe.hhs.gov/topics/poverty-economic-mobility/poverty-guidelines.

Wu, Wen-Yu. 2022. “Money In-between the Fields: Performances and Expectations,” Political Anthropological Research on International Social Sciences (PARISS) 3(1):40-50.

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