Does anyone deserve to be poor?
It’s a question, I realize, at the heart of the enduring economic inequality in the United States. It’s part of what makes reporting on it, much less finding solutions for it, so challenging.
Over the last three weeks, I wrote about the racial wealth gap — offering first a context for thinking about the gap between whites and people of color, then describing a move in California to stop charging recently released prisoners administrative fees, and finally looking at a small-scale pilot project to give a group of mothers in Mississippi a guaranteed income.
Readers’ responses to these articles taught me a lot about where Americans stand on race and economic inequality, and revealed the persistence of some painful misconceptions. Here are my answers to some of the questions most often asked:
What about poor white people?
A lot of white Americans live below the poverty line, 17 million at last count. But addressing the racial wealth gap does not eliminate addressing structural poverty writ large. If we reimagine and reorganize the structures and systems that have shaped the lives of people of color, black and Native American in particular, poor white Americans will also be helped.
It is crucial to think collectively here. We need to fix systems like health care, education, criminal justice, finance. These institutions disproportionately fail people of color. But poor white people would also be better off if the institutions were more accessible and functional for all.
And of course, while poor white people may be hurt by class bias — which is real and must be addressed — they do not have to deal with racial bias, too. Or the legacy of slavery. Or redlining. Or a host of other institutional practices that have hurt people of color since the founding of America.
Also, it’s crucial that we counter an inaccurate stereotype that all rural poor people are white. Poor rural Americans come from a wide range of backgrounds, according to Whitney Kimball Coe, director of national programs at the nonprofit organization Rural Strategies. “Rural America is no monolith,” she said. “Like the rest of the nation, it is becoming ever more diverse.”
A recent report from the Wallace Global Fund found that rural America is only 14 percent less diverse than the country as a whole. “We do a double disservice to rural populations if we ignore rural communities of color, who see higher rates of poverty and less access to services than their urban counterparts,” Ms. Kimball Coe said.
If racism is what explains the racial wealth gap, how do you explain the high earnings of Asian-Americans?
This inquiry, while logical, flattens out a complex phenomenon. For starters, “Asian-American” is a catchall category that’s not particularly helpful when thinking about the racial wealth gap. For example, the poverty rates of Hmong-Americans (38 percent), Cambodian-Americans (29 percent) and Laotian-Americans (18.5 percent) are higher than the Asian-American average (14 percent), which in turn is higher than the average for whites (11 percent). There is wide variation in economic standing among different subgroups within the larger Asian-American community.
One thing that sets many Asian-Americans apart from other people of color in America, particularly African-Americans and Native Americans, is that the majority of immigrants from Asia have arrived much more recently. Indeed, 66 percent of Asian-Americans are foreign-born, meaning they are dealing with a legacy of whatever structural disadvantage was rooted in their country of origin and the economic implications of immigration. But, in most cases, those are of a different order than a legacy of genocide or slavery.
Although it is widely believed that Asian-Americans tend to succeed at gaining admission to elite colleges and doing well there, that isn’t a full picture. Asian-Americans outperform all other racial categories on college graduation rates, but only Chinese-Americans do so when it comes to employment. All other subgroups confront what researchers are now calling a “bamboo ceiling.”
With regard to criminal justice administrative fees, why don’t inmates work off their debt in prison?
In fact, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, half of the country’s 2.3 million inmates do work, but they typically make either no money or pennies an hour, at least half of which is usually garnished. Prisoners most often do maintenance-related work — cleaning, repairing, cooking — where they’re serving their time. Some work in factory-like settings, producing items that are sold to government agencies; this small minority (6 percent) can make slightly more money. Some experts argue that prisons couldn’t function without this cheap and, in some cases, unpaid labor.
Angelique Evans, who figured in my second article, was paid 13 cents an hour in prison in California for cooking seven hours a day. She would get paid once a month, with 55 percent of her wages garnished. She told me, “I had a kitchen staff that didn’t mind if we took a little chicken back, so I would use that to sell to the other women inside the unit so I could buy bars of soap to clean myself.”
Readers were so moved by Ms. Evans’s predicament — she discovered when she was released that she owed substantial fees to Los Angeles County — that they created a Go Fund Me campaign to pay off her remaining debt.
Won’t people have less incentive to work if they are given a guaranteed income?
There is disagreement about how guaranteed income at a large scale would affect large labor trends and local economies, but the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend is a pretty good indication. Oil reserve royalties amounting to $2,000 each year go to Alaskan residents; the program has been running for 25 years. Researchers have found that annual payment has had no real impact upon full-time employment levels, while part-time work increased by about 17 percent.
Further, research shows that attaching benefits to conditions, like work, doesn’t improve the lives of those it is intended to serve. A recent study in Britain of 339 people over five years found that work conditionality did not increase motivation to work. The author of the study, Prof. Peter Dwyer of the University of York, said, “Our review reveals that in the majority of cases welfare conditionality doesn’t work as intended and we have evidence it has increased poverty and pushed some people into survival crime.”
The mothers whom I interviewed in my third article had a range of professional aspirations, but none spoke about the cash payments they were receiving in the pilot program as de-motivating. Quite the opposite: Many spoke of investing the money in educational opportunities that they believed would increase their earning potential. One woman, Tia Cunningham, was able to fix her car with the cash, allowing her to be a more reliable employee. Unreliable transportation is a huge issue for people experiencing poverty.
Ms. Cunningham said: “It’s time for me to elevate. I was thinking that way before the money, but now I actually have what I need to do it.”
The responses that this series received only underscored, for me, how much we need these public conversations — not just to increase our knowledge about the problem and potential solutions, but to expand our empathy.
Courtney E. Martin, a co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, which supports reporting about responses to social problems, is the author, most recently, of “The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream.”
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