Roundtable: Class Issues The group discusses stigmas associated with being poor and the criminalization of poor people in America. Guests: sociology professor Sandra Barnes of Purdue University and author of The Cost of Being Poor; Lisa Gray-Garcia, founder of Poor magazine; and Brown University professor of economics, Glenn C. Loury.
NPR logo Roundtable: Class Issues

Roundtable: Class Issues

The group discusses stigmas associated with being poor and the criminalization of poor people in America. Guests: sociology professor Sandra Barnes of Purdue University and author of The Cost of Being Poor; Lisa Gray-Garcia, founder of Poor magazine; and Brown University professor of economics, Glenn C. Loury.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

All this week we're focusing on wealth, how money and power play out in the lives of the poor, the middle class, and those who've reached millionaire status. We kick off this special series of roundtables with a look at the realities and stigmas that face poor Americans. The debate over Katrina has focused on whether what happened in New Orleans was a result of race or class. We'll address this question and others with our special panel.

Joining us from member station KQED in San Francisco, Lisa Garcia-Gray, also known as Tiny, one of the founders of POOR Magazine; Purdue University sociology professor and author of "The Cost of Being Poor," Sandra Barnes, is at member station WBAA in West Lafayette, Indiana; and at member station WGBH in Boston, Brown University professor of economics Glenn C. Loury. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Lisa GRAY-GARCIA is one of the founders of POOR Magazine.]

Welcome to all of you. And let me just jump right into this. People in this country who are considered poor have just been facing huge challenges. Two hundred and forty-five million people don't have health care; 37 million people officially living in poverty. That doesn't even count people whose incomes don't meet their expenses. Let me start with you, Lisa. You are one of the founders of POOR Magazine. And one thing that a lot of people say about poverty is, nobody wants to be called poor. So why did you name your magazine POOR Magazine?

Ms. LISA GRAY-GARCIA (Co-Founder, POOR Magazine): Coming from a position of poverty, being a child of a homeless family, the thing that gets tossed around in the mainstream media, etc., all the time, I was in fact of that reality and had dealt with all the shame that's related to that reality. I was interested that you brought up stigmas on your opening because shame and all of its, you know, related aspects are one of the things that plague people in poverty more than anything else, going down to experience of children. In my case, I had to drop out of school in the sixth grade for a lot of reasons, mostly because the school system doesn't deal with homeless children. I had to miss a lot of school because my mom was ill and I was her sole caregiver. And all of those positions of shame go all the way up to, if you're on welfare and you're raising children and you're trying to be a good parent, you are told that you're lazy and that you're worthless and that you're not doing anything by the system itself, which happened to me, and also by society. So we claimed that word `poor' when we titled POOR Magazine to actually reclaim it and to use it as a position of power because we believe that if you've survived poverty and racism in this society, you are in fact a poverty scholar.

CHIDEYA: Let me get Sandra in there because you talk about poverty scholar. Sandra is a poverty scholar at the university. What Lisa was just saying is that poor people every day are getting a PhD in economics on how to live close to the margins. What do academics bring to the mix or what should academics bring to the mix in trying to study poor people without falling into some of the same stereotypes and stigmas?

Professor SANDRA BARNES (Purdue University): One of the largest challenges is to provide as comprehensive as possible a portrait of the challenges that the poor and near poor experience on a day-to-day basis. In my book "The Cost of Being Poor," I focus on the economic and non-economic costs associated with feeding, clothing families. And it's very interesting for the respondents in my study, if they were able to pay their basic bills, even if it was a challenge, they were able to take care of their children, they considered themselves to be successes. And so you had this belief that there was always someone else worse off than they were. And so for academics, our goal is to try to examine the nuances associated with being poor without kind of presenting these overarching generalities or focusing on one area as opposed to another.

CHIDEYA: Now let me just ask a follow-up. What was the most surprising thing you found while doing your work on this book, "The Cost of Being Poor"?

Prof. BARNES: The most surprising finding dealt with what I refer to as public problems becoming private concerns, in the sense that most of the respondents were quite aware of some of the systemic problems associated with being poor, even though they didn't use the typical sociological jargon, but because their goal was to take care of their families, especially their children, they privatized the problem. So as opposed to addressing some of the systemic problems or challenging the public or the officials to make changes, they privatized the issues in terms of coming up with their own decisions or coming up with their own strategies in their households to address these kinds of issues. And so from a short-term perspective, it was beneficial because it enabled them to take care of their families, but from a long term--when you think about the dynamic long term, it's problematic because it prevents us from really addressing some of the systemic problems associated with poverty.

CHIDEYA: Glenn, let me bring you into this. So how has poverty, particularly working poverty, because most poor people do work, been treated by both the private market and by government?

Professor GLENN C. LOURY (Brown University): Well, you know, I think probably the biggest policy shift affecting the poor in the last decade was the Welfare Reform Act that was passed during Clinton's second term in 1996, changing the rules about providing money to poor families, placing work requirements on women who would receive welfare, putting a time limit over the course of a lifetime on how long a woman could receive welfare for her children, and many states enacting legislation like if you have an additional child while you've already been receiving welfare, then you can't get any more money to take care of your larger family, things of this kind.

But I just want to identify myself with something that Sandra Barnes was saying about there's really a need for a lot of support for people who are managing very difficult circumstances with limited resources, and I think much more could be done in terms of health care, much more could be done in terms of child care and support, much more could be done in terms of preparing people for work than what we're doing. And, you know, we're a very rich society. We find resources to do a lot of things. This is something that remains unaddressed and really deserves public attention.

CHIDEYA: But under the current administration, and many people would even argue under Clinton's administration, you had a situation where there was seen as a government--it was good for government to privatize and to outsource some of its functions to private companies. What's the incentive, Glenn for private companies to really improve the life status of the poor?

Prof. LOURY: Well, I don't know exactly what you're talking about, Farai. I mean, I don't see much of an incentive in that, you know, it's about a bottom line in the private sector. Perhaps for some service delivery, you can think about privatization as aligning incentives for private companies along with the poor. But in general, I don't see it.

CHIDEYA: That's exactly my point. You know, the situation is that government has been criticized as having a bloated bureaucracy dealing with the war on poverty, but if government doesn't do it, who will? I guess--let me toss that back to you, Lisa. I mean, you've seen growing up and now as an adult different fluctuations in how the government deals with poverty. What are you seeing now in terms of something like the Welfare Reform Act that Glenn mentioned and that impact on poor families?

Ms. GRAY-GARCIA: It's actually really interesting, and it segues into what I was sort of wanting to talk about, which is the criminalization of poor people. I mean, I have an upcoming memoir about my life--it's called "A Criminal of Poverty: A Journey Through Poverty, Homelessness, and Incarceration in America." The specific privatization that you're talking about has only resulted in mass criminalization of poor people. I'm sure our fellow guests know that it's illegal to be homeless in the US. You can't sleep in vehicle, it causes tickets; tickets then they incarcerate you for. That's why I was incarcerated. You can't sit on the sidewalk, you can't loiter if you're a youth, especially a youth of color. So essentially it's illegal to be poor in the US.

I would actually take that further. And in my way of looking, it's also illegal, under the privatization, to be a poor mother. If you're on welfare or not on welfare, if you're working poor and you're trying to support your kids, and like Glenn had just mentioned, you cannot get child care at all. You can't get child care subsidies, as opposed to Europe, as opposed to Canada which supports kids until they're, like, 17 in child care. I mean, we have a system that makes it impossible for people to survive on very little bit of money. And like Sandra had mentioned, then they turn to their own devices. And sometimes that means, quote-unquote, "criminal activity." You do what you do to survive. And no, unfortunately, a lot of us poor folks are our own worst enemies in the sense that we don't look to consciousness. We don't think the system is against us, we should look at changing the system, because we're so busy just making it from one day to the next.

Prof. BARNES: Exactly.

CHIDEYA: What changed your mind about your role in shaping your own life and the life of your community? What was your sort of...

Ms. GRAY-GARCIA: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: ...wake-up moment where you said, `You know what...?'

Ms. GRAY-GARCIA: Intervention.

CHIDEYA: Yeah.

Ms. GRAY-GARCIA: Yeah. When I was incarcerated for crimes of poverty, which is how I--arguably a lot of, most crimes, are--but we were all there for these really clearly defined crimes of poverty: homeless crimes, panhandling, which is another form of work, as far as the way we critique it. And it started to make me look at these things. And then the way I got out of jail is I was actually, quote-unquote, "saved," if you will, by a very conscious lawyer who had my tickets turned into community service and then had the community service turned into me writing. But then the last piece is--my mom, who is with me all the way through this, had the forethought to go and seize education, 'cause I'm not formally educated. She went and sat in on some classes with some African-descended scholars at San Francisco State, Angela Davis, Erica Huggins and La Raza Studies, and I was taught some of this. I was able to sit in some of these classes and learn about the positions of people in poverty and how there's a connection between our positions and the positions of people in the so-called Third World. And so I did get some of that education.

And the reality is, unfortunately, that poor folks are so busy surviving that we don't oftentimes get access to that knowledge. And, you know, that along with my interventions woke me up, and I started to bring these things together, and then the last piece was I got involved with some activism that dealt with poverty rights and welfare reform. After I was told by the welfare worker that I was worthless, I just happened to get an outreach flier from this organization, and they were, like, `That's not true.' And then we went from there.

CHIDEYA: Yeah. Well, you'd have to start with, you know, the presumption that you're not worthless, and let me bring you in again, Sandra. Is one of the costs of being poor essentially a psychological or emotional cost, that every day people are telling you that you're worthless so it makes you harder to get up and do whatever you've got to do for your family?

Prof. BARNES: Well, actually, that was not a finding in terms of this particular book or my other studies. Actually, I found that the poor and near-poor persons that I interacted with were quite adaptive and resilient, and in spite of some of the stigma that they experienced. One of the very troubling findings from the book was, because there are so few retailers--actually no retailers--and a few grocery stores in the Gary area, the Gary residents are dependent on the suburban grocery stores and retailers. And one of the troubling findings was the tendency for persons to experience poor treatment due to racism and classism when they would frequent the stores in suburban areas. And...

CHIDEYA: So people from Gary, Indiana, going out to the suburbs just to try to get groceries...

Ms. GRAY-GARCIA: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: ...'cause they only have corner stores.

Prof. BARNES: Exactly. Or the larger stores are still small relative to what's available in the suburbs, and the prices are higher. And so from a sociopsychological perspective, you have persons who are dealing with poor treatment in suburban spaces, and they are choosing to do that or dealing with that for the sake of their families and their children.

CHIDEYA: It sounds like you're talking about folks who don't have a lot of access to the outside--outside of the urban areas. What about cars and transportation? In order to...

Prof. BARNES: Exactly.

CHIDEYA: ...go and shop, it sounds like you're going to have to have access to a car, but also in terms of evacuating. One thing we saw was in New Orleans, a lot of people didn't even have a car to evacuate.

Prof. BARNES: And in terms of the transportation, it often became a logistical nightmare for some of the respondents, and so you had very creative strategies in terms of relying on extended family who had cars to get out to the suburbs and then buying in bulk so that you could stretch these resources because you did not have transportation. I had some respondents who would literally get on the bus, and so going to the grocery store, going out to the mall would become an all-day activity. And so you have persons, again, who were being very adaptive in spite of the challenges that they faced. And so it was quite clear, you saw something very similar in terms of the Katrina dynamic where you had persons without transportation literally being constrained in terms of their desire to--their ability to, let's say, escape the situation.

CHIDEYA: Glenn, let me turn to you, because we're just about out of time. Can you separate race from class? How do you even parse out not just what happened during Katrina but what's happening in America today with the African-American unemployment rate being persistently twice that of whites, with African-American wealth being persistently 1/10th that of whites? Is there a clear difference between race and class in cases like these?

Prof. LOURY: Well, there's a difference, but I think the two forces are deeply intertwined. I'll just tell a very quick story. I'm in an airport waiting room lounge between flights in another country. An American sitting across from me, talking about the New Orleans disaster, the Katrina thing, and he says something like--a white American businessman. He says something to his friend like, `That moronic mayor of New Orleans.' That was his reference to the mayor of New Orleans. Now I dare say that if the mayor of New Orleans had been white, speaking with a Southern twang and representing a poor constituency, he probably would not have been referred to as a moron.

And all I'm saying is that in the United States of America, when poverty and race get intertwined with each other, first of all, the poor are already deserving of their fate. They're losers in the game of capitalism. They have no one to blame but themselves. But then when they become the black poor, they become almost less than human, someone about whom it's impossible to have any sympathy, even though they may be six-, seven-, eight-generation sons of the American soil--and daughters. So that's the thing. Race layered on top of poverty just exacerbates this sense of otherness of these people and diminishes the extent to which any sympathy might be extended to them, so I would say anyway.

CHIDEYA: Lisa, what would be the one thing that you could think would help turn the tide on poverty in America?

Ms. GRAY-GARCIA: I think first of all, is stopping the privatization of poverty, going back to your original point, and actually looking at real advocacy and real solutions, such as child-care subsidies, job creation for low-income communities, and living-wage job creation and real housing as opposed to the stripped-down, non-existent HUD budget that we have now.

CHIDEYA: Sandra?

Prof. BARNES: Two points. One is to consider concertedly the relationship between race, class, sex and place because in many cases, we have poor people who are also living in poor places and so you have that dynamic that further exacerbates the problem. My final comment is the challenge to the American public, again, to support social policy. And this goes to really trying to view poor and near-poor persons over and above just being the other. And by that, I mean, challenging the American public to support social policy rather than these kind of parceled-out efforts based on who was considered deserving and who is considered undeserving.

CHIDEYA: Glenn?

Prof. LOURY: Raise the minimum wage by 25 percent. Increase the Earned Income Tax Credit. Establish a job of last resort program so that everybody who wants to work has a place to work at this increased minimum wage.

CHIDEYA: Glenn C. Loury; he's a professor of economics at Brown University. He joined us from WGBH in Boston. Also Purdue University sociology professor Sandra Barnes, author of "The Cost of Being Poor." And Lisa Garcia-Gray, one of the founders of POOR Magazine, joined us from KQED in San Francisco.

Thank you all so much.

Ms. GRAY-GARCIA: Thank you.

Prof. BARNES: Thank you.

Prof. LOURY: Thank you, Farai.

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