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‘We Need Help to Get Ahead’

Sep 15 2023
By Tom Durso
Source Princeton School of Public and International Affairs

New book finds systemic causes of American poverty

In 2015, Kathryn Edin, the William Church Osborn Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs and co-director of SPIA’s Center for Research on Child and Family Wellbeing, and the University of Michigan’s H. Luke Shaefer published $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America. Their documentation of the rise of extreme poverty in the U.S., seen through the eyes of the impoverished families they profiled, landed on numerous best-of lists, including that of The New York Times, which tabbed it as a Notable Book of the Year.

Injustice of PlaceEdin and Shaefer reunited – and were joined by Timothy Nelson, a lecturer of public affairs – to produce The Injustice of Place: Uncovering the Legacy of Poverty in America, published last month to similar acclaim. Director of Communications Tom Durso talked with Edin recently about the book. Excerpts of their conversation are below.

Tom Durso: How did the new book come about?

Kathy Edin: After we published $2.00 a Day, which is about America's poorest people, Andrea Ducas from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation called us to ask if we would be interested in partnering with the foundation and turn our lens from America's poorest people to America's poorest places. And could we do so with an eye toward health.

We had been long dissatisfied with conventional measures of poverty, which are income-based. They're only indirect measures of wellbeing, which is what we really care about. There are a lot of problems with those data. So the idea of incorporating some of the wealth of big data that the nation has generated since the 1960s, when our income-based measure was developed, seemed like a great idea. Beyond the official poverty measure, which is a cyclical measure of poverty, we added in two measures of health, which are cumulative measures of disadvantage, because poverty gets under your skin in ways that can affect your wellbeing long after you experience a poverty spell, and then a structural measure, which is a measure for how likely it is that a child raised in poverty can make it to the middle class in adulthood.

For each county in the nation and the 500 largest cities, we used machine learning to calculate a score measuring disadvantage. Then we mapped the scores, and we soon saw – we three scholars of urban poverty – that many of the cities we had spent our careers studying, were not among the most deeply disadvantaged. The most disadvantaged places were overwhelmingly rural areas, and they were overwhelmingly clustered in the 14 Southern states. In fact, the only places west of the Mississippi, except for the Delta counties in Louisiana and Arkansas, were native nations. It was a very striking map.

We decided to continue along the route of using big data to learn about these places, but we also embedded ethnographers in representative communities in each region where disadvantage was most concentrated: The historic cotton and tobacco belts, central Appalachia, and South Texas. The deeper we got into the stories of these places, the more profound the stories became.

TD:  In what way? How did it become more profound?

KE: The pandemic plays a role here. We were almost finished with our ethnographic fieldwork when the pandemic hit. Since we couldn’t go anywhere, we had to fill our time. We started investigating the history of these places. This had come up in the fieldwork. In team meetings while in the field, someone would say, “Did you know that this little town in Kentucky was the salt capital of the Eastern United States back in 1840?” “Did you know that this little town in Texas produced 80% of the spinach consumed in North America in the 1930s?” “Did you know that Greenwood, Mississippi, was where the cotton industry finally fully flourished well after the Civil War?”

These stories kept coming, so we knew we had to go crack the history books. The Princeton Library was great because you can get any obscure document you can imagine. We were getting dissertations from 1917, first-person narratives, ethnographies from the 1930s and ’40s, government reports, and really building a story of these places. What we learned is that they have a lot in common.

The two main things these regions have in common is that resource extraction was extreme. The “haves” in these places weren't investing; they were extracting. Salt, timber, tobacco, vast fields of irrigated vegetables, and cotton, a pattern that held into the 1960s. And, secondly, the exploitation of human beings was extreme in these places as well. Each place say an economy organized around one sole commodity tied to national and global markets, with a small group of elites in control of vast numbers of exploited laborers. There was no real middle class. Due to the demand for cheap, exploitable labor, almost all of these places, except for central Appalachia, are also minority-majority. To reiterate, these are places where the elite were vastly outnumbered by their workers. And most of these workers were people of color, denied basic rights, including voting rights. Stripping laborers of the vote happened in Appalachia, too, through vote buying and other means. Due to the dual processes of extreme resource extraction and human exploitation, we came to call these places internal colonies, because we would have had to be really stupid not to notice that these were the same practices used in European colonization elsewhere in the world.

TD: It's fair to say, then, that the economic benefits that the land would have conferred did not make it down to the folks who were actually doing the work.

KE: One of the things that drives up the score is the very low intergenerational mobility of the have-nots, which continues to this day. The descendants of the haves are still running these places. It's really something. You can literally trace the family lines.

TD: You make some broad-based policy recommendations. Can you talk a little about those?

KE: If you looked at this map, and then created a similar map at the time we launched the War on Poverty, you would have seen the same regional pattern. These are places of extreme inequality – producers of great wealth, but of great poverty, too.

We wanted to understand the mechanisms tying this distant past of extraction and exploitation to the present, where deep disadvantage is so evident. Each mechanism we uncovered is described in a chapter of the book. Each mechanism – separate and highly unequal schooling; the collapse of social infrastructure; violence; corruption; systemic racism embedded in social policy and government policy; white and elite backlash; and the reproduction of the patterns of the past in modern form – leads to specific policy solutions, and I think some of them are quite novel.

Schooling, of course, is a tough nut to crack, but we do know from the work of economists like Rucker Johnson that in places where children got a full dose of desegregated schools, Black children performed as well as white children. But we've re-segregated since that period. We've got to face the fact that we're as segregated as we were prior to Brown [v. Board of Education].

Building up social infrastructure is so important. When we went to Appalachia, we saw that the opioid crisis is due to there being nothing to do but drugs. The bowling alley is closed, and there's no more roller rink. There's no place for young people to get together. We went back to big data to test whether collapse of social infrastructure is associated with the rising opioid deaths and found a strong relationship, even though the available data are not ideal.

We also returned to big data to test the hypothesis raised by our research participants that a lack of mobility is sparking violence. Here, the evidence was especially strong. Without mobility, without hope, violence is sparked.

Corruption is a huge problem. The economic elites have not only controlled the economy, but also local government. Patronage is huge. Even today in central Appalachia, vote buying is rampant. These areas cannot make progress if we don't directly address the fact that many of our social policies invite corruption. We fail to realize that the first thing many of these elites are going to do is line their own pockets because of an extractive tradition, not an investment tradition.

And then, finally, we suggest a structural racism audit for organizations like FEMA, because too often when FEMA comes to town after a crisis, Black people end up less well off than prior, while white people benefit.

TD: This is not a new phenomenon at all. It's been going on for generations. It's been going on for centuries in colonization. What kind of appetite is there to do the heavy lifting to ameliorate these situations and create a more just system within a capitalistic society that just seems to shun anything these days related to a safety net?

KE: We're in an extreme political time, for sure. But if you look at polling, most Americans are sympathetic to the poor. They don't like poverty, they want a fair society, and they want people to have a fair shake. We use the term disadvantage, not poverty, intentionally, because disadvantage implies an injustice, that people are being held back unfairly. This is what we're seeing in these places. It's not primarily the actions of the individuals involved. It's the structure, the characteristics, and the history of the place that are holding people back. What we see in surveys is that people are sympathetic to poverty. They just hate welfare, whatever “welfare” means. Our book is not about increasing handouts to the poor. It's really about lifting up places where people have been unfairly held back.