Category Archives: Class and Race

Why Brain Science Won’t Cure Poverty

This article was first published by The Conversation.

Recently I’ve seen news reports with headlines like this one: “Can Brain Science Help Lift People Out Of Poverty?

This particular article described the near miraculous recovery of a woman who grew up surrounded by violence in the housing projects, became a “single mom on welfare” who wasted her money and damaged her health with a pack-a-day smoking habit, and was stuck in an abusive relationship. Then, with the help of “a novel program that uses the latest neuroscience research to help women dig themselves out of poverty” by making better choices, she quit smoking, got rid of the bad boyfriend, earned a business management degree and landed a job as an administrative assistant. It’s not the only article I’ve seen recently that is looking at brain science as a way to cure poverty.

The enchantment with neuroscience to explain social misery has spread among individuals and organizations with longstanding commitments to progressive social change. “What the new brain science says is that the stresses created by living in poverty often work against us, make it harder for our brains to find the best solutions to our problems. This is a part of the reason why poverty is so ‘sticky,’” explained Elisabeth Babcock, chief executive of the nonprofit Crittenton Women’s Union. Recent research from Princeton University has suggested that living in poverty can have an impact on concentration. Other research has found a similar correlation between poverty and neuroscience.

There is growing public discourse invoking neuroscience to re-emphasize that poverty really is bad, that bullying and abuse really hurt children, and that someone who has experienced rape or torture really is suffering. But uncritically invoking neuroscience is a risky propositionContinue reading Why Brain Science Won’t Cure Poverty

Snapshots from Ferguson and Liberia: Something’s Happening HERE

The two images reprinted below have appeared widely in media outlets over the past weeks. Eerily similar? Both show armed police or soldiers carrying shields facing off against unarmed people of color. Without careful perusal, it’s hard to tell which caption belongs with which photo.

liberia

ferguson

“Liberian Soldiers Seal Slum to Halt Ebola” Associated Press, Aug. 20, 2014

“Photo Essay: Police and Protesters in Ferguson” St. Louis Post-Dispatch  Aug. 14, 2014

The Stories Behind the Photos

In Liberia’s capital city last week, residents of a densely populated, poor neighborhood protested when security forces sealed off their community as a quarantine measure in response to the Ebola outbreak. According to reports, residents asserted that not only had they been cut off from their homes but also that they were being disproportionately exposed to the virus because sick people from outside their community were being brought into an Ebola screening center set up in their neighborhood by the government.

In Ferguson, Missouri, when residents took to the streets to protest the shooting by a police officer of Michael Brown – an unarmed African-American youth, thousands of law enforcement officers as well as National Guard were deployed to contain the demonstrators. As of this writing, several hundred protesters have been arrested.

Poverty, Inequality and The Burden of Disease

Liberia is among the poorer nations of the world. In 2012 the gross national income per capita was $580; 75 babies out of 1000 could be expected to die before the age of five; and the total annual expenditure on healthcare was a meager $102 per capita. The top causes of mortality in Liberia include malaria, diarrhea, respiratory infections, AIDS and malnutrition.  Neither money nor the burden of disease is distributed evenly in Liberia. As calculated by the GINI index, Liberia is one of the least economically egalitarian countries in the world.

Fifteen years ago, Ferguson was a predominantly white middle class suburb of St. Louis. By 2010, the population was two-thirds black . Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, notes that in 2014 every Ferguson neighborhood but one has a poverty rate over 20%, “the point at which typical social ills associated with poverty like poor health outcomes, high crime rates and failing schools start to appear.”

In the state of Missouri, the rate of poverty among Black men is twice that of white men (22.5% vs. 11.6%). Among Missouri women, 24.3% of Black women vs. 14.5% of white women are living in poverty. In St. Louis County (where Ferguson is located), the rate of emergency room visits due to asthma among children under 15 years is 52% higher than the overall rate for the state. (High rates of childhood asthma are associated with environmental pollution and substandard living conditions.) The rate of infant mortality is 9% higher than the state’s rate and 21% higher than the U.S. national rate. The rate of babies born with a low birth weight (an excellent indicator of women’s overall health status and of the child’s future health status) is 8% higher than the state’s rate, and 20% higher than the national rate.

The Legacy of Injustice: War on the Poor and the Ill

Liberians are struggling with the aftermath of two recent civil wars. “Liberian scholars offer a range of explanations for the years of conflict including ethnic divisions, predatory elites who abused power, a corrupt political system, and economic disparities. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that underlying those proximate causes, the seeds of conflict were sown by the historical decision to establish Liberia as a state divided between natives and settlers, and the use of force to sustain the settlers’ hegemony.” While many Liberians are incarcerated for the “crime” of being poor or disliked by the police, perpetrators of crimes against humanity during the civil war have not been punished. Following the civil wars, according to Amnesty International, “Senators, Deputy Ministers, police officials, Special Security Service agents and Liberia National Police officers were allegedly engaged in or ordered beatings, looting, arbitrary arrests, abductions, shootings, ritualistic killings and other abuses. In most cases, no investigations were carried out and no action was taken against alleged perpetrators. … Law enforcement forces were reported to have unlawfully arrested and detained people and to have used torture and other ill-treatment, including during attempts to extort money on the streets. … Conditions in police lock-ups were appalling, with juveniles and adults routinely held together. Detainees were often subject to abuse by police and other detainees. … The formal justice system often failed to deliver fair trials and due process. Lengthy pre-trial detention beyond that allowed by law was the norm, with roughly 90 per cent of prisoners being pre-trial detainees. As well as corruption and inefficiency, the system suffered from lack of transport, court facilities, lawyers and qualified judges.”

Residents of Ferguson are struggling with the historical legacy of legally sanctioned racial discrimination, nearly four decades of ‘trickle-down’ economics that have eliminated middle and working-class jobs in the mid-west and throughout the country, and housing policies that price low-income Americans out of the housing market and segregate people of color in densely populated neighborhoods with lousy schools and housing and crumbling infrastructures.

Ferguson residents are also struggling with what Michelle Alexander aptly calls the “New Jim Crow” – decades-long ‘tough on crime’ policies that primarily targeted men of color and have led to the United States claiming the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world. In 2012, one out of every 200 Missouri residents was in prison or jail serving a sentence of one year or longer. And, unlike in much of the rest of the country, Missouri’s prison population actually rose 1.3% in 2012. Incarceration rates for white men in Missouri in 2012 were 650.6 per 100,000. Among black men in it was nearly six times that: 3,640 per 100,000. Law enforcement personnel, like members of all three branches of government in Missouri, are overwhelmingly white.

Last year, Ferguson used municipal court fines to fund 20.2 percent of the city’s $12.75 million budget. (Just two years earlier, municipal court fines had accounted for only 12.3 percent of the city’s revenues.) Incarceration rates specifically for Ferguson are not available. But, statistics posted on the Ferguson municipal website hint at the facts on the ground. In 2012 (the last year for which data are posted) Ferguson exhibited a striking gender imbalance in its population.

Male population 9,279  (43.9%)
Female population 11,856  (56.1%)

Women do live longer than men in most of the world, but the gender disparity in Ferguson is more in line with war zones – with countries like Liberia that have experienced lengthy civil wars — than with American “suburbs.” If I had to make an educated guess as to the whereabouts of the missing men I’d guess dead or in jail. The face-off in the photo above certainly makes that guess plausible.

For What It’s Worth

We Americans like to believe that “this kind of thing” could never happen “here.” We’re shocked by the egregious killing of a young man in Ferguson, by the outraged community response and by the overtly militarized law-enforcement response. We’re less shocked by the circumstances surrounding the outbreak of Ebola in places like Liberia. But – as we’ve seen over the past few weeks – the systemic inequalities that give rise to poverty  and disease “over there” also drive anger, distrust and mass incarceration right here in America.

With a nod to the Buffalo Springfield’s 1966 masterpiece: “There’s something happening here / What it is ‘IS’ exactly clear / There’s a man with a gun over there / Telling me I got to beware / I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound / Everybody look what’s going down.”

Please check out my new book Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility

And for more on the social context of responses to the Ebola outbreak check out: Ebola and US and Ebola, Secret Serums and Me

Caste Away: Mass Incarceration and the Hardening of Economic Inequality

“Caste Away” originally appeared as part of the University of California Press’s blog series coinciding with this month’s American Sociological Association’s annual conference: “Hard Times: The Impact of Economic Inequality on Families and Individuals.”

I first met Elizabeth at a drop-in center for poor and homeless women shortly after she was released from prison. Elizabeth’s father was a firefighter. Her mother worked for years at a stable job in a factory. Her parents owned their home in a working-class white community in a Boston suburb, and raised their children with aspirations of college and a middle-class life. By the time Elizabeth came of age America’s economic landscape had changed. Secure jobs that pay good wages were scarce and even though Elizabeth earned an associate’s degree she wasn’t able to do better than a series of unreliable jobs in food service. When a family tragedy (her sister’s illness and eventual death) made her too sad to smile at restaurant patrons she was fired. Broke and depressed, she lost her apartment, began to drink excessively, suffered several assaults, and was arrested and incarcerated on charges of creating a public disturbance and shoplifting. “Free” now for more than five years, she is stigmatized, unemployable, and sick.

As wealth and income gaps in the United States have dramatically widened over the past decades, the life paths of rich and poor Americans have diverged to the point in which, I believe, we should consider using the language of “caste” to describe American society. Caste arises when social differences become so significant that individual personalities, preferences, talents and weaknesses become subsumed to stereotypical images of the characteristics of a community or group as a whole – what we often call profiling. Groups are identified in terms of physical differences (real or imagined), inter-group interactions become formalized and limited, group characteristics become infused with moral meanings which justify and enforce differential access to valued resources and occupations, and group characteristics come to be seen as inherent and unchangeable.

Elizabeth has helped me understand the workings of caste. She experiences geographic segregation, whether in jail, in homeless shelters or in public housing. She has been arrested for trespassing simply for sitting down and relaxing in neighborhoods not assigned to, in her words, “people like me.” Elizabeth recognizes that there are structural barriers to changing her status, but most days she attributes her position to classic caste-like physical traits: a genetic tendency for alcohol abuse or to PTSD that has “rewired my brain.”

Having been raised in a working-class community, Elizabeth is aware of how differently she is treated now that she has lost some of her teeth and acquired the clothes and mannerisms of the untouchable caste. She once told me that people don’t like to sit next to her on public transportation. “They look at me like I smell bad even though I shower every day.” The only non-poor people she has contact with these days are service providers such as therapists and doctors, or law enforcement agents. Her caseworkers berate her for being involved with men who are, as she puts it, “messed up.” But, Elizabeth explains, “no man who is any good is going to want a woman like me.”

In the twenty-first century health and wealth are tightly correlated. Poor Americans are sick because the housing they can afford is clustered in environmentally unsound neighborhoods; the jobs they can get involve debilitating physical labor, ongoing exposure to toxic chemicals, or harassment by bosses or customers; the food they can afford is nutritionally unsound; and access to consistent health care (especially dental care) is limited. In a cyclical manner, poor health, and especially visually obvious signs such as rotting teeth, limits the ability to get the kinds of jobs that pay living wages.

For Elizabeth, as for many Americans, a prison record sealed her caste membership. She is not alone. By age 23, 49% percent of black men and 16% of black women, 44% of Hispanic men and 18% of Hispanic women, and 38% percent of white men and 20% of white women have been arrested. Poor and low-income Americans are far more likely to be arrested and incarcerated than better off Americans. Over half of the incarcerated population has been diagnosed with a mental health issue and at least 40% suffer from chronic illness. Unhealthy prison conditions partly explain the substandard health profile of Americans involved with the correctional system. But the fact is that people entering prison are already sicker and poorer than other Americans.

Elizabeth often says that before her life fell apart she didn’t even know that there are people who live the way she lives now. But of course, caste is not a new phenomenon. In the United States racial categories traditionally have constituted a caste system and African Americans have long experienced segregation, barriers to occupational advancement, and ascription of morally suspect traits and behaviors such as mental illness, cognitive impairment, infectious diseases, hypersexuality, promiscuity, drug use, defective parenting, and childlike dependence on public assistance. The news, then, is not that America is a caste society. Rather, it’s how easy it has become to join the ranks of the caste of the ill, impoverished and criminalized.

You can read more about Elizabeth in my new book: Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility.

What Pennsatucky’s Teeth Tell Us About Class in America

Author’s note: Friends and colleagues who know that I’ve spent most of the past decade working closely with criminalized women have asked me what I think of “Orange is the New Black”. While I could do without the dubious emphasis on sex among the women, and I doubt that women prisoners ever have the kind of power attributed to Red or Gloria, overall I think the series does a good job portraying women prisoners as real, complex human beings and of showing the miseries of life inside and outside of prison for most incarcerated women.

(A version of this post with fabulous photos: http://bitchmagazine.org/post/what-pennsatucky%E2%80%99s-teeth-tell-us-about-class-in-america)

I know she is supposed to be a cross between a villain and comic relief, but Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett is my favorite character to watch this season on Orange is the New Black. For those (few) who have not watched the series, Tiffany is a caricature of an ignorant / hillbilly / Jesus freak / meth head. In the first season we saw her provoke and eventually fight Piper, the attractive, articulate protagonist and author of the book on which the series is based. At the start of season two, when Tiffany returns from a three week stint in solitary, even her former friends – the other poorly educated, young white women – turn on her.

Tiffany isn’t cute or funny or even a font of homespun southern wisdom. But in the midst of a prison culture formally and informally divided by race, Tiffany embodies an equally powerful yet rarely articulated social divide: class. Though white, she has nothing in common with the other white women: Machiavellian Alex (Piper’s lover and nemesis), gender savvy Nicky, hip Sister Jane or even Russian entrepreneur Red, all of whom are presented as smart, literate, able to plan and scheme, and holding some understanding of the outside world. Tiffany doesn’t even fit in with Morello, a none-too-bright white woman with a working-class accent who lives in a fantasy world of romance and Hollywood magazines.

The producers of the series provide viewers a clear visual cue to the class divide. The first time Pennsatucky opens her mouth we see a hideous display of broken and missing teeth. More than any other marker, teeth indicate class status. Perfectly white and straight teeth – the kind we see on celebrities — belong to the super rich who can afford costly cosmetic dentistry. Nicely aligned and healthy teeth are the sign of professional and upper middle class individuals who can afford regular dental care and basic orthodontia. Crooked teeth with delayed root canal work and a few crowns means the mouth belongs to a young or middle-aged middle or working class individual (someone with access to basic dental care but no more); a complete set of dentures indicate an older working class individual. And rotted teeth, like those sported by Tiffany, marks one as poor, a status with both economic and moral meaning. As I’ve been told countless times by Americans who do not earn enough to scrape by, being too poor to have respectable teeth is like wearing an “L” for loser on your face.

Teeth: The Orphan of the Healthcare System Continue reading What Pennsatucky’s Teeth Tell Us About Class in America