Someone from a public radio station called up two geography professors at the University of Washington and asked “What is the widget you’re going to create to solve poverty?” For two people who study poverty for a living, Sarah Elwood and Victoria Lawson’s response wasn’t too different from what anyone else might say.
It boiled down to “We don’t know.”
What they do know is that unless the way people think about poverty changes, the solution is going to stay out of arm’s reach. With every fiber of their beings and based on years of work, they believe that until poverty becomes a political issue — something produced by economic, cultural and social systems rather than flawed individuals — “our policies are going to suck,” as Lawson so refreshingly put it.
Together, Elwood and Lawson launched the Relational Poverty Network (rpn) in 2014, convening scholars, students, activists and policymakers from all over the world so that “someone from South Africa talks to someone in India and someone in the U.S. learns from that and it changes the way they think.”
The notion that poverty is a personal fault is everywhere, they say. It’s in the fact that the United States is one of only two countries to not offer paid maternity leave. It’s in Washington’s status as the state with the nation’s most unfair tax system. It’s in the way their UW students yearn to travel abroad to fix third-world poverty while ignoring the homeless people by their front doors or even perhaps tossing a disdainful glance.
Elwood comes from a long line of social justice–focused United Methodist women, but it wasn’t until her higher-education years that she started questioning explanations for poverty. It was her work with inner-city communities, where she witnessed the contorted dance of trying to “improve quality of life” in struggling areas without igniting fires of gentrification, that led her to start asking bigger questions.
Lawson grew up in England in an environment thick with the quest for “middle-classness.” Her parents grew up poor and were ever-striving to better their position in society. After meeting some “radical” faculty members in college, traveling to Ecuador to work with poor women and heading to the U.S. to study rural poverty, Lawson came away with a strong belief that the mainstream dream of “aspirational wonderfulness” and mobility for everyone was a myth.
The funding Lawson and Elwood received from the National Science Foundation for the rpn is largely about building a network of thinkers and connecting data points, with conferences, global events and research projects. But as they explained in an interview with Real Change, it’s about so much more.
What is the Relational Poverty Network, and why did you start it?
SE: It is a network of researchers — transnational, transdisciplinary — who want to reframe how we think about and act on poverty. Specifically for us, that means thinking across national boundaries, getting outside of the ways that poverty has been framed as a problem that is strictly about the characteristics of poor people, to think [instead] about poverty as coming out of social and political processes and relationships between privilege and poverty.
VL: For us, what was cool about this opportunity was to politicize poverty again. Because poverty in the U.S. has been normalized and objectified and made this shiny, bright thing that we stare at and intervene in and make different. When you talk to researchers in other parts of the world, they think about poverty as a much more political problem than we tend to think about it in the U.S. So it’s a chance to bring those different perspectives to bear and shake up the way that we theorize poverty and the way that we act on poverty in the U.S. It was sort of a decolonization project to take something we think we know about — we the U.S., the U.S. researchers, the U.S. society — and turn it on its head.
Do you have an example of some lessons about poverty from other parts of the world?
VL: One of my pet favorites is in the U.S. The single best anti-poverty policy we ever had was in 1935, and it was the Social Security program. And the reason that was the most effective was because it was a universal program. It didn’t involve exceptions or certain targeted groups and so as a result, people weren’t stigmatized if they took advantage of it by the people who didn’t take advantage of it. So in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and several African countries, they have more universal cash assistance programs. So the ways they help people is not, “You are very, very poor, you get TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] cash, and you’re not quite poor enough so you don’t get it.” Instead, they have a global social income, or a social income floor, so that everybody needs to be above a certain level. It’s different than a minimum wage, which is if you work, you get paid X. This is: Everybody should live above this social floor.
SE: It starts from a dramatically different assumption societally about how we should respond to poverty. A social floor system, as a policy, starts from the idea that everyone is entitled to a certain life, rather than the age-old idea in the U.S. and in other places that only by doing certain things does a person deserve to have a certain life. These kinds of policies start from a much more all-inclusive sociality that doesn’t say some people deserve and other people don’t.
In response to an interview you did in the Seattle Times, someone commented: “Get an education, get a job, build experience, build a resume, grow out of a job, grow into a job, always look forward, never look back, not so complex after all. It just takes effort, ethic and discipline.”
SE: That particular set of comments is really linear. Always progressing, always aspirational. Kind of a, “You get this job, you do this thing, this thing happens.” I guess my response to it is in part a question: What are the conditions and the privileges in people’s lives that make that trajectory happen for some people and not for other people? Because that particular set of comments, it’s so seamless, it’s so simple, the way that that’s suggested.
VL: The presumption underlying those statements is that there’s a level playing field and everybody has equal access to opportunity. Yet what have decades of social science taught us? It’s that in fact, that is not the case, and there are many real and substantive barriers that keep people from just getting a job. It’s such an unimaginative and narrow framing that presumes, and therefore makes, invisible all of the things that make that playing field deeply un-level from start to finish.
Do you encounter that perception a lot? That it’s a level playing field with equal opportunity?
SE: I think it’s in the air we breathe in the U.S.
VL: I teach a middle-level class, a junior class that talks about global poverty and care, and the first thing I teach them is a relational view of poverty. I don’t care how smart they are, how critical they are, they are shocked to actually take a hard look. They go to the media and look at how poverty is represented, for example, and we talk in class about what it means to think about poverty as residual. The idea that poverty is, as that quote assumes, the problem of individual people who haven’t tried hard enough or haven’t taken advantage of all the wonderful opportunities that exist. Even if they are a critical thinker, they’ve never been asked to interrogate those assumptions and start to think that poverty and privilege are connected and that inequality and opportunity are sides of the same coin. They’ve never actually been taught to think about it, and so for some students, the first three weeks of class are really hard going.
The idea that being poor is all about character flaws, where do you think it comes from?
VL: It goes to that rugged individualism narrative about the U.S. I think it’s rooted in national identity and the frontier-ism of taming the land and “We’re resolute” and “We’re strong.” This country is built on this idea that you pull yourself up by the boot straps and that it’s all up to you and less government is better, more individual freedom. Freedom is this ridiculous word that’s been made into nonsense in a sense. You know, free to buy 67 varieties of toilet paper: that’s freedom. This sort of odd obsession with freedom and choice and individualism, I think some maybe comes out of a colonial history of throwing off the ties of the British and the [Boston] Tea Party. I think that’s crucial. I also always ask my students to think about what it does politically for the country, the economy, the government, national identity, if poor people are poor because it’s their fault. It makes invisible all the ways that people are privileged into privilege. I didn’t just get ahead because I’m a harder worker than all the other people who grew up in my hometown, I got ahead because I got an education provided by the state and because, when I moved to the United States as an immigrant, I was white with a British accent. That made life a lot simpler, let me tell you, than having to come as a brown person with an accent from Latin America. These are not things I did, these are things I carry because I live in a society that privileges certain things.
Can you talk a little bit about the concept of “middle class” and how that affects the concept of “poverty?”
VL: Everybody in this country thinks they’re middle class. Everybody, I mean, including people making millions of dollars a year, everyone’s middle class. And so then you ask yourself, well, what work is middle-classness doing? And what’s interesting about the way that works in our national identity and in our national political narratives — politicians are always about middle class and we’ve got to look after the middle class, we’ve got to give them tax breaks, they need good jobs, etc. — is that it actually takes class out of the question. If in fact, we’re all middle class, then that residual few who are poor and those really nasty, evil elites become the sort of punching bag to the society, and we don’t actually have to look at the fact that what’s called middle class goes from people making $10 an hour to people making several million a year. And in a way, it de-politicizes class altogether. And so one of the things we’ve been really interested in is this idea that calling everybody middle class takes poverty off the table.
Do you have any advice for challenging someone’s assumptions about poverty and starting a dialogue?
SE: A state representative was asking how does he, in a group of elected officials who will have really different starting assumptions about poverty, start a broad-base conversation. Maybe it’s about starting with a hard look at things that are oftentimes invisible and [asking] “Who is poor in your district?” Often the imagery of who poverty is, is scripted as urban, non-white. That does a lot to obscure say, rural poverty. White poverty. So asking hard questions about who sees poverty and who we think we see and unlearn what they think they know — I think are sometimes the starting points. And maybe you do that from asking questions, not telling people what to think.
VL: The thing that’s really striking about the way we “know” poverty in this country is that the standard way is numbers, counting and universal stereotypes. And one of the most powerful ways to challenge that is stories, people’s life stories. You cannot know why somebody’s living in poverty from looking at them or from counting them. The only way you can know is to learn their story and all of the things that happened along the way that put them where they are. Are they a vet? Did they get divorced and with the way the legal system is set up, left with nothing? I mean, what is that story? If we don’t start to do that kind of work of really understanding people as whole people, we’re never going to get beyond it, because those ideas about the undeserving poor rest on stereotypes. By definition, they rest on stereotypes.
How do you navigate this kind of work from a place of privilege?
VL: It has to be partnerships. It has to not be driven by our agenda. Being open to a process that is much more collaborative, much more open-ended, where you marshal resources because you can, but you don’t own them and that may mean that you do things you didn’t expect you’d be doing. The other big thing — and I’m not very good at this yet and I’m trying to learn how — is to really own privilege. One of the things that frustrates me so much in my professional life is I keep thinking I know how to do this, and I keep putting my foot right in my mouth and screwing it up, particularly with respect to questions of race. I keep thinking ‘I’m cool on this, I know how this works.’ I know what I need to do differently and I keep missing it and it’s so devastating — and I do mean devastating — to keep seeing how your privilege blinds you.
Is there something we haven’t talked about that you think is important?
VL: Given that we live in a democracy, albeit a dysfunctional democracy, the way forward has to be around this question of alliances. How do we create alliances across differences that allow for reeducation and a politicization of poverty? I think for me that, again, is why [it’s] “relational.”
If we can’t figure out how to talk across boundaries of race and class and documentation and nationalism, etc., we aren’t going to get anywhere on this because as far as I’m concerned, the way we talk about poverty works for the status quo. It normalizes the status quo and depoliticizes it.
So to me, in order to move forward, we need radical alliance across boundaries.