Episode 213: In the Shadow of Slavery, Poverty Lurks | Disrupting Poverty EMPath Panel

In this episode of the Invisible Americans podcast, hosts Jeff Madrick and Carol Jenkins delve into the persistence of poverty in America, focusing on the legacy of poverty in specific regions. They are joined by Dr. Kathryn Edin, Dr. H. Luke Shaefer, and Timothy Nelson, who share their research findings from the Empath Conference on Disrupting Poverty.

Key Points:

The episode highlights the importance of understanding the historical context of poverty in America and how it continues to impact communities today. The discussion emphasizes the significance of combining big data analysis with on-the-ground research to uncover the mechanisms that perpetuate poverty in disadvantaged areas.

The hosts stress the need for investing in social infrastructure and addressing government corruption to create pathways for economic mobility and community development.

The episode showcases examples from various regions, illustrating the impact of historical factors on present-day challenges and opportunities.

Featured Stories:

Insights from fieldwork in disadvantaged regions, including examples of government corruption and community resilience. Comparison of the most disadvantaged and advantaged places in America, highlighting the role of history and social infrastructure in shaping outcomes.

Personal anecdotes from the hosts and guests, showcasing the human impact of poverty and the potential for positive change through community engagement.


Join Jeff Madrick, Carol Jenkins, and their guests as they explore the complexities of poverty in America, uncovering the historical roots and present-day challenges faced by invisible communities. Learn how a deeper understanding of history and community dynamics can pave the way for meaningful change and empowerment.

Carol Jenkins:
Hello, and thanks so much for joining the Invisible Americans podcast with Jeff Madrick and Carol Jenkins. We address the travesty of child poverty here.

Jeff Madrick:
There are nearly 13 million children living in serious material deprivation in America, and we don't see them. They are our invisible Americans, and we plan to change that.

Carol Jenkins:
A couple of words about us. The podcast is based on Jeff's book, Invisible Americans, the tragic cost of child poverty. He's an economics writer, author of seven and co-author of another four books on the American economy.

Jeff Madrick:
And Carol is an Emmy winning journalist, activist and author, most recently president of the ERA Coalition, working to amend the Constitution to include women.

Carol Jenkins:
And we are longtime colleagues and friends. Thank you so much for joining this episode of the Invisible Americans podcast. We are recording this as the country begins to celebrate Independence Day, the 4th of July, 2024. In thinking about our country, it turns out that the places of most extreme poverty here are not the urban areas many think of, but the places where slavery was once enforced.

Jeff Madrick:
Today we present a discussion of the persistence of poverty in this country, as explained by the authors of the book Injustice of Place, Uncovering the Legacy of Poverty in America. They presented their findings of the Empath Conference Disrupting Poverty in Boston in March of this year. We thank Empath for this great partnership with us.

Carol Jenkins:
The presenters are Dr. Kathryn Edin, Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University. Dr. H. Luke Shaefer, Professor and Associate Dean at the University of Michigan. and Timothy Nelson, Director of Undergraduate Studies in Sociology and Lecturer of Public Affairs at the School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.

Jeff Madrick:
We have interviewed the authors on our Invisible Americans podcast. Dr. Shaefer was a participant in our first child poverty convening at the Roosevelt House Institute of Public Policy.

Dr. Kathryn Edin:
I've never engaged in research that was so deeply moving and meaningful. So this all started after Luke and I published the book I talked about last time, Two Dollars a Day, about America's poorest people. And in the aftermath of the publication of that book, a program officer from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation called us up and she said, this never happens for those of you who raise grants. You have to raise money. This never happens. She said, would you be interested in partnering with us on a project turning your lens toward America's poorest places? And could you do so with an eye toward health? Now, it took Luke and I, and then we later recruited Tim, about two or three minutes to say yes. After all, social science was showing us more and more the importance of place in people's lives, and in fact, we were learning that if you looked at a child's life chances, that those life chances were as powerfully shaped by the communities they grew up in. as even their own choices or behavior. 

So we were very interested to dive into this project. But the first thing social scientists do when they're confronted with the challenge to identify America's most disadvantaged places is they've got to figure out how to measure it. So we thought and thought and thought. This actually took more than two minutes. And we decided that we wanted to move beyond the 1960s era measures of poverty that merely focused on income, because after all, in the last 60 years, our nation's data infrastructure has grown dramatically. 

So we wanted to begin to incorporate some of that infrastructure into our index of deep disadvantage. We wanted to keep income in, because income tracks very closely with hardship. It also goes up and down with the strength of the economy, and so that cyclical nature of disadvantage was important to keep. But we also know that poverty gets under the skin. Just because I escape poverty, that doesn't mean it doesn't continue to ravage my health. It affects all kinds of things about how I function in the world, how I think about myself, what my opportunities were as a child continue to follow me throughout adulthood. 

So we really wanted to look at some cumulative measures of poverty. A low birth weight is a great one because this incorporates both the child's life chances going forward. but it also reflects the kinds of struggles that child's parents have experienced up until the time the child is conceived and during pregnancy. Life expectancy, similarly, at the end of the life course is a reflection of all of the disadvantages that people face throughout their life course. And as you know, in cities like Baltimore, where I live most of the time, life expectancy can vary by 20 years from community to community. And finally, places have different structures. So I've been studying Humphreys County, Mississippi a little bit. And in Humphreys County, Mississippi, if you have a high school degree, it's pretty hard to find a better job than a job at the catfish factory. However, if you had that same high school degree in Boston, Massachusetts, you would have many more opportunities. 

So we wanted to capture sort of the stickiness of poverty in a place. And so we used a measure of intergenerational mobility. What is the chance that a child growing up in a low-income family can make it to the middle class in early adulthood? Now, there was no real way of ranking these five indicators, so we had a computer do it for us. We used a technique called principal components analysis, which is a very cool machine learning technique. And then we assigned a score to every county in all of the 500 largest cities in America, and we threw it on a map. Now, most of you know us for our work on urban poverty, so you can imagine the shock when this was the map that was produced. This map is not urban. There are only a few urban places in the 100 most disadvantaged places in the nation. 

These are overwhelmingly rural places. You'll also notice that there's a very strong geographic concentration of the deepest disadvantaged in our nation. Leading the list is the vast historic cotton belt in the United States, really stretching from the coastal Carolinas all the way through to Arkansas and Louisiana, and also the tobacco belt, which is really just above, stretching from Virginia through North Carolina and into the eastern tip of South Carolina. Central Appalachia, I heard I have some folks from West Virginia here. Is that true? OK. So this incorporates Eastern Kentucky and Western West Virginia, and a little bit of Western Virginia as well. 

And a place we don't talk about very much, but that has some of the highest poverty rates in the United States, South Texas. You will also notice Native nations are among the most disadvantaged places in the country. They are not as clustered for historical reason. We were not able to incorporate Native Nations into this book, so that is a chapter that remains unwritten, an important chapter in some ways that underpins all of the stories we tell in this book. So then we had to decide what to do next. We knew where these places were. What do we do now? 

So two of us are ethnographers, we're storytellers, we go out and talk to people, and one loves data. So, you know, we had Luke outnumbered, and we said, we need to do some ethnography. So we talked a team of graduate students into moving in to representative communities in these places for many months, sometimes even years, with us making frequent trips back and forth repeatedly to meet with people and to get a sense of what they were learning. community potlucks, went on a squirrel hunt, competed in a Dolly Parton singing contest, went to lots of churches, church suppers, always found a way to volunteer in the community in order to give back, often with the local non-profit. 

And we began to build the story of what was going on in these places. This is our research team. And during that, the first summer, right before the pandemic, when we were all living in these places, we'd hear from Emily and Liv, who were in eastern Kentucky. Did you know that this little community, Clay County, was once the epicenter of salt production for the eastern seaboard of the United States, known as the salt capital of the world? And then Jasmine and Meg, who were in coastal South Carolina, would say, did you know that the town of Mullins, which is the largest town in the community, do we have a Mullins resident here? All right. Was once one of the tobacco capitals of the United States, producing that coveted bright leaf strain that popularized the modern cigarette. 

And then Ryan from Mississippi would say, did you know that Leflore County, Mississippi was the place where the antebellum production of cotton was most faithfully reproduced after the Civil War, calling itself the cotton capital of the world? And then, of course, our folks in South Texas, Mara Cruz, Karen, and Christine would say, There's a huge statue of Popeye in downtown Crystal City. It turns out that Crystal City is the spinach capital of the world, at one time producing 80% of the nation's spinach and most of its Bermuda onions. 

And so this is when we began to get suspicious. We had thought that maybe these places were all very different from one another, but these stories were beginning to sound awfully the same. And just about then, Ryan, one of our researchers, sent us this map. So the map you see on my left, I don't know, the older map, I don't know whether it's your left or right, is a map of the percentage of the population that was enslaved in 1860. And the map on the right, on my right, is our map. And I don't want you to get too hung up on this map, Because, you know, Appalachia and South Texas began to play into this story as well later on. But the very gradations of the counties in 1860 are the same as we saw in early 2020.

Timothy Nelson:
All right, good afternoon. So it's my part of this to tell you, the pandemic happened while we were in the middle of this process and so we had already learned some things from the ethnography from some of the researchers and intriguingly about the economic domination of these regions by particular industries, the spinach capital of the world, etc. So I was sort of designated the team historian during this time to kind of do a really deep dive into the history of each of these places. And really with the question, on the surface, these regions look pretty different. Is there something that binds them all together that they produced this current level of deep disadvantage? 

And so it turns out that in each of these five regions, there is a turning point in their history. There's sort of a tipping point. where an industry comes in and basically takes over everything in that region. So, first of all, in cotton, right? So you may have heard of Eli Whitney and the cotton gin being invented right outside of Savannah, Georgia in the late 18th century. And immediately cotton starts taking over not only that region but sweeping westward during this early part of the 19th century and taking cotton and slavery with it as it goes. In Appalachia, there's a guy named Jedediah Hodgkiss who comes and discovers a seam of coal in western West Virginia that's more massive than anyone had ever seen in the New World before. 

And although it isn't developed right away, that begins the exploitation of coal in the Appalachian region. In South Texas, there's a guy named T.C. Nye who, around the turn of the 20th century, discovers that he can grow Bermuda onions in the Winter Garden region, which is sort of southwest of San Antonio. and yield far more per acre than cotton would ever yield. So that whole region immediately becomes transformed into an irrigated agriculture section. And then in South Carolina, there's somebody who starts experimenting with tobacco, And the people in the old growth region of North Carolina were like, no, tobacco is never going to grow that far south. But indeed it did, and immediately it takes over that region of the Carolinas. 

So each of these stories, there's this one industry that just permeates everything. This is actually a picture from Greenwood, Mississippi in the 1920s. I know it looks older than that, but cotton is still predominant then. But along with these industries, what immediately becomes apparent to the people running these industries is they need abundant and cheap and reliable sources of labor to work in these industries. So in Appalachia, you have subsistence farming that all of a sudden is giving way first to timber and then coal and also importing sort of discouraged sharecroppers from the upper south. In Texas, you have right at the time that they're developing the irrigated agriculture, the Mexican Revolution is happening and displacing tens of thousands of Mexican labor into southern Texas. 

So they're sort of caught up into this and become part of the migrant labor chain from south Texas up to the upper Midwest and so on. Tobacco, coming into the Carolinas and switching from cotton, tobacco is actually much more labor intensive than cotton. And so the sharecropping system even more intense there. So what develops then is a whole system of social and labor and political controls to keep the labor there and available for exploitation by the people running these industries. And so the whole, obviously slavery is the most infamous and example of this, but also in places like Appalachia, where they established coal company towns and basically controlled the whole political and cultural system of these towns. 

In South Texas, you had labor controls, you had things like the white primary, where only whites could vote in the Democratic primary, thus sort of shutting anyone else out of the political process. So all of these systems developed and still sort of carried with it through the early part of the 20th century. So one thing that we wanted to do is, well I'll get to that in a second here, but we noticed that a lot of the areas that we were looking at were not the first time that they had come on the nation's radar in terms of poverty. So in fact, Lyndon Johnson, who you see here sitting on the porch of an unemployed miner, in Inez, Kentucky, is announcing the war on poverty. 

And he goes to Kentucky to do this. We actually found this house when we were out in our field work. It still exists. It's still there. And Lyndon Johnson himself is interesting because he's from Texas and when he was out of work, sorry, in school and out of money, he took a year off to teach in what they called a Mexican school in Texas. It was actually a Spanish language school. And he was so deeply moved by the poverty he saw there in Cotulla, Texas, that it carried with him when he was able to, following Kennedy's death, institute the War on Poverty. 

So these places got started a long time ago. A lot of the conditions that we noted historically had changed quite a bit over the course of the 20th century, particularly in the post-World War II era, with mechanization, with mass migrations out of the area and so on. So our next question was, what are the mechanisms that keep these places disadvantaged to the degree that they are today? And so that's the, We won't look at all of the mechanisms, but we'll look at a couple of them.

H. Luke Shaefer:
So as Tim points out, when I think about this book, I think about all of the ways that it's changed the way I've thought about poverty and surprised me throughout much of the course. And one of the ways is in the importance of history. So I think as social scientists, as researchers, as scholars, we all give nods to history. And I think many of us do that in our work in the social services. But then we proceed in ways that understand our programs as basically ahistorical, that they popped up out of nowhere. But through the course of this work, we realize how incredibly important it is to understand in anything that we're dealing with the historical reasons of why things are as they are. 

If we think of one of the predominant ways that we understand poverty as being the consequence of individualized decisions of people, it’s hard to juxtapose that to the two maps that we showed you and the fact that if we took just a few characteristics of communities from over a hundred years ago, we could predict with incredible precision the poverty rates, the life expectancy, the social mobility rates experienced there today. So, in all of our work, I think understanding how deeply history impacts where jobs are available, what transportation looks like, what communities, how communities are designed, is critical for really trying to figure out how we're going to tackle any of our challenges anywhere. As Kathy mentioned, I came into our work together in $2 a day as sort of the data nerd guy. 

And I love charts and spreadsheets. They make me feel really warm and cuddly inside. I would cuddle up data at night, but my wife says no data comes to bed. You have to leave it. But I also have really come to understand through this work and through $2 a day the incredible importance of being directly connected with. what you're thinking about and what you're grappling with. 

And in my own case, I started out as a caseworker. That's how I got into this work is seeing families every single month coming to me with, you know, threatened with utility shut off or eviction or not having enough food and thinking, you know what, there must be some sort of structural things we could do that would not make it so that I could predict, again, that somebody is not going to be, you know, making it every single month. So, I had done that work, but I quickly got into, you know, my work as an academic using large scale data. And I think that I've done. I think that's been important work. Right. We need the large-scale data. you very quickly get disconnected. And I think sometimes when we end up running organizations and we're disconnected from the work, that can happen to us too. 

And so I think of it often as the work of staying connected, the power of proximity, as Bryan Stevenson would say, as really trying to address, help us find the questions that we don't even know to ask, the questions that are so outside of our positionalities that we wouldn't even know how to ask them. And so much of this list actually fit that bill for me. So as we got to know communities, we didn't just interview community leaders. I think that's an important piece of the puzzle, but community leaders often have a certain perspective on the challenges of a community. Some of the time, or a lot of the time, those challenges in the minds of community leaders are about the faults of low-income residents. And so they can really give you a lot in talking to community leaders, but they're also going to have blind spots, right? And they're going to lead you down. 

And so we can't think that the folks who run communities, mayors, members of the city council, principals or nonprofit leaders have all of the answers to understanding the challenges that are faced. And we interviewed low-income families as well. So combining those two pieces of the data and being engaged in community events, and then looking at the history, we felt like we could get a richness in understanding what was going on. And our goal was really to try to understand that persistence, right? That these are the places that have been deeply poor for a very long time, and we can see sort of the historical ripple effects of that. 

And so through this work, which is not exhaustive, right? This is really a starting point. It's meant to start a conversation. We identified a series of mechanisms and we identified sort of the structural forces that made them be what they were. Separate and highly unequal schools is one of them. It's probably not one of the bigger surprises that we would think. Educational systems that have been set up for generations to have divergent outcomes would be a piece of that. One of the passages I love the most about this book is one that Kathy wrote about segregationist academies. 

As southern districts finally understand that they can no longer segregate in the public schools, actually, the Citizens Council, often referred to as the White Citizen Council, publishes a step-by-step process of how you found private schools and extract as many of the resources from the public schools as possible. So, I think the nuts and bolts of how this is achieved, right, and how it's perpetuated is critical. It's a critical work in understanding structural racism and structural disadvantage. The loss of social infrastructure, that's what I'm going to go into a little bit more detail about, was one of those things that we never expected to write about when we got into this work, but understanding what it means when the places where we congregate, where we make social connections, start to evaporate, what that does to us. Violence is an incredibly important one. 

Understanding not just the violence that's experienced in communities and the rippling effects that that has on children especially, right, to be exposed to violence, to be victims of violence, how that ripples through life courses, but understanding this in historical context, that these are all places where violence has been used for generations. to maintain that social order that Tim was talking about. It was the ultimate tool in so many ways, and it lives still today in these communities. Government corruption is one I'm going to talk a bit more about. Structural racism embedded in government policies. Many of these communities face more and more natural disasters, right, in the wake of climate change. We just see more extreme weather events. 

And so things like disaster relief policies that actually have the effect of higher income communities after they experience a hurricane or a tornado actually end up more affluent. Higher income and predominantly white communities end up more affluent. even if there's real trauma in the experience of those, in lower income communities and communities of color are made poorer by these because our systems through HUD and FEMA have divergent outcomes across those differences. elite backlash, revolt and retribution, sort of the experience in every single one of these places that those who were exploited rose up. And there are some incredible successes, some real stories of progress there. But there was always a price that was paid. They could always respect those who were in charge, even if they lost the battle, to continue to fight the war. 

And finally, the understanding of the social reproduction of these systems. So even after the big industries that dominated for them for so long went away, these are places that tried to replicate that model over and over again with a single industry sort of putting their eggs in one basket and sort of focused on industries with low wages. So we saw it over and over again. So as we got in, especially to Clay County in Kentucky, Manchester, Kentucky, and we were talking to families, the opioid epidemic continues to be something that's prominent in people's minds. 

Even as we've sort of thought maybe we were getting a handle on prescription opioid prescriptions and opioid deaths, we still remain at some of our highest levels of overdoses, and some of that has moved from prescription opioids to illegal opioids. But this was really ground zero of that, and you can think of the opioid crisis as actually the most recent extractive industry in central Appalachia, one that was where the community was specifically targeted and it really preyed on the bodies of community members there. 

As we started talking with families about what could be done, right? What can government do? What can nonprofits do to try to get a handle on this challenge? We got the same answer over and over again. There's really nothing around here for kids. That's why they go to drugs. I just want things to change. I mean, better for the kids. Stuff that teenagers can do instead of getting into drugs. That's DALI. Like we had the movies a long time ago, like I said, it's turned into a church and there's really nothing to do. So it's crystal. Down here, they just want to build roads and drugstores. This tiny town had 13 different pharmacies. So it's just nothing really that you can do down here. 

So, you know, this is one of those places when you take this type of research seriously. Right. When we heard these answers, I have to admit, I didn't think of them as sort of serious solutions to the opioid epidemic. Right. Could it could it be that one like important strategy for dealing with the opioid epidemic is to have local movie theaters or bowling alleys or splash parks or arcades? But as you get into the research, there is so much reason to think that this is true. There are research papers that show the decline in civic organizations and communities as follows by increases in opioid deaths. In our own work, we actually found things like barbershops and beauty parlors and arcades. Arcades are actually really good spaces of what we call social infrastructure. 

So you've all probably heard about social capital, right? These are like the connections we have one another and how that can help us with coping with any challenges we have, but it can also be bridging social capital of helping us find jobs, right? Or find opportunities or learn things and be successful in life. Social infrastructure is kind of like the places where that can happen and we can make those connections. It's like the playing field. So if some of you remember Bob Button ham’s book many years ago, Bowling Alone, the argument we're making is that people aren't just bowling alone anymore. There's no bowling alley at all. 

Actually, there has been a massive decline in the number of bowling, local bowling alleys all across the United States. How can this impact us, right? Well, it turns out, right, those social connections, those connecting with other people, they fire in our brains in lots of the same ways that drugs do, right? Drugs are actually kind of a substitute to this. So as these places decline, you know, we take away the movie theater that we all go together. And what is it replaced with? A lot of time it's replaced with a streaming of content in our homes, on our couches, by ourselves that nobody else is watching. So we asked Angus Deaton, he wrote this, he and Anne Case wrote a book called Death of Despair, what he thought about this. And he said, I think it might not just be one of the things, I think it might be the thing. 

And he pointed us to a couple of pieces of research. So one is my favorite, it's about laboratory rats. So I'm gonna compare people to lab rats, so forgive me for that. Although we've all probably done it at some point, right? So it turns out if a lab rat, a cute little lab rat, is in a cage by himself and there's nothing in the cage to do, if you expose the lab rat to drugs, he will almost always use the drugs, he will often overdose, and will many times die. But if the cute little lab rat has cute little lab rat friends and cool stuff in the cage to do, he will only use the drugs recreationally, will almost never overdose, in not a single instance will their lab rat die, right? So those social connections, like the things, right? The substitute is critical. Another example is Vietnam, U.S. military members in the Vietnam War. 

So it turns out, historically speaking, that U.S. military stationed in Vietnam when they weren't out on missions used drugs in mass quantities. And Richard Nixon was pretty upset about this. So he commissioned like a really rigorous study And they asked military members, why are you using drugs in mass quantities? And you know what they said? There's nothing else to do. And that drugs are cheap. But mostly, there's nothing else to do. But the most fascinating thing is that they followed these folks back. They followed a huge sample back to the United States, and they found that when people came back to their families and well-structured lives, they stopped the drug use in ways that don't fit with any of our models of addiction. 

People who use these drugs in incredible amounts, once they were put back into lives with structure and social support networks, that it evaporated in ways that we really don't think should be possible. So we wrote in an op-ed and write in the book, maybe building social infrastructure is a big part of what we can be doing. Maybe finding those places that people can come together across difference and just make those social connections, have cheap fun, is one of the ways that we can combat our opioid and our drug overdose challenges, and more broadly, our challenges with loneliness. All right, government corruption. This is another one of those things that I never expected to write about going in. But it turns out that every single case, every single field site had a recent example of significant government corruption. None more prominent than the Mississippi welfare scandal that involved Super Bowl champion quarterback Brett Favre. 

So this was a, you know, I think the last tally we saw was more than $80 million in federal block grant dollars given to the state of Mississippi through a program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. All right. I'm guessing most people in this room know about TANF, right? All the flex. We thought it was a work-first welfare program. It turns out it was just a slush fund. And most states use it to balance their budgets. And Mississippi went fully over the line in that, right? And we're using it to do things like pay for schools that didn't exist or pay for community events that never happened. And in the case of Brett Favre, $1.1 million for speeches that never happened. 

And so, you know, Brett still says he didn't do anything wrong, although he's paid back most of the money. And he did have these text messages that got out that said things like, can anyone ever find out where this money came from? Which is usually a sign that you probably know you're doing something that you shouldn't do. But in this case, we're talking about government corruption, right? This is money that is supposed to go into the pockets of low income families or supposed to be at least I would like to go into the pockets of low-income families, but at least used for services that can actually support low-income families. 

And it was being taken away from that and used to support a set of government and nonprofit leaders and celebrities. Brett's not the only one. There's other wrestlers. There was one fellow who actually was paid by TANF to give speeches on not becoming addicted to drugs, but he himself got addicted to drugs during the time, and TANF dollars were used to send him to a rehab center in Malibu. So, you know, just egregious examples here. But in every single town that we were in, there was some example of government corruption. So this one in Crystal City, actually in 2016, the FBI descends on City Hall and arrests every member of the city council except for one, the city manager and the mayor for racketeering and bribes. And they took all of the public records from the community. 

So the next people who came into town who were actually, as we met them, like, Really, people who are trying to do right by their communities, they were left with like no record of what had happened before. So this isn't an example of money being immediately extracted from low income families. But you think about what the work of these communities are supposed to be doing, right, of creating economic opportunity, right, or creating the best possible schools. And if they're busy lining their own pockets, they're not doing that work. 

And then in Clay County, Kentucky, we have just this is where that historical sort of lens is really important because we see across all of these field sites that these are not sort of instances of bad actors. Right. But there are many ways just replicating the way government has been done in these places, usually by the haves for decades or centuries. Folks in league with drug dealers. you know, folks buying votes to be put back in place, racketeering, all of that. So this has the impact of making it so government is not effective in addressing the needs of community members. And it also causes communities to lose faith in government, to think that there's nothing that they're not capable of helping me and they're not actually interested. 

And that becomes a big barrier as we got to know folks across every community who would ask that question like, what could government do differently? The confidence that anything could be done or that anyone was capable of doing something was extremely low. Despite all of that, in every single one of these communities, there were leaders who we call hometown heroes who were doing incredible work, right, doing right by their communities. 

That is another thing that we see consistently across every single community we're in. People who are just volunteering to keep the food bank going. I met one young woman who would wake up at like 4 a.m. to get to the food bank and get the best food for her community and bring it back every Saturday morning after working a full work week. In this case, Pastor Ken is one of those examples in Manchester. He and a group of pastors start to get together and say, drugs are ravaging our community, our children are dying, and we want to do something about it. And they led this incredible march of thousands and thousands of people, the largest single gathering of people in Manchester County in history, coming together and saying, we're not going to take it anymore and we want change. 

And so the work of dealing with corruption is trying to figure out how do we equip those who want to do right by their communities who are often on their own, right? They have no resources, not a lot to help someone who wants to be the mayor of their small town and do right by the community to do that and also guard against those who have other intentions. So we think about sort of the history, all of these mechanisms, but they also all have a present today. So we look at the rise of all-purpose vouchers, right? There's actually good evidence that very targeted vouchers can be positive for some communities, and that's something that we should continue to explore. But the current rise of just cashing in public school foundation levels for vouchers for anyone, in many ways, you hear a lot of the same language and a lot of the same themes as the segregationist academies that I told you about. 

Death by despair, we can see how incredibly different the experience of violence. This is one well-measured marker of violence. You can see the most advantaged places have just a tiny fraction of the violence experienced in average communities across the nation, especially our most disadvantaged places. And we can see that one of the greatest predictors of violence in a community is not the poverty rate today, it's not the number of police on the street, but it's actually this marker of mobility. It's this marker of if you grow up poor, are you likely to be poor as an adult? Or do you have a chance of reaching the middle class? And we think of this as hope, right? We think of this as the chance for a different life. 

And all of these institutional pressures that we've seen in these communities for generations have targeted reducing hope, right? They've targeted sort of keeping that low-wage labor force in a place where folks will continue to do work at low wages. Of course, one of the mechanisms through which the revolt and retribution happens is through taking away resources. And we see echoes of that today in announcements that there's going to be more than a dozen states that are going to refuse a pretty critical form of food aid over the coming months that goes to school children. And I think all of that leads us to think about, like, what are those structures that could lead to different results? If we're looking at the history of what leads places to be deeply disadvantaged, what's the flip side of that? And Kathy's going to tell you a little bit more about that.

Dr. Kathryn Edin:
Early on in this project, as soon as Princeton University allowed us to get in the car again, Tim and I, we're a married couple, so it's okay, got in the car and drove to 175 of the most disadvantaged places in the United States, a massive 14-state road trip, and learned so much that really complemented this work. But a couple of years later, we said, you know, we should really visit the most advantaged places as well. And I've circled the most advantaged places here. I grew up right in the middle of that circle, so I cannot take credit for whatever success I've had. I've been, you know, my wings have been lifted by place. And it was so fascinating going on this road trip in the most disadvantaged places. You know, I remember the Cotton Belt, you know, about a mile out of town, you begin to see these massive houses and you get downtown and the whole downtown had just been crushed except for one opulent store, you know, still there to serve the tourists and the elite class who remained in these places. But when we went to, you know, the statue of Popeye, the tobacco museum in Marion County, South Carolina. But you go through the upper Midwest, and I can tell you, having grown up there, there's nothing interesting. Nothing. You know, it's so interesting. 

The one thing that you notice is little farms everywhere. Like, if you're in South Texas, you're not going to see buildings for miles, just fields. This is true in all of these regions. But, of course, the reason land is evenly distributed in these places and property ownership is very broad is because these places were established via the Homestead Act, which is one of America's first pieces of social policy. And it had a tremendous leveling effect, although there are definitely two sides to the story, because so many native lands were dispossessed. What we find in these places is that inequality is low. There aren't very many rich people, but there aren't very many poor people here either. Corruption, government corruption, is almost unheard of. Pretty much everybody attends, except for the elementary parochial schools, the same high schools. There's babies born healthy. Old folks live a very long time. 

There are some counties where life expectancy is just astonishing. And so all of the mechanisms we identified that were keeping people back in the areas of deepest disadvantage were actually helping them to thrive. in the areas of greatest advantage. So what do we want you to take away from this presentation? History, history, history. No matter where you are, no matter what your work is, history is going to be important to what you do. And we could tell this whole story on a neighborhood level within cities. So those of you who are in cities, you know that this story pertains to regions of the places you live as well too. 

So get to know your history, find the roots of the places that you inhabit. Second, you can learn a lot from big data, but when you blend history and old-fashioned knocking on doors, talking to people, you know, David Ellwood, who was my dean at the Kennedy School when I taught at Harvard, was really big on always going and finding a place where he could visit and talk to ordinary people about their lives. So by combining a love of big data, an appreciation of history, and the old-fashioned gift of being allowed to go and talk to people, I could really help you understand the mechanisms that tie a place to its past. And then once you identify the mechanisms, of course, you can innovate. This is Empath, right? You can find those mobility pathways that will be most effective for your place. So, in the case of the presentation we just gave, and in light of what Luke emphasized, nobody's talking about investing in social infrastructure. But it is vital. It is vital. And social infrastructure in rural areas is declining everywhere, but especially in the places we've identified. 

The government actually is prohibited in most cases by statute from doing this. This social infrastructure is thought of as recreation, but there's no reason our nation's 2200 non-profits cannot do so. Second, we need to recognize that the risk of elite capture is real. Whenever resources flow into a community, it is likely, especially in communities that we've called internal colonies in these books, these places that were really built on this pattern of elite exploitation, it's really crucial that we think carefully about how we can get resources directly to people without lining the pockets of the elites. Now, some people say, gee, why don't we just tell people to move out of these places? Well, first, all of these places have been sites of massive out-migration, and then massive return migration, because it turns out that it wasn't so great in the North. Currently, we have 44% of all Hispanics living in the states bordering the Mexican border. That's a lot of people. 60% of African-Americans now once again live in the South. And the most disadvantaged whites in our nation live in central Appalachia. 

So we're talking about too many people, too many people to ignore. But I also like to point to these pictures in Crystal City, Texas, you know, spinach capital of the world. They actually have a spinach festival every year. And there's a spinach eating contest, a medical waiver required. But there's also a parade that just tools all the way through town. And this is one of the junior spinach princesses. This is Redbird Mission, which is one of the historic missions in Appalachia. It's in the tiny little southernmost corner of Clay County. This little girl is supposed to be doing math, but she's drawing pictures. This is Marion County, South Carolina. The town of Marion has a fishing contest every year, and this little boy is getting his first look at the big one. There's a wonderful arts program in LeFlore County, Mississippi, and this little boy is just putting his whole heart, soul, and body into creating this work of art.

Carol Jenkins:
Thanks so much for joining us on the Invisible Americans podcast, available wherever you get your podcasts, but we urge you to visit our website for transcripts, show notes, research, and additional information about our guests and their work. That's www.theinvisibleamericans.com. Please follow us on social media and our new YouTube channel, and our blog posts are up on Medium as well as our website. That's www.theinvisibleamericans.com. Jeff and I will see you the next time.

H. Luke Shaefer

Associate Dean for Research and Policy Engagement at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan

H.Luke Shaefer, Ph.D.is the Hermann and Amalie Kohn Professor of Social Justice and Social Policy and Associate Dean for Research and Policy Engagement at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. He is also a professor of social work and the inaugural director of Poverty Solutions, an interdisciplinary, presidential initiative that partners with communities and policymakers to find new ways to prevent and alleviate poverty. Through his role at Poverty Solutions, Shaefer acts as a special counselor on anti-poverty policy to the director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Dr. Kathryn Edin

Director, Center for Research on Child Wellbeing; William Church Osborn Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs, Princeton University; PI, Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study; Co-Director, Joint Degree Program in Social Policy

Edin is one of the nation’s leading poverty researchers, working in the domains of welfare and low-wage work, family life, and neighborhood contexts, through direct, in-depth observations of the lives of low-income populations. A qualitative and mixed-method researcher, she has taken on key mysteries about the urban poor that have not been fully answered by quantitative work: How do single mothers possibly survive on welfare? Why don’t more go to work? Why do they end up as single mothers in the first place? Where are the fathers and why do they disengage from their children’s lives? How have the lives of the single mothers changed as a result of welfare reform? The hallmark of her research is her direct, in-depth observations of the lives of low-income women, men, and children.

Edin has authored 8 books and some 60 journal articles. $2 a Day: The Art of Living on Virtually Nothing in America, co-authored with Luke Shaefer, was met with wide critical acclaim. It was included in The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2015, cited as “essential reporting about the rise in destitute families.” Her most recent book, The Injustice of Place: The Legacy of Poverty in America, will be published in August 2023.

Edin is a Trustee of the Russell Sage Foundation, was a founding member of the MacArthur Foundation-funded Network on Housing and Families with Young Children and was a past member of the MacArthur Network on the Family and the Economy.  In 2014, she was elected to both the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences. She was elected to the National Academy of Social Insurance in 2017 and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2019.

Edin received a bachelor’s degree in sociology from North Park University and a Ph.D. in sociology from Northwestern University. She has previously taught at Rutgers University, Northwestern University, the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, and Johns Hopkins University.

Timothy Nelson

Author and lecturer

Timothy Nelson is a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology. He is the author of numerous articles on low-income fathers and is the co-author, with Kathryn Edin, of the book Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City, published in June 2013 by the University of California Press.

Currently, Nelson is working on a book with Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein (University of Michigan) on the work and child support experiences of 440 low-income fathers interviewed across four metropolitan areas: Philadelphia, Charleston, SC, Austin and San Antonio.

Nelson’s prior research has focused on African American religion and congregational studies.  His prior book, Every Time I Feel the Spirit: Religious Experience and Ritual in an African American Congregation was published by NYU Press in 2004.  Nelson received his PhD in sociology from the University of Chicago in 1997 and has taught at Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Northwestern, and the University of Pennsylvania.