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Fixing America's poverty problem starts with telling a new story

The racist and classist way poor people are talked about in the U.S. is part of the reason why failed policies stay in place. The narrative around poverty needs a radical shift.
Image: A woman exits the pantry with a cart of food at the La Colaborativa Food Pantry in Chelsea, Mass., on Nov. 23, 2021.
A woman exits the pantry with a cart of food at a food pantry in Chelsea, Massachusetts on Nov. 23.Joseph Prezioso / AFP - Getty Images

In 2019, when I was mayor of Stockton, California, I launched the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration, the first major guaranteed income program in any American city. The pilot provided 125 randomly selected residents with $500 per month for two years — no strings attached and no work requirements. To be eligible, an individual only had to be at least 18 years old, reside in Stockton and live in a neighborhood with a median income at or below the city’s then-median household income of $46,033.

I was motivated to try something radically different because the status quo was unacceptable to me: Stockton’s median household income was far lower than the state median of about $62,000; we were also among the worst in the nation when it came to child poverty.

The racial wealth gap didn't happen by accident.

The findings of our pilot were significant: Compared to the control group, the people receiving the benefit experienced significantly less income volatility, so they were able to plan, pay for unexpected expenses and pay down debt. They were also healthier, exhibited less depression and anxiety and reported enhanced well-being. Recipients spent the money on essentials like food, utilities and transportation. And full-time employment increased dramatically for residents who were part of the pilot program (from 28 percent to 40 percent) as folks were able to stop working multiple jobs and take some time to find a single, better job.

Many of these findings fly in the face of stereotypes that this nation has maintained for generations about people who are struggling, and particularly about people of color. However, for me, someone who grew up in poverty, the findings were not all that surprising. I’ve long known talent and intellect are universal, but resources and opportunities are not. 

Indeed the results of giving people more resources were so positive that now more than 60 mayors across the country have committed to guaranteed income as a tool to abolish poverty, with about half already running pilots in their own cities.

We absolutely can implement bold policies on the local, state and federal levels that will dramatically change the trajectory of people’s lives, eliminate poverty and improve the nation’s productivity. But we can only achieve that kind of change if we disrupt and replace the current narrative on poverty based on racist, classist, sexist and xenophobic stereotypes. It’s a narrative that blames people for their struggles — labeling them as lazy, corrupt, unintelligent or worse — and deems them undeserving of our trust, our investment or even their own dignity.

This framing allows politicians to ignore and maintain blatantly unjust systems that keep people trapped in poverty — like jobs that pay unlivable wages or students at poor schools not having adequate, if any, access to resources like guidance counselors and extracurricular activities that affluent schools provide.

We absolutely can implement bold policies on the local, state and federal levels that will dramatically change the trajectory of people’s lives.

By viewing poor people as less than wealthier people — or even as disposable — actions like treating their communities as America’s dumping ground for hazardous waste and pollution will continue, all while leaving them barren of health care infrastructure

A narrative that blames people for not rising out of poverty also permits policymakers to look the other way as so many young people are denied access or priced out of continuing education, even when we know higher education is necessary (though not a silver bullet) for advancing in today’s economy. It’s a narrative that contributes to continual mass incarceration that breaks up families and strips talent and potential from Black and brown communities.

But what would happen if we were to replace this false and destructive narrative with an authentic one that centers the experiences of people who actually live in poverty? These are people like my mother, grandmother and aunt — my “three moms,” as I refer to them in my memoir “The Deeper the Roots — who together raised me while my father served a sentence of 25 years to life due to a draconian “Three strikes, you’re out” law. A fundamental shift in how communities like the one I grew up in are talked about would recognize the strengths, assets and dignity of individuals and families. It would look squarely at how people are set up for failure through under-resourced schools, low pay with no benefits, over policing and much more, and it would therefore create space for new policies that would, as I call it, upset the setup. 

The stakes for a new narrative, new politics and new policy around poverty couldn’t be higher. That’s why I launched that seemingly radical policy pilot in Stockton and why lawmakers from both parties in cities across the U.S. are now following suit. 

A fundamental shift in how communities like the one I grew up in are talked about would recognize the strengths, assets and dignity of individuals and families.

With approximately 37 million people in the U.S. living below the official poverty line ($26,496 for a family of four) — a woefully inadequate measure that doesn’t account for the true cost of living — we are at a pivotal moment when we will make significant progress or retreat in the face of backlash. Government assistance in response to the pandemic kept 53 million people above the poverty line in 2020, according to a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis of Census Bureau data. Stimulus checks (cash), expanded help with food, emergency rental assistance and extended unemployment insurance all played important roles and, in many cases, literally provided people with a lifeline. And since the child tax credit was expanded in July, 3 million children have been kept out of poverty each month, according to estimations from Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy.

Yet we already see the backlash. As the Biden administration and most Democrats work to make the child tax credit permanent through the Build Back Better Act, others are urging to include work requirements and questioning whether parents are deserving of this benefit without some kind of extra effort.

There is no harder work than raising children in poverty. Nothing demands greater effort: from advocating in schools to cobbling together transportation, child care and other essentials; dealing with dangerous health impacts from the environment; trying to keep your kids safe from state and neighborhood violence; juggling bills and multiple jobs in the formal or informal economy; and navigating byzantine bureaucracies to get a little help. 

Moreover, we’ve seen that hard work doesn’t necessarily guarantee anything but more hard work. You can do everything right and still not receive the promised payoff. The proverb “If you work hard and play by the rules, anyone can make it” just isn’t true.

What is true is that a little assistance can go a long way — and we’ve known that for a long time. So it is past time to end paternalistic and stigmatizing policy and instead pursue bold solutions that are morally just and economically smart

 In addition to giving people cash, other bold policies include creating baby bonds so everyone has access to capital to pursue education, entrepreneurship or home ownership when they reach adulthood. The racial wealth gap didn’t happen by accident: Among the contributing factors were Black and brown people being excluded from Social Security and New Deal labor protections, barred from GI benefits, denied mortgages through redlining, targeted by job and pay discrimination and blocked from accessing capital to create, sustain or expand small businesses.

 We also need to create good jobs with family-supporting wages and benefits — and if you visit any poor community in the country, that’s one of the first things they will say they want (the other likely being more resources for their schools). If the private sector can’t do it, then the government should provide a job. Call it a job guarantee or a Green New Deal (the climate change proposal includes a federal jobs guarantee) — call it whatever you want — but there is needed work to be done in many fields like elder and child care; public transit and infrastructure; building, rehabilitating and retrofitting affordable, energy-efficient housing; creating parks and green space; and more.

Finally, we will never eliminate poverty unless we create a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented people already here — the vast majority of whom are already contributing to our economy and communities every day. Citizenship is one of the clearest routes out of poverty. Compared to work authorization programs like Temporary Protected Status, it offers greater protection against exploitation by employers, ends the fear of deportation (as well as its abuse for political gain) and allows individuals and families access to support when they need it. Remember how undocumented immigrants — many of whom pay taxes and were front-line essential workers during the height of the pandemic — were deemed ineligible for stimulus checks?

How will we pay for these and other new policies? We can start by demanding — as most Americans do — that wealthy corporations and people finally pay their fair share in taxes. We can also revamp an upside-down tax code that largely rewards the already wealthy, drives economic inequality and widens racial inequities, according to Prosperity Now.

When I was a child, my mother used to say to me, “Don’t tell nobody our business.” That was based in part on a sense of shame that she and many others absorbed just for having to struggle. Since then, I’ve learned that telling the truth in fact sets us free. It did for me in my life, it has in fits and starts for our nation and it can again if we resolve to identify and dismantle the systems that create, sustain and perpetuate poverty.

 It all begins with telling a new and authentic story.