In Defense of Poverty

This essay was originally published as part of a series called “What is Inequality?” hosted by the Social Science Research Council on its online forum, Items.” The piece is reposted here in recognition of International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. #EndPoverty #ItsPossible

By Ananya Roy, co-author of Encountering Poverty: Thinking and Acting in an Unequal World

Inequality bothers me. I am troubled by the persistence and prevalence of wealth and income inequality in the United States. I join earnest social scientists and conscientious global citizens in condemning inequality. But that is not all that bothers me about inequality. The widespread use of the term inequality also bothers me. The language of inequality is everywhere—dominating newspaper headlines, gaining prominence in the agenda of philanthropic foundations, and anchoring a host of new university programs and centers. Readers might have noticed that I serve as director of the brand-new Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA. I worry that inequality has become a mere trope for social justice. I worry that the expansive use of inequality distracts attention from specific forms of impoverishment, exploitation, discrimination, and segregation. I worry that the institutionalization of inequality as a banner theme keeps the concept safely contained within the discourses and practices of liberal democracy, often twinned with other liberal themes such as inclusion and diversity.

For those of us involved and implicated in academic work organized under the sign of inequality, we must be constantly alert to such containments. Repoliticizing inequality is an ongoing project, one that increasingly demands vigilance and creativity on the part of social scientists. In this brief essay, I offer one approach to the task of repoliticizing inequality: the resignification of poverty as a critical concept. My defense of poverty is meant to be a provocation rather than a blueprint, although I outline some ideas about what such a conceptual commitment might mean for an agenda of social science research.

Poverty is a well-worn term. It is also, especially in the United States, seen to be a personal failing, a disgrace, a matter of shame. Poverty knowledge has thus often been tinged with the shadow of stigma, be it the efforts to wrestle with a so-called “culture of poverty” or in vocabulary such as “the underclass” or “ghetto.” Indeed, the intellectual history of poverty studies does not bode well for a defense of poverty as a critical concept to be mobilized in the efforts to repoliticize inequality. Yet, this is my intention. With this in mind, I pinpoint three elements of what can be tentatively called “critical poverty studies,” a field of inquiry that I believe is in the making in various corners of the social sciences.

The active relations of impoverishment

A welcome aspect of the widespread discussion of inequality in the United States is the simple and yet powerful mantra that there is nothing natural or inevitable about current patterns of inequality. Be it Joseph Stiglitz or Robert Reich, Emmanuel Saez or Paul Krugman, the consensus is unwavering: policy, for example systems of taxation, has produced inequality, often by allowing the hyper-rich to hoard and guard their wealth. Such stockpiling of prosperity contrasts with a generalized condition of precarity; one in which the American middle class lies in ruins, burdened by debt and stripped of key assets such as homeownership. This is the power of the trope of inequality. It identifies a common condition to which most of us belong; it names an indefensible hierarchy within which we all chafe. This, of course, is the rallying cry of Occupy Wall Street: we are the 99%.

My argument in defense of poverty is straightforward: we are not all equal in the experience of inequality. We are not all equally impoverished. We are not all equally indebted. We are not all equally precarious. The poor are uniquely so.

I recently participated in a simulation of the social services system organized by various nonprofit organizations in Los Angeles. This was not, as the organizers noted, a simulation of poverty, for that is simply not possible. It was a glimpse of the public assistance bureaucracy that the poor must navigate in order to survive. Despite being fluent in sophisticated understandings of poverty and inequality, the participants, mainly middle-class social justice professionals, were thoroughly disoriented by the sheer dehumanization wrought by the experience. Shunted from office to office, in search of basic paperwork, trying to meet convoluted criteria of eligibility, we the privileged experienced, for a brief moment, what it is like to be undeserving. We were reminded that we are not poor and that we barely understand the lived condition of poverty.

That lived condition, in the United States, is necessarily and persistently racialized. It is embedded in, and reproduces, systems of racial capitalism. To pinpoint poverty—to acknowledge how poor others are imagined, named, managed, and incarcerated—is to come into contact with this long-standing history. This history did not start with the Great Recession or even with the era of neoliberalization. It is the long history of racialized expropriation and quarantine. I worry that a general narrative of inequality elides both the specificity of poverty and the distinctive history of impoverishment.

Some of my current research is concerned with the relationship between bureaucracies of poverty and poor people’s movements. Following the seminal work of Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, I see poor people’s movements as “both formed by and directed against institutional arrangements.” Most importantly, poor people’s movements are not organized around the cause of ending poverty. After all, these movements are acutely aware that racialized poverty is not an anomaly, but rather a necessary supplement to prosperity. Instead, be it the National Welfare Rights Organization or the National Union of the Homeless, poor people’s movements transform poorness from stigma to rights, from lived experience to political agency. I am also arguing that social science research must document and analyze the histories and futures of such organizing.

The problem of poverty

Describing the Industrial Revolution and its social transformations, Karl Polanyi,  wrote that “it was in relation to the problem of poverty that people began to explore the meaning of life in a complex society.” So is it the case today. The start of the new millennium is marked by the emergence of poverty as a visible, global problem. The constitution of poverty as a problem to be solved, in our lifetime, through cool gadgets and smart apps, through volunteerism and humanitarianism, through aid advocacy and micro-economic field experiments, requires critical scrutiny by social science research.

Roy.EncounteringPovertyIt demands the question that Michael Katz poses in Territories of Poverty, a book that Emma Shaw Crane and I recently coedited: “What kind of a problem is poverty?” It demands studying the forms of power and privilege that are exercised and extended by acting upon poverty and in relation to poor others, as does the Relational Poverty Network led by Sarah Elwood and Victoria Lawson. It demands an honest examination of how the global university fosters formats of service-learning such that well-heeled college students can build resumes filled with examples of poverty action and community service. Indeed, the “end of poverty”—Jeffrey Sachs’ influential phrase—has become a lucrative and alluring endeavor. As I have argued in ongoing work, new scripts for global citizenship and personhood, as well as new markets for global capital, are being negotiated and opened up through the staging of such encounters with poverty. Indeed, in Encountering Poverty, my colleagues and I argue that such scripts often enact an old coloniality of power in a new global order.

Social science research must thus pay attention to how, at specific historical conjunctures, poverty is constituted as a problem, and how acting on poverty makes possible the reconstitution of social class, professional expertise, and even our academic disciplines. Indeed, in studying the constitution of poverty as a problem, we study the making of authoritative knowledge, the marking of poor others, the assembling of humanitarian reason, the crafting of good will, and the constant rejuvenation of whiteness as the center of human experience. In other words, we come to study ourselves, both our liberal selves and our embeddedness in the institutions of liberal faith. The task of “critical poverty studies” is to not only make visible such processes but also to consider how encounters with poverty—whether in individual acts of goodwill or in the making of our disciplines—can be a space of doubt, critique, and even transformation.

Rethinking North and South

In 2012, as the discussion of inequality was heating up in the United States, the Pew Research Center released a report titled The Lost Decade of the Middle Class: Fewer, Poorer, Gloomier. Highlighting severe income and wealth losses, the report notes that middle-class Americans looked to the future with “muted hope.” I am struck by the particular language in use here, that of a “lost decade.” Without intention or citation, it echoes descriptions of the bruising effects of structural adjustment policies, implemented in the 1980s, in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, of a lost decade of development. Indeed, it is possible to think about the contemporary moment in the North Atlantic as structural adjustment returned home, a vicious austerity politics that has already played out elsewhere in the world. More interesting, such austerity politics is not necessarily the order of the day in the global South. While quite a bit of the inequality discourse (much of it concerned with the global North) has relied on broad generalizations about neoliberalism and its inexorable reach, the present worldwide history of welfare and development is marked by difference, divergence, and discrepancy. Of particular significance is the proliferation of social assistance and human development programs that are being envisioned and launched in the global South, whether by governments, development banks, or nongovernmental organizations. As Maxine Molyneux has argued, central to such formations of social policy is a concern with poverty or what she calls the “New Poverty Agenda.” None of this can be easily read in the register of North Atlantic neoliberalism. Instead, what is at stake is what James Ferguson has foregrounded as the revalorization of distribution, notably distributive state policy and distributional claims.

The resignification of poverty as a critical concept requires a transnational research agenda, one that is attentive to the “reinvention of development for the poor”—Richard Ballard’s phrase —that is afoot outside the territorial boundaries of the West. My own interest in such a transnational research agenda is not multinational comparison. Instead, I am interested in how the study of poverty, be it that of poor people’s movements or poverty expertise, can also resignify the familiar geographies and histories of North and South. As the “New Poverty Agenda” unfolds in discrepant locations, through processes that are necessarily differentiated and divergent, the South becomes, as the Comaroffs put it, “an ex-centric location, an elsewhere to mainstream EuroAmerica,” an “angle of vision” in “the history of the ongoing global present.” In their much-discussed text, Theory from the South, the Comaroffs read the global South as a prefiguration of the future of the global North. Following Obarrio’s response to the Comaroffs’ work, I am interested in this “anthropology of anticipations.” But as Ferguson notes in his own response to the work, the point of such an impulse is not to suggest that the global South is ahead of the North but rather to disrupt conventional ways of thinking about North and South and thus about “emergent new empirical configurations of the social” which may provide us with “clues for thinking about how we might re-imagine ‘the social’ as object both of theory and of politics.” Poverty, I have suggested, is one such configuration of the social. To study it with critical force may require us to rethink the geographies of research and theory through which we have configured the social sciences.

Ananya Roy is Professor of Urban Planning and Social Welfare at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Director of the Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA Luskin. She is co-author of Encountering Poverty: Thinking and Acting in an Unequal World with Genevieve Negrón-Gonzales, Kweku Opoku-Agyemang, and Clare Talwalker.

Columbus Day, Then and Now

In reference to Columbus Day and as part of National Hispanic Heritage Month, we recognize Hispanic and Latino Americans’ current contributions–and current struggles–in the United States. Learn more at #HispanicHeritage Month and #ColumbusDay.

Every year on Columbus Day, Americans celebrate Christopher Columbus’s landing in the New World on Oct. 12, 1492. The holiday was established in 1937. But many have begun to question the prevailing views of this day, opening the doors to discuss how it ignores the enslavement and mass murder of thousands of native and indigenous groups.

Some Latin American countries now choose to celebrate Día de la Raza (Day of the Race), celebrated on October 12 of each year. And in Spain, the holiday has been changed to Día de la Hispanidad (Day of Hispanity) or Fiesta Nacional de España  (National Day of Spain) to recognize Spain’s history, monarchy, and military.

The recognition of the cultural meaning of Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World and the shift in its meaning is being introduced to a new generation of people and students so all can gain a truer understanding of Latin American and Latino American culture.

Almaguer.NewLatinoStudiesReaderIn 1491, on the eve on the Columbian voyages, there were some 123 distinct indigenous language families spoken in the Americas, with more than 260 different languages in Mexico alone. Perhaps as many as 20 million people were living in the Valley of Mexico in 1519, in hierarchical, complexly stratified theocratic states. But there were no Indians. Christopher Columbus invented them in 1492 by mistakenly believing that he had reached India, and thus calling them indios producing the lexical distinction we now use to refer to the Caribbean as the West Indies and to India as the East Indies. Inventing Indians was to serve an important imperial end for Spain, for by calling the natives indios, the Spaniards erased and leveled the diverse and complex indigenous political and religious hierarchies they found. Where once there had been many ethnic groups stratified as native lords, warriors, craftsmen, hunters, farmers, and slaves, the power of imperial Spain was not only to vanquish but to define, largely reducing peoples such as the mighty Aztecs into a defeated Indian class that soon bore the pain of subjugation as tribute-paying racialized subjects.

From Ramón A. Gutiérrez and Tomás Almaguer’s The New Latino Studies Reader: A Twenty-First-Century Perspective, Chapter 1, “What’s in a Name?” by Ramón A. Gutiérrez. 

Many now see this day as an opportunity to reaffirm their culture, share the value of their cultural identity, and an equal relationship amongst all peoples.

GutmannLesser.GlobalLatinAmericaAt a time when the commemoration of the Fifth Centenary of the arrival of Columbus in America has repercussions all over the world, the revival of hope for the oppressed indigenous peoples demands that we reassert our existence to the world and the value of our cultural identity. It demands that we endeavor to actively participate in the decisions that concern our destiny, in the building-up of our countries/nations. Should we, in spite of all, not be taken into consideration, there are factors that guarantee our future: struggle and endurance; courage; the decision to maintain our traditions that have been exposed to so many perils and sufferings; solidarity towards our struggle on the part of numerous countries, governments, organizations and citizens of the world. That is why I dream of the day when the relationship between the indigenous peoples and other peoples is strengthened; when they can combine their potentialities and their capabilities and contribute to make life on this planet less unequal, a better distribution of the scientific and cultural treasures accumulated by Humanity, flourishing in peace and justice.

From Matthew C. Gutmann and Jeffrey Lesser’s Global Latin America: Into the Twenty-First Century, Chapter 12, “Nobel Lecture” by Rigoberta Menchú Tum

Reaching for Their Dreams—Eight Years On

As part of National Hispanic Heritage Month, we recognize Hispanic and Latino Americans’ current contributions–and current struggles–in the United States. Learn more at #HispanicHeritage Month.

By Barbara Davenport, author of Grit and Hope: A Year with Five Latino Students and the Program That Helped Them Aim for College and Hope tells the stories of a handful of first-gen Hispanic students who wrote their college applications in the midst of the country’s worst recession and of Reality Changers, the program that helped them get to college. Eight years on, many of Reality Changers’ graduates have chosen work that enables them to help disadvantaged youth the way that Reality Changers helped them. Here’s what three of them are doing now:

  • Theresa was named a Gates Millennium Scholar and graduated from UC Riverside. She worked as a tutor at Reality Changers, and this fall started a masters program in multicultural community counseling and social justice.
  • Mercedes left UC Riverside two quarters short of graduation, tripped up by the residuals of trauma and early deprivation. She works now as director of recreation in a skilled nursing facility. Not graduating eats at her. Her daughter Alma is nearly four years old. Mercedes wants better opportunities for herself and, even more, she wants to be a good role model for Alma. She’s saving money and laying the groundwork to go back to school and finish. Once she graduates, she wants to tutor for Reality Changers, and maybe even lead a cohort of students.
  • Jesse went to Harvard and then taught in Mexico for a year on a Fulbright teaching fellowship. Now he’s based in a San Francisco high school, serving as Dream Director for the Futures Project, helping disadvantaged students realize their dreams.

Davenport.GritAndHopeFounder Chris Yanov designed Reality Changers as a social and psychological scaffolding that would support students and provide a sense of family. “Congress is the thing that makes Reality Changers different from all other tutoring programs. We aren’t here just to raise our grades. We’re a family,” Yanov says. The sense of family was the heart of the program; it held students and was what they valued most. They could launch into the unknown waters of college secure that they had the support of peers and staff who had gone the distance with them. Reality Changers has woven through their lives, scaffolding their efforts and enlarging their sense of what was possible.

A majority of alumni continue to feel a strong connection to the program that helped them change their lives. Their alumni network helps them keep in touch and learn about new initiatives in the program. They volunteer for fundraising events. They come on program nights to talk with the current seniors; some come every week to tutor.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan with Reality Changers students.
Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan with Reality Changers students.

They’ve learned that Reality Changers couldn’t change their most difficult realities: not their immigration status nor illnesses, nor family problems. It couldn’t dissolve other people’s prejudices, couldn’t prevent the losses that inevitably come in the pursuit of ambitious goals. Still they call their experience in Reality Changers life-changing. It encouraged them to raise their expectations of what they believed they could do, and it opened opportunities they didn’t know existed. They all speak of their commitment to give back to their families and their community. Every one of them says that Reality Changers enabled them to transform their lives and continue to reach for their dreams.

Barbara Davenport
 is a writer and psychotherapist in San Diego. has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Stanford Magazine, and alternative
weeklies in San Diego, where she lives. For more about her, please

¡Celebra!: Books for National Hispanic Heritage Month

Happy National Hispanic Heritage Month! From September 15 to October 15, we recognize Hispanic and Latino Americans, celebrating the heritage, the culture, and the important role these diverse peoples play in the history of the United States.

This month, we’ve prepared a selection of books across disciplines to showcase the unique experiences of Hispanic and Latino Americans. Happy #HispanicHeritage Month, and happy reading!

Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America
Roberto G. Gonzales 

This vivid ethnography explores why highly educated undocumented youth share similar work and life outcomes with their less-educated peers. Mining the results of an extraordinary twelve-year study that followed 150 undocumented young adults in Los Angeles, Lives in Limbo exposes the failures of a system that integrates children into K-12 schools but ultimately denies them the rewards of their labor.

“Superb. . . . An important examination of the devastating consequences of ‘illegality’ on our young people.”—Junot Díaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and This is How You Lose Her


The New Latino Studies Reader: A Twenty-First-Century Perspective
Ramon A. Gutierrez, Tomas Almaguer (Editors)

The New Latino Studies Reader is designed as a contemporary, updated, multifaceted collection of writings that bring to force the exciting, necessary scholarship of the last decades. Its aim is to introduce a new generation of students to a wide-ranging set of essays that helps them gain a truer understanding of what it’s like to be a Latino in the United States.

“Two of the leading scholars in the field forged this reader in the teaching trenches. This collection represents the perfect balance between cutting-edge scholarship and touchstone essays.”—Natalia Molina, author of How Race Is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts


Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution, With a New Foreword by Marc Grossman
Peter Matthiessen

Sal Si Puedes is less reportage than living history. In its pages a whole era comes alive: the Chicano, Black Power, and antiwar movements; the browning of the labor movement; Chavez’s fasts; the nationwide boycott of California grapes. A new foreword by Marc Grossman considers the significance of Chavez’s legacy for our time. As well as serving as an indispensable guide to the 1960s, this book rejuvenates the extraordinary vitality of Chavez’s life and spirit, giving his message a renewed and much-needed urgency.

“Cesar Chavez is gracefully revealed by Peter Matthiessen as a curiously private public figure who is in love with people.”—Chicago Tribune


Grit and Hope: A Year with Five Latino Students and the Program That Helped Them Aim for College
Barbara Davenport

Grit and Hope tells the story of five inner-city Hispanic students who start their college applications in the midst of the country’s worst recession and of Reality Changers, the program that aims to help them become the first in their families to go college. Told with deep affection and without sentimentality, the students stories show that although poverty and cultural deprivation seriously complicate youths’ efforts to launch into young adulthood, the support of a strong program makes a critical difference.

“Reality Changers is absolutely a model, not just for the city, not just for the state, but for the country.” —Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan


The Political Spirituality of Cesar Chavez: Crossing Religious Borders
Luis D. León

While there is much debate and truth-seeking around how he is remembered, through investigating the leader’s construction of his own public memory, Luis D. León probes the meaning of the discrepancies. By refocusing Chavez’s life and beliefs into three broad movements—mythology, prophecy, and religion—brings us a moral and spiritual agent to match the political leader.

“Cesar Chavez treated religion as he treated so many topics of importance in his life: as something to be willed into contribution to a higher good… Luis León has written a book equal in grace, compassion, and subtlety to its subject.” —Kathryn Lofton, Professor of Religious Studies, American Studies, History, and Divinity at Yale University


From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement
Matthew Garcia

Based on little-known sources and one-of-a-kind oral histories with many veterans of the farm worker movement, this book revises much of what we know about the UFW. Matt Garcia’s gripping account of the expansion of the union’s grape boycott reveals how the boycott, which UFW leader Cesar Chavez initially resisted, became the defining feature of the movement and drove the growers to sign labor contracts in 1970. Garcia also presents in-depth studies of other leaders in the UFW, including Gilbert Padilla, Marshall Ganz, Dolores Huerta, and Jerry Cohen.

“A thorough history of the rise and fall of Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers labor union… Meticulous and timely.”—Kirkus Reviews


Latinos, Inc.: The Marketing and Making of a People, Updated Edition, with a New Preface
Arlene Dávila

Both Hollywood and corporate America are taking note of the marketing power of the growing Latino population in the United States. Yet the increasing visibility of Latinos in mainstream culture has not been accompanied by a similar level of economic parity or political enfranchisement. In this important, original, and entertaining book, Arlene Dávila provides a critical examination of the Hispanic marketing industry and of its role in the making and marketing of U.S. Latinos.

“A work derived from prodigious fieldwork that sets a standard for the ethnography of cultural institutions in their varied corporate forms and market participations. Latinos Inc. provides a rich, fascinating, and fresh empirical venue for theories of identity and ethnicity in the U.S.”—George Marcus, author of Ethnography Through Thick & Thin

A Different Kind of Broken Windows Theory

By Adia Wingfield, co-author of “Maintaining Hierarchies in Predominantly White Organizations,” (found in Invisible Labor: Hidden Work in the Contemporary World)

When we think about work, it’s easy to imagine someone sitting at a desk, working with their hands, or doing some other sort of immediate task. But the fact is that the nature of work is changing, with many aspects of it becoming increasingly invisible to customers, supervisors, and even other workers. Retail workers do the aesthetic labor of dressing and presenting themselves in a manner that is consistent with the store’s image. Call center workers provide labor that is never seen by those on the other end of the phone. And significantly, there are racial underpinnings to the way that much of this invisible labor operates.

My coauthor Renee Skeete and I write about this in our chapter “Maintaining Hierarchies in Predominantly White Organizations,” out now in Marion Crain, Winnie Poster, and Miriam Cherry’s anthology Invisible Labor. We make the argument that these organizations are undergirded by largely unseen “racial tasks” routinely performed by workers of color. These tasks vary depending on where workers are situated in the organizational hierarchy, but they usually involve maintaining systems of racial segregation and white advantage. Workers at the top levels of an organization complete racial tasks such as maintaining an organizational culture or conforming to norms that otherize workers of color. Those at the bottom of the organizational hierarchy may find that racial tasks become less centered on establishing culture and more focused on maintaining and upholding physical structures that subtly (or overtly) reinforce racial messages.

Take the case of Corey Menafee, an African American dishwasher recently fired from Yale University for breaking a stained glass window. On its surface, this appears to be a story about simple vandalism and destruction of property. But the window Menafee broke was a stained glass window that depicted an image of slaves picking cotton, in a dining hall named for a white supremacist who supported slavery, on a campus where racial tensions were high after students of color cited repeated of overt hostilities that rose to a boiling point when a residential dean suggested minority students simply ignore white peers who dressed in blackface for Halloween. This broader context highlights the way that racial tasks vary depending on a worker’s role in the organizational structure, as well as the ways these tasks reinforce whites’ superordinate position relative to people of color. Maintaining a physical structure that depicts an overt image of black inferiority is an example of the sort of racial tasks with which those at the lower rungs of the organizational hierarchy may be charged. As Menafee describes, his frustrations with doing this task on a routine basis eventually reached a breaking point.

Renee Skeete’s and my chapter in Invisible Labor discusses other similar examples of racial tasks. One key argument that we wanted to make here is that the existing models for work do not necessarily include the ways that there are aspects of labor which are racialized, covert, and often overlooked for people of color. We theorize racial tasks as implicit requirements that are expected of these workers, and often go unnoticed unless they are not completed—such as when Corey Menafee broke the window. In order for workplaces to become more equitable, they will have to take into consideration not just the ways that racial disparities exist in certain professions and occupations, but also how workers of color take on additional responsibilities in the form of racial tasks.

Adia Wingfield is a Professor of Sociology at Washington University. She specializes in research that examines the ways intersections of race, gender, and class affect social processes at work. In particular, she is an expert on the workplace experiences of minority workers in predominantly white professional settings, and specifically on black male professionals in occupations where they are in the minority.

Is it time to re-discover remittances?

by Matt Bakker, author of Migrating into Financial Markets: How Remittances Became a Development Tool

Reporter Somini Sengupta brought migrant remittances back to the pages of the New York Times on August 24, 2016. Remittances are the monies that migrant workers – who tend to be some of the world’s least affluent inhabitants – send to the friends, family, and loved ones they’ve left behind in their homelands.

Sengupta continues a familiar theme in public discourse about remittances in recent years. Much like the widely-circulated suggestion over a decade ago that the billions of dollars in remittances that migrants send their friends and families back home were “hidden in plain sight,” Sengupta’s article, “What Poor Nations Need to Get By: Money From Migrants,”begins:

Amid all the mudslinging and soul-searching about global migration, one thing is often overlooked: the money.
The millions of migrant workers who drill for oil, deliver pizza or take care of older adults far from home sent nearly $582 billion back to their countries in 2015, according to the World Bank.

Perhaps it’s true, with today’s controversies over how to handle the refugee “crisis” across Europe and the sensationalist promises of Donald Trump to hermetically seal the US off from Mexico, that the world has again come to overlook the important role of remittances in sustaining families, communities, even entire nations in the face of economic hardship.

This would be a crushing blow to the World Bank. As I detail in Migrating into Financial Markets: How Remittances Became a Development Tool, the Bank and other major international financial institutions have spent much of the last two decades conducting research on remittances, raising public awareness of their importance in tackling poverty, and designing policy interventions to maximize their contribution to development. Despite all the work these institutions have put into improving statistics and raising the profile of remittances, maybe all their efforts to portray remittances as a “development tool” have been exposed as little more than hollow rhetoric.

In the end, such an outcome wouldn’t be all that surprising. The achilles heel of the financial institutions’ program on remittances was always that it centered on the transformative powers of financial markets. If only we could get banks and credit unions to recognize the money-making potential of migrants and remittance recipients, and to get these people to use such institutions for their remittance transactions – the logic went – then this giant river of money from the world’s poor could expand access to needed financial goods and services, facilitate small business development, alleviate poverty, and spark wider community and regional development.

All along this celebratory message has overlooked the major impediment to this promising future: the immigration control policies the world over that limit migrants’ legal access to the labor markets that would generate these remittance flows in the first place. Addressing this issue and freeing today’s migrants from the death-defying journeys they are currently forced to undertake in order to enter the United States or Western Europe in clandestine fashion is a far more pressing task than that of incorporating their monies into global financial markets.

Matt Bakker is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Marymount University.

In Honor of C. Wright Mills’ 100th Birthday

by Kathryn Mills, coeditor of C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings

If my father, C. Wright Mills, were alive today he’d be celebrating his 100th birthday. He was born on August 28, 1916 in Waco, Texas. Birthdays are for celebrating life, which makes me want to quote a letter my father wrote in 1952 to his friend, the historian, William Miller, when Miller was feeling discouraged about a new job he had just accepted. Wright wrote:

“You ask for what one should be keyed up ? My god, for long weekends in the country, and snow and the feel of an idea and New York streets early in the morning and late at night and the camera eye always working whether you want or not and yes by god how the earth feels when it’s been plowed deep and the new chartreuse wall in the study and wine before dinner and if you can afford it Irish whiskey afterwards and sawdust in your pants cuff and sometimes at evening the dusky pink sky to the northwest, and the books to read never touched and all that stuff the Greeks wrote and have you ever read Macaulay’s speeches to hear the English language ? And to revise your mode of talk and what you talk about and yes by god the world of music which we must now discover and there’s still hot jazz and getting a car out of the mud when nobody else can. That’s what the hell to get keyed up about.

The trouble with you and what used to be the trouble with me is that you don’t use your goddamned senses; too much society crap and too much mentality and not enough tactile and color and sound stuff going on. So now if you’re like I was a year ago, you’ve got to coax the sight and sound back, carefully tease it to life again and it will fill you up.”

(from C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings, edited by Kathryn Mills with Pamela Mills, Introduction by Dan Wakefield, p. 174.)

Mills.CWrightMillsSpeaking of anniversaries, when Barack Obama made his historic visit to Cuba last spring, he stepped off the plane at Havana airport on the 54th anniversary of my father’s death, March 20, 2016.  More than half a century has passed since the U.S. imposed its dreadful embargo against a small, low-income island nation, our neighbor, Cuba, over the strenuous objections of opponents of Cold War hostilities, especially C. Wright Mills.  Although the basic outline of the embargo is still in effect, Obama has managed to weaken its impact and narrow its scope, achieving great progress toward reasonably harmonious relations with Cuba. To quote an old Slavic saying,  “Justice is a train that always arrives late.”

Kathryn Mills works for a book publisher in Boston.

Making Los Angeles Home: The Integration of Mexican Immigrants in the United States

by Luis Escala, author of Making Los Angeles Home: The Integration of Mexican Immigrants in the United States with Rafael Alarcon and Olga Odgers

This guest post is published during the American Sociological Association conference in Seattle. Check back every week for new posts through the end of the conference on August 23rd.

In recent times, the topic of migration has had a key role within media coverage of the US elections, particularly the case of Mexicans in the US. In this media frenzy, the anti-immigrant narrative has gained considerable significance, emphasizing the allegedly undocumented status of all this population, as well as their never-ending mobile character. While this narrative has gained considerable support among the public, much less attention has been paid to the opinions of sociologists and other scholars who have emphasized not only the contributions of Mexican immigrants to American economy and society, but also the sometimes subtle, sometimes invisible efforts carried out by them to integrate into this nation. This book aims to document the experience of many of these immigrants in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, a key destination point for millions of immigrants from all over the world, as well as to examine and explain the different ways in which this integration takes place.

For the authors, this experience involved multiple complexities that were beyond the traditional approaches on immigrant integration at hand, which led them to analytically split this concept into four different dimensions (economic, social, political, and cultural integrations), aiming to highlight the different traits and paces they involved among Mexicans in the LA region. By the same token, given that immigrant integration involves a process, we considered in our study not one but three different cohorts of Mexican immigrants, from three different regions of origin, whose arrival in LA took place at different times, thus facing different circumstances throughout the Angeleno history during the second half of the twentieth century. In addition, as Mexican scholars who work and live at the Mexican city of Tijuana, in between the American and Mexican Californias, we were aware of the multiple ties these migrants kept with their region and nation of origin, an aspect that definitely shaped their integration experiences.

But why is this important? While different politicians, anchormen, and even scholars have targeted these ties, together with their low socio-economic status, poor educational attainment, and extended undocumented status of Mexican immigrants to portray them as eternal aliens, living self-contained lives that run parallel to American mainstream society, the fact is that becoming Americans have gained considerable centrality for them. Gone were the times when circular migration between Mexican hometowns and a vast array of Californian cities was dominant, and those who arrived before or during 1986 IRCA legalized their status, and the settlement process of these immigrants took place in a vast scale. And even for those Mexicans who arrived later to the US, their aspirations and life projects were oriented towards settling in their new places of destination and integrate into their new societies. The fact was that by the last couple of decades of the twentieth century, the context of Mexican migration to the US had considerably changed, due in part to new immigration policies in the US and their severe enforcement but also to the significant rise of crime and violence in Mexico.

Throughout our interviews, Mexican immigrants provided compelling stories on the ways in which they and their families aim to integrate to the different spheres of their lives in Los Angeles. Working long hours in increasingly precarious jobs, these men and women portray not only the vast array of predicaments they cope with and their strategies to deal with the inherent challenges of living in a hugely extended metropolis, but also their aim of settling down and their quest to become one more in American society. Nevertheless, this aim involves a process that is necessary to examine in detail, for all the complexities it entails: on the one hand, they procure the preservation of their traditional culture; but, on the other, their life courses as immigrants in a new society have led them to a significant redefinition of their social and cultural boundaries.

In this sense, our book comes in handy to an array of audiences in an era in which Nativisms have amplified a particular image of Mexican migrants in the US, while obscuring or even neglecting the relevance of their aspirations to integrate into American society. Both activists and interested readers in the subject, as well as faculty and students in different fields of social sciences will find expert analysis and opinions on the socio-economic and demographic data on the immigrant population of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Region, but most of all they will find persuasive arguments through the voices of the Mexican men and women interviewed for the writing of this book.

Rafael Alarcón has a PhD in city and regional planning from UC Berkeley and is a professor and researcher at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte.

Luis Escala has a PhD in sociology from UCLA and is a professor and researcher at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte.

Olga Odgers has a PhD in sociology from the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales-Paris and is a professor and researcher at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte.

ASA Conference: Author Sessions – Updates


If you’ve enjoyed some of our UC Press author sessions at the ASA conference, attend some other sessions listed below.

Below are the sessions for Monday, August 22nd and Tuesday, August 23rdSessions are located at both the Washington State Convention Center and the Sheraton Seattle Hotel.

And visit Exhibit Booth #101 to see some of their work on display! #ASA16, #ASA2016

Monday, August 22nd

10:30am – 12:10pm

  • Marianne Cooper: What do Workers Need to Live a Good Life? Rethinking Work/Family Conflict in a Neoliberal Age
    • Convention Center, Level 2, Room 211
  • Paul A. Attewell: Who Suffers and Who Benefits from Student Loans?
    • Convention Center, Level 2, Room 201
  • Manuel Pastor: Progressive Cities
    • Convention Center, Level 3, Room 310

2:30pm – 3:30pm

  • Kathryn J. Edin: How Investors Become Slumlords
    • Sheraton, 3rd Floor, Metropolitan Ballroom A-B

2:30pm – 4:10pm

  • Aldon D. Morris: Author Meets Critics Session. The Scholar Denied: W.E. B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology
    • Convention Center, Level 2, Room 201
  • Sarah Halpern-Meekin: Family Inequality
    • Sheraton, 2nd Floor, Willow Room B
  • Laura M. Tach: For Love or Money? How the EITC Affects the Living Arrangements of Single Mothers
    • Sheraton, 2nd Floor, Willow Room B
  • Nancy Rodriguez: Punitive Policing, Mass Incarceration, and Community Responses
    • Convention Center, Level 2, Room 203
  • Katherine Irwin: Fighting for Theories of Race and Gender: Pacific Islander Teens, Youth Violence, and Multiple Inequalities
    • Convention Center, Level 6, Room 617

Tuesday, August 23rd 

8:30am – 10:10am

  • Kathryn J. Edin: The Price of Parenthood and the Costs of Contraception
    • Convention Center, Level 2, Room 213
  • Juliet A. Williams: What is Gender Neutrality: The Career of a Concept
    • Convention Center, Level 3, Room 308
  • Keith W. Guzik: Welcome to the Perhapsicon: Qualification, Contingency, and Fluidity in Surveillance Outcomes
    • Convention Center, Level 6, room 612

10:30am – 11:30am: 

  • Mary Patrice Erdmans: Graduates and Dropouts: Explaining School Outcomes for Teen Mothers
    • Sheraton, 3rd Floor, Metropolitan Ballroom A-B
  • John P. Hoffmann: How Durable is Social Capital?: Family and School Social Bonds and College Enrollment and Completion
    • Sheraton, 3rd Floor, Metropolitan Ballroom A-B

10:30am – 12:10pm 

  • Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo: Men’s Search for Home in Black and Latino Community Gardens in South Los Angeles
    • Convention Center, Level 3, Room 310

12:30pm – 1:30pm 

  • Jacqueline M. Hagan: Immigrants and Labor Markets
    • Sheraton, 3rd Floor, Metropolitan Ballroom A-B

2:30pm – 4:10pm 

  • Shannon Marie Gleeson: Organized Labor and Immigrant Organizing: Finding Common Ground
    • Convention Center, Level 6, Room 611

Over-policing and Excessive Use of Punishments in Schools

by Aaron Kupchik, author of The Real School Safety Problem: The Long-Term Consequences of Harsh School Punishment

This guest post is published during the American Sociological Association conference in Seattle. Check back every week for new posts through the end of the conference on August 23rd.

This year’s ASA theme, “Rethinking Social Movements,” asks us to consider the extent to which social movements can create real change in lived experiences.

As a sociologist who studies school discipline, this is a question I have been asking myself a great deal lately. Over the past few years, sociologists, other scholars, and policy-makers have begun to realize the harm being done by over-policing and excessive use of punishments in schools. Students today are subjected to rigorous policing and are at greater risk of harsh punishment, usually for very minor misbehaviors such as defiance of school authority (e.g., talking back to a teacher, cursing, etc.). Students who are suspended are at increased risk of several problems, including academic failure, dropping out, arrest, incarceration, and unemployment. These harms are disproportionately felt by students of color, which exacerbates racial inequality. Many methodologically rigorous studies find race/ethnicity to be an important predictor of school punishment, even when controlling for student behavior.

In The Real School Safety Problem, I illustrate broader and longer-term harms that come from contemporary school punishment. Excessive school punishment harms families, and it suppresses future civic engagement among formerly suspended students. Students in schools with unfair school rules have higher bullying victimization rates. And we spend a great deal of money on school security and punishment; these funds could be returned to students or communities rather than being spent on ineffective, harmful practices.

Thankfully, in the past 3 or so years, many school districts, cities, and some states across the U.S. have recognized some of these problems and have introduced new policies that seek to reduce school suspensions. The Federal Government has encouraged these alternatives to school suspension, provided guidance on evidence-based responses to student misbehavior, and investigated racial disproportionality in punishment through the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. The movement away from excessive school punishment seems to have begun.

Yet I am skeptical of the power these policy revisions have to result in real change that benefits all students. Data released recently by the Department of Education show that suspensions did decrease substantially from 2011-2012 to 2013-2014 – but racial disproportionality in school suspensions increased. Harmful practices might have decreased overall, but in a way that only exacerbates racial inequality, a primary harm of school punishment.

The real school safety problem – harshness of punishments and over-policing of students – is deeply institutionalized. It is based on intransigent problems such as school segregation, implicit racial bias, antagonism between teachers and students, excessive pressures on teachers and school administrators, and shared sensibilities about punishment. None of these problems goes away when a city council or state legislator one day requires schools to practice restorative justice or other strategies rather than suspending someone. In fact, they might make it worse, since new requirements placed on teachers without proper training or resources simply adds a new demand to members of an already overburdened workforce. Policy changes do not alter school climates, address racial bias, or provide new training for school staff. They do nothing to alter punitive sentiments or rethink how school staff perceive and interact with students. How can we expect them to result in real change that benefits all students?

Aaron Kupchik is Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware. His previous books includeHomeroom Security: School Discipline in an Age of Fear, Judging Juveniles: Prosecuting Adolescents in Adult and Juvenile Courts, and Criminal Courts.