Professors Challenge Conceptions of Poverty
On Tuesday night, a panel of professors discussed United States poverty through lenses.
Published: Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Updated: Thursday, February 28, 2013 01:02
“In his State of the Union Address on Feb. 13, President Barack Obama urged that the youth have the opportunity to obtain skills training and education that enables them to find a stable job in a modern labor force and work their way into the middle class,” said William Julius Wilson, Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor at Harvard University. “As it stands, the chances that youth with a high school diploma or less who are disproportionately disadvantaged minorities will obtain such a job are much lower than they are for their counterparts who go on to college.”
Tuesday night, Wilson joined Susan Crawford Sullivan, sociology professor and Edward Bennett Williams Fellow at the College of the Holy Cross, and Eric Gregory, professor of religion at Princeton University, for a panel titled “Poverty and American National Priorities.” Sponsored by the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, the event was devoted to poverty in the U.S. today and the priorities revealed how that poverty is addressed.
According to Wilson, black and Latino communities have experienced disproportionate unemployment as a result of the Great Recession. He attributes this to a clustering of workers in industries particular susceptible to cutbacks, as well as a high density of blacks and Latinos in urban spacial structure. Additional, in spite of sizable educational achievement gains in recent years compared to white students, black and Latino students see considerably lower rates of high school completion and college enrollment.
“And among those who do remain in schools, there is strong evidence that low-income Latino and blacks receive qualitatively different educations,” Wilson said. “Not only are they more like to be in classrooms with other poor minority students, but they are less likely to be placed in advanced placement classes and more likely to be suspended or placed in special needs classes.”
“Because unemployment and underemployment are inimically linked with pervasive social problems and economic maladies that affect all workers, working or middle class, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or age, a more inclusive, far-reaching initiative would elevate the skills and marketability of many Americans,” Wilson said. “However, poor and working class blacks and Latinos have been on the ropes for much longer then the Great Recession. Without coordinated, deliberate invention at the policy level, the outlook for their economic future is very bleak indeed.”
Susan Crawford Sullivan discussed poverty largely from the perspective of her book Living Faith: Everyday Religion and Mothers in Poverty. Her studies conducted for the book concluded that marginalized women “theologically interpret their suffering in ways that give them hope.” However, many of these women did not belong to parishes.
“Although people think of churches as a haven for the poor, studies show that the poor are actually less likely to attend churches and be part of congregations despite often high levels of personal faith,” she said. Logistics and stigma, according to Sullivan, are the primary reasons for this. From her studies, people in poverty are generally aware of the disconnect between themselves and churches, and are in turn, suspicious of church-based social programs as an effective means of combatting poverty.
“It’s important to figure out ways that religious organization which provide services can best reach residents of poor neighborhoods,” Sullivan said. “Policy initiatives promoting church-based or faith-based solutions to the problems of the poor must also first acknowledge a gap between churches and many impoverished urban residents.”
Eric Gregory argued that economic inequality and political inequality are often closely related. As a theologian, Gregory acknowledged a need for religious critics who challenge “not just our supposedly disenchanted secular world, but our joyless world.” However, he pointed out the harder job of organizing to address “the unfulfilled promise of America, dreams of liberty and justice for all, without being hijacked by libertarianism or feel-good philanthropic capitalism.”
“We live imperfect lives, just as early Christians did, and I am not tempted for nostalgia for their economic system,” Gregory said. “I think the early Church’s ecclesial priority on poverty put to shame the contemporary church in America, preoccupied with abortion, same sex relations, and its own moral affairs. Imagine a world where poverty was debated with only half the intensity of homosexuality in America.”
“Today, no more than five to 10 percent of religious giving in the U.S. goes to uses such as helping the poor,” Gregory said.
He emphasized the importance of religious conversations on poverty, however. He also suggested the sponsoring of coalitions aimed at influencing politicians to address the issue of poverty candidly.
“We should remember the dangers of the sin of sloth,” Gregory said in closing. “We should remember that the challenges that face us are the result of human choices, that markets are humans with created structures—they can be changed, even by sinners like us.”