Friday, April 27, 2018

"There Are No Bootstraps" — Q&A with Memphis poverty report author Elena Delavega

Posted By on Fri, Apr 27, 2018 at 12:30 PM

This week's Memphis Flyer cover story "Coin Flip: Wealth, Poverty, and Race in Memphis — Myths and Misconceptions" contains commentary from University of Memphis associate professor of sociology/poverty report author, Elena Delavega. This is an edited and hyperlinked transcript of the conversation from which much of that commentary was taken.
click to enlarge Elena Delavega
  • Elena Delavega
Memphis Flyer: So, as you know I’m trying to put together a story about the wealth gap, and a lot of it is inspired by the numbers you presented at the Poverty Forum.

Elena Delavega: People talk about pulling yourself up by the bootstraps.

But there are no bootstraps.

But there are no bootstraps, right. There are no boots. So I think as a society what we need to do is to create boots. Create the basis for the opportunity to exist. But it does not exist when we ask people to be entrepreneurs but there is no access to credit. When we don't have things like public transportation.

The city invests a lot of money in PILOTs. And it invests a lot under the premise that they will be able to create low-wage jobs. We have to look at that money and look at what kind of credit can we provide at the micro level to create local and minority-owned businesses. Instead of giving so much money to IKEA couldn't we have develop a furniture company here? Nationwide and worldwide we're not investing in people, we just keep giving more to those who have already. And in every conversation about wealth and about income and about disparity and about justice we have we need to talk about wages. And we need to talk about the minimum wage.

The Fight for $15 movement...

$15 is a good start but it is not enough. I have said that the minimum wage should be around $18 an hour. If someone were to work [for $18 an hour] without taking any time off 40 hours a week for 52 weeks in a year that's a little over $37,000. That's about what the economic policy Institute says a family of four needs to live in Memphis. When we find those PILOTs on the premise that they'll bring us jobs that pay $12 an hour, we're not doing what we're supposed to do.
What are we supposed to do?

I think we need to invest in the micro level. Invest in microloans to promote small businesses here. We also need to have work supports. By work supports I mean things that allow people to have good healthcare, good transportation. You know, the ability to get their job, sustain the job, focus on the job, and pay attention to the job.

Is transportation more urgent than housing?

What happens if we have public transportation that doesn't exclude any area is that we have no areas that are out of reach.

Part of the problem is it some areas want to remain out of reach. Areas want to remain white. There are areas that want to remain free of poor people.

Lack of public transportation serves as a barrier to certain people in certain areas. I think we need to confront that head-on. Because it is a reality. We need to talk about the racism inherent in trying to be isolated in gated communities...

We can also see this reflected in the six school districts that were formed. We now have seven districts where we had only two. And two was too many. The many school districts have now created a very top-heavy structure. We don't have one superintendent we have seven. This top-heavy structure exists because we don't want to be integrated. Memphis has a tremendously large number of private schools and this is also the result of integration.

So we need a system of public transportation to unite the city. We also need to have an ordinance that requires that a certain percentage of housing in any neighborhood is reserved for low-income people. I would say 30%.

30% sounds reasonable.

It can be done. It's been done in many places. The building I live in Memphis has luxurious apartments and apartments for much lower-income people and we all coexist happily.

These are ideas that were presented by Jane Jacobs in the 1960s. She talked about the importance of having vertical integration — economic integration in addition to racial integration. Because, when services are acceptable and utilized by the middle class poor, people benefit by that. That also raises standards of behavior for the entire community. There’s more interaction within the community and that tends to reduce crime. There are a number of theories that support this.

When we interact with someone and we see them on a daily basis there's a lot less fear, a lot more understanding, and a lot more respect for each other. There's also the broken window hypothesis based on research that was conducted and showed that when communities are more invested in and better cared for, that in itself is a deterrent to crime. And I have to ask, what is a young person to do when they are excluded from economic life? From jobs? Who don't have transportation and can't access jobs? Who can't access anything?
You mention the broken window hypothesis. But even the broken window it takes its name from — does that reflect resident culture or exploitive housing practice?

Both, I think. Exploitive housing is one thing. Housing that is very inexpensive tends to attract people, of course, with the fewest resources. Because, if I have a little bit of extra money, I'm going to try to live in nicer housing.

Then there's toxic stress caused by poverty. The results of that toxic stress caused by poverty results in more violence, shorter tempers, less ability to have self control. There were two books if you haven't read I highly recommend.

(Delavega goes to her office bookshelf and pulls down a book.)

This book Evicted by Matthew Desmond.

I read Evicted a couple of months back. It’s pretty fantastic.

It is fantastic.

A lot of stuff in there.

The other is called Scarcity.

Scar City?

No, Scarcity. Scarcity.

I am so sorry. That makes sense. I thought you said "Scar City."

It's a small book and it shouldn't be very expensive. I don't know if you're familiar with Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

Little bit.

Mostly it talks about how our needs have a hierarchical order. Physiological needs being first: food, water, sex, maybe. Then shelter, safety, belongingness. Love actually comes after that.

Food and shelter — if someone is already having a lot of difficulty just meeting those needs, they're not able to focus on greater things. Nobody's going to paint their greatest masterpiece when they're hungry. Much as we want to hear of the starving artist, they usually had a lot of nice food and some nice patrons to feed them. So what happens is, when they're focused on those things they don’t have, they can't be focused on the future.

That makes sense. And you can see a lot of that kind of thing happening in Evicted.

There was an interesting study conducted on farmers in Asia. Their math skills were measured at the time of harvest when there is plenty. And at planting time. When you have this to do and there is very little. What they discovered measuring IQ is it dropped 10 to 15 points.

We also experience scarcity when we’re against a deadline. Because there can be time scarcity. The difference is that a person who is under a deadline and has time scarcity always has the option to just say, “To hell with this! I'm not going to do it!” The person who is poor and starving does not have the option to say, “To hell with eating! I am never eating again!”

So, those are some of the things that happen. So, there's a cognitive poverty. But it does go away when the scarcity and the poverty goes away. The poor aren't poor because they make stupid decisions they make stupid decisions because they're poor. And growing up in poverty can have lifelong and permanent brain effects.
You said something earlier about how, if we addressed all this stuff we wouldn’t need food stamps.It triggered a thought about census numbers I’d been looking at. I’ll get the exact number wrong but something like a quarter-of-a-million people qualify for benefits but less than 60,000 actually receive them.

I did that research, yes. (She goes to her computer to retrieve the data.) And that's right, very few do. I crunched the numbers for fun.

You crunched numbers for fun?

Crunching numbers is what I do for fun. I've done some research that I need to write and I really haven't had a chance to look at the data. What experiment where we looked at students who had food insecurity. Asked math questions at the beginning of the semester and the end of the semester. Because at the beginning of the semester all the students get $300 in money for food. And at the end of the semester they run out of that. I haven't looked at my data at that yet.

I was shocked to see how few people who qualify actually receive benefits.

In smaller communities, people are even more resistant. So I looked at 3,200 counties. Many of these were less than 1,500 people or 1,500 households. In small communities there was twice as much resistance to take the food stamps, unless there were a lot of people with disabilities, which seems to make it okay.

That makes sense, I guess. I mean it fits a kind of pattern.

It does.

I don’t know if people understand how few people receive assistance or are in public housing. It always seems like such a grave concern. Or if people even understand that public housing wasn’t supposed to be but because it made sense to create housing for workers near work when private entities couldn’t or wouldn't.

A negligible percent of people who live in poverty in Memphis receive welfare. And the exclusion is a bigger problem. I’d say the exclusion of those who should be receiving those benefits is a much greater problem than abuse.

Because of the multiplier effect. If everybody that qualified for assistance was receiving it that would be a lot more spending power in the community.

Corporate welfare is much larger than the amount the federal government spends on food stamps or welfare at all.

So when we talk about poverty and wealth what are the things we never talk about? Or that we never talk about seriously?

I think we need to talk about the role of taxes. And tax cuts and how damaging those are. Because essentially what we've done is we’ve made it impossible to have the money to support the boots. To support the infrastructure that we need to build so everybody has opportunity.

One of the things that happens here in Memphis and Shelby County, and nobody talks about it, is the fact that the county is not participating in any way to support the city. We're occupying the same land. We're occupying the same territory. But the county is not contributing anyway.

So, people in the county sometimes say, "Well, we have lower taxes and lower taxes are good!" Lower taxes aren't good. Lower taxes make it impossible for cities to provide the services we all depend on. Services like roads. Clean water. Transportation.

The failures that we have in public transportation is no money. And there's no money because the county just isn't paying its part. We elect people who don't want to pay their fair share taxes. Poor people in fact pay a tremendous percent of their income in taxes because they pay in addition to their income taxes all the fees and the sales taxes hit them a lot harder that tend to take a greater percent of their other income. It's the wealthier parts of society who receive the most and are paying the least taxes who are in fact the moochers. So, the county has become a moocher on the city.

Not going to be a popular opinion in the county.

But if you look at the traffic patterns in the morning and in the evening you see that people come from the county to work at jobs in the city of Memphis and they go home in the evening. So they are here all day. They utilize the airport. They utilize the roads. The electricity. Everything.

Germantown and Collierville exist here because Memphis exists. They did not go start their communities in the middle of nowhere. They are part of Memphis. And yet they choose to contribute zero to the city in which they're spending 10-hours a day.

We love to say, “the city is mismanaging money.” The city's not mismanaging money, there’s no money to mismanage. People write me when I say these things and they say, “Oh, you’re giving the rest of the county a bad name by saying these things! It’s all Memphis’ fault! You have to separate us from Memphis because we’re Germantown or we’re Collierville and we don’t have anything to do with Memphis.” That’s not true. They are connected to Memphis but refuse to contribute to the support of Memphis.

There’s an intersection of wealth, housing and education. Property is more expensive near high-performing schools. Nationally, it’s something like 2.4 times higher, I think.

Every child with parents who have resources to move to a wealthier area will do so. And every child who has the parents with the education or motivation to apply for a charter or private school will do. Who remains in the neighborhood schools? The children with the greatest needs and fewest resources. And they’re now completely abandoned, so we have a concentration of high-need students. Concentrations of low expectations, high need, who don’t have the social capital around them to try to do better. Then, we say this school’s failing. It’s failing because we made it fail.

And even equal funding doesn't cut it.

Even if we funded everything at the same level, if you have a school with a high proportion of children that are at risk with hunger, you probably need to fund that at twice the level to produce more services, more attention. For a lot of children it’s the only place they receive a meal and the only place they receive any attention.

The only thing people with resources say is, “I don’t want to see them, keep them in this area. Don’t bring them to me.” Without thinking, the most helpful thing we could do to improve things is to actually put high-need children together with children who have more resources and who’ve had different experiences. It would provide a lot of social capital for those children.


A percent of housing throughout the city reserved for low income people. What that does is redistribute low-income people throughout the city. Then schools have children of all income levels.

You’ve talked about wages. But if wages go up isn’t that just a great reason to raise rents and create a little more wealth for owners while keeping a lot of the same barriers in place?

We do need to regulate it. But we don’t need to think of regulation as eliminating freedom but providing freedom from exploitation freedom from abuse to common people.

Economic exclusion is exclusion. It’s a sign on the door that says, “You’re not allowed here.” The only thing is, you’re saying it with your wallet, not a sign. So how do you create an inclusive society without having regulations putting limits on the most powerful? There are ways to make money in a just way.

I’m not against the free market and capitalism. But we do need regulations. What we need to do is to think of regulations as a way of correcting the power asymmetries.

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