‘Race, Poverty, and Public Policy’: A community dialogue

Political Science Assistant Professor Dr. Jamila Michener from Cornell University spoke at Pinellas Technical College May 9.

BY J.A. JONES, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — The University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s Open Partnership Education Network hosted a community conversation and reception for Dr. Jamila Michener, assistant professor of government at Cornell University. She presented an in-depth examination of the stubborn persistence of poverty in communities of color, and the policies that exacerbate these problems.

Michener’s research and writings have often focused on neighborhoods, poverty and political engagement.

“A lot of the work I do is about people and policy and what happens when they come together — and what that means for democratic participation,” she said.

With a presentation of slides that drew a grave picture of the still alarming disparities in poverty, education, unemployment, homeownership, income and wealth, Michener’s graphs all began with the common theme: race matters in America.

In each graph, the impact of race on economic stability and opportunity revealed stark and almost mind-boggling differences in the fortunes of African and Latino Americans when compared to their white counterparts.

Some markers of inequity revealed:

  • In 2016, white families held 10 times more wealth than African-American families and eight times more wealth than Latino families.

  • African Americans were 2.8 times more likely to be denied for a home loan; Latinos were two times more likely.

  • When approved, African Americans and Latinos were 2.4 times more likely to receive a subprime loan than white applicants.

  • Even African-American and Latino families making more than $200,000 annually were more likely on average to receive a subprime loan than a white family making less than $30,000 a year.

  • African-American applicants had to search twice as long as equally qualified white applicants before receiving a callback or job offer from an employer.

As she shared the grim statics, Michener acknowledged, “I don’t have all the answers — these are issues that are large and complex.”

Her recently published book “Fragmented Democracy: Medicaid, Federalism, and Unequal Politics covers research she gathered while interviewing people in the south and west sides of Chicago.

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“I was talking to low-income black and brown people about what matters to them in their lives, how the government became a part of their lives. A lot of people were talking about healthcare; I didn’t bring it up, they did. I realized it matters to folks — being able to have access healthcare and making sure that healthcare was accessible to their children.”

The book outlines how experiences with Medicaid vary drastically from state to state, so the ordeals we have in Florida will look significantly different from people living in Georgia or California.

Michener said the book explores what these differences mean for democratic citizenship, “what it means for political belonging, and ultimately what it means that the most vulnerable among us who rely on this program in order to have access to what I think is a basic human right — which is healthcare — end up having experiences that can sometimes undermine democracy.”

As well as teaching and doing advocacy work with local prisons, Michener sits on the board of Cornell’s Prisoner Education Program, one of the largest prisoner education programs in the country.

She shared her personal story of growing up in Brooklyn to Caribbean immigrant parents who struggled in a rough neighborhood and related the impact of New York’s first and only African-American mayor, David Dinkins, on her outlook.

During grad school, while Michener was struggling with insecurities and feeling alienated as a woman of color in a mostly white institution, her mother told she needed to pull it together and that she was born to do what she was doing.

Her mother sent her a letter she had written to Mayor Dinkins when she was only eight years old:

“My name is Jamila. I wish I could have voted for you, but I am too small. Many people hate me because I am black. You are trying to stop that and also drugs…give me a call. I will help you.”

Her passion for bringing the conversations and research of the academic world into the real word is evidenced by her role as an area director of the Scholars Strategy Network, an organization whose aim is to bring the findings of academics and researchers to people outside of academia.

“We basically take what academics do at places like Cornell and its Ivory Tower and try to connect it to real people and real places — so we’re not just publishing articles and working at fancy universities for no reason, but that it’s actually connected to the world and matters to people.”

At the community presentation held at Pinellas Technical College, Michener did just that, stressing that political engagement and conversations around race, poverty and public policy are as vital today as they have ever been.

 “We live in a country that necessitates that we talk about race and poverty, and we think about how those things are shaped and influenced by public policy. It matters on a large, national level, but it also matters on the stuff of our daily lives.”

To reach J.A. Jones, email jjones@theweeklychallenger.com

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