On Saturday morning, The New Yorker Festival brought together four important writers and public personas to discuss poverty in America and abroad. George Packer moderated the discussion between Geoffrey Canada, President and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, Jose Antonio Vargas, journalist and founder of Define American, Abhijit Banerjee, Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics at M.I.T. and co-founder of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, and Katherine Boo, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers.
Packer’s first question for the panel was about the language we use to talk about the poor, launching a discussion about political correctness. What is the difference between saying ‘low-income’ and ‘poor’? Does political correctness help or hide the issues? We don’t like to talk about poor people, and in politics the discourse usually revolves around the economy and unemployment rather than the people who suffer from economic hardships. Banerjee explained that in India, policy makers seem to think of the poor like furniture to be moved around from one place to another as if outside forces can change the situation by acting on them. According to Boo, one of the problems with the discourse in this country is the way we talk about people being ‘stuck’ or ‘mired’ in poverty, as if they always have and always will be poor, when in reality it’s an extremely volatile condition dependent on situations and setbacks. A family might be doing fine for a while and then the mom gets sick or the dad gets laid off and they’re suddenly back to square one. The average American can certainly sympathize with this, but may not take into account the psychological stress that is a result of living in a state of constant economic uncertainty.
Canada explained the far-reaching effects of poverty on children in New York City, where he began the Harlem Children’s Zone as a way to help kids and their families. One of the major problems in New York City as well as other American cities is the segregation between affluent or middle class neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods. Racial segregation may have ended in the 1960s, but poor people are often pushed to the outskirts of the city in neighborhoods where more affluent people won’t come into contact with them. Kids who grow up in the projects are more likely to do poorly in school because of the many external stress factors that they have to deal with: bullies, poor nutrition, family problems, etc. According to Canada, a kid who’s afraid to walk to school is not going to benefit from extra geometry lessons – what that kid needs is someone to walk him to school. The mission of the Harlem Children’s Zone is to provide what kids really need, whether that means a supportive adult figure, nutricious snacks, health care or math lessons.
Another issue that is often debated but not well-understood is the plight of undocumented immigrants in this country. Jose Antonio Vargas is an advocate for undocumented immigrants after ‘coming out’ as one after fifteen years of living with the guilt of his secret. He told his deeply personal and touching story, which he published in the New York Times, of being sent over to California from the Philippines to live with his grandparents when he was twelve years old. As a teenager, he was fully integrated into American culture and had no idea of his illegal status until he tried to apply for a driver’s license and was told that his green card was a fake. He kept the secret for years, in perpetual fear of TSA airport security and law enforcement officials. The irony hit him when he was working for the Washington Post on the homicide beat and dealing with cops who had no reason to suspect that anything was wrong with him. Now, after many years of avoiding writing about immigration issues, he has taken up the cause by founding Define American, which seeks to bring attention to the issue and redefine the discourse around undocumented immigration. At the panel discussion, Vargas spoke about the problems faced by the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, many of whom pay taxes but are unable to vote. Like Vargas, many undocumented immigrants feel American and contribute to society as leaders in their communities, disproving the stereotype of lazy illegal immigrants who leech off American citizens. Vargas wants to move the discourse away from labeling individuals as illegal and instead focus on the problems with U.S. immigration laws.
The panel discussion seemed particularly relevant in light of the problems that my generation is facing with regard to the increasingly heavy burden of student loans and the difficulty of finding jobs in this bleak economy. Canada made a funny comment about hearing teenagers call themselves poor because they can’t afford a Rolex. It seems absurd, but it’s not so easy to laugh off, considering how many of my peers walk around wearing designer clothes despite being saddled with six figures of debt. One of the issues that the panels touched upon is the fact that these days Americans are placing their priorities on tangible goods that they can acquire quickly instead of saving up for a house that they worry they’ll never be able to afford. It’s a problem we must all be aware of. Though through their research and writing, each of the panelists is working toward finding a solution in their own way.