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“Why Poverty Research Matters”

Posted By Kevin R. Johnson, Nov 15, 2011

I recently had the honor of speaking at the inaugural reception of the UC Davis Center for Poverty Research.  This was a wonderful campus event with Congressman John Garamendi and Provost Ralph Hexter in attendance.

The gathering took place at the International House.  The theme of the event was “Why Poverty Research Matters.” 

Here are my remarks from the reception:

I am pleased to participate in this event to highlight the creation of the new Center on Poverty Research.  A bit of background seems in order.  In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared a “war on poverty.”  This was not long after the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech.  The “war on poverty,” which later faltered and officially ended in my mind with “welfare reform” in 1996, had a positive goal of eradicating poverty.  It was replaced with the “war on drugs” and later the “war on terror,” wars designed to quell evils rather than to bring about a positive public “good.”

Today, the United States faces growing problems of poverty and inequality.  The nation continues to experience the impacts of welfare reform, a floundering economy, more homelessness, and high unemployment rates.  It is important to recognize that pockets of poverty remained in California throughout the 1990s, when the well-heeled were doing quite well in the Golden State. The poor in places in places like Eureka, Redding, Woodland, Coalinga, Lemoore, Buttonwillow, and many other parts of the state remained poor.

With the “Great Recession,” we now see more poverty.  There is unrest in our cities.  Homelessness is on the rise.  Census data released today shows that the number of poor Americans hit a record 49 million in 2010, or 16 percent of the U.S. population.  The data showed poverty rates for the elderly, Asians and Hispanics higher than previously known.  Sadly, it is a good time for a new center on poverty research to refocus us all once again on eradicating poverty.

I bring two perspectives to bear on addressing the question “why poverty research” matters.  One vantage point is from my service as President of the board of directors of Legal Services of Northern California (LSNC), which provides legal assistance to poor and working people.  It is seeing a growing caseload and annual budget reductions.  LSNC has sought to bring attention to the racial diversity of the rural poor in the region with the Race Equity Project (  I am proud that many UC Davis School of Law alumni work for LSNC.  We also have many alumni at the California Rural Legal Assistance, CRLA Foundation, and other legal service organizations serving poor and working people in rural areas.

We often forget that the poor are everywhere in this state.  I was at a dinner in Orange County recently with our alum Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye of the California Supreme Court.  We heard from another alum who runs a legal service organization in Orange County, about poverty in the O.C., not often thought of as a haven for poor people.  There are poor people in Orange County.  There are homeless.  There are many poor Latinos and Asian Americans in Orange County.

Another perspective I bring to bear on poverty research involves immigration, an area of my research. A couple of years ago I wrote an article on the “intersection of race and class in immigration law.”  In that article, I made a number of points, including that:

  1. Far from embracing the “huddled masses,” the U.S. immigration laws intentionally exclude lawful immigration by poor and working class immigrants from coming lawfully to the United States; and
  2. The enforcement of the U.S. immigration laws focuses on undocumented immigrants and falls disproportionately on poor and working class immigrants and citizens of color.  Workplace raids, day laborer ordinances, and the like all impact poor and working immigrants and some U.S. citizens.

    Immigration is literally changing the face of the nation -- and the face of poverty.  And it has class and racial components.  Every year, about 80 percent of the legal immigrants to the United States are people of color from the developing world.  50-60% of the undocumented immigrants in the United States are from Mexico and come here for jobs.  In recent years, immigration destinations in the United States have changed.  The Midwest and South have seen a tremendous growth in the Mexican immigrant population.  Alabama and South Carolina saw the growth of its Hispanic population followed up with a harsh response through tough state immigration enforcement laws.

    Asian immigration has affected the nation as well.  Although Asian Americans often are stereotyped as a monolithic “model minority,” many subgroups are overrepresented among the poor.  Hmong, Cambodian, and Filipino populations do not do nearly as well on economic indicators as many other segments of the Asian American population.  Many of these Asian American subgroups live in the Central Valley.  Some of you may have read the book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (1998) by Anne Fadiman about Hmong refugees in Merced.

    Here is some poverty data about Sacramento County:

    -- 15.3% of persons live below the poverty line

    -- Unemployment is 12%, compared to 9% nationally.

    The California poverty rate in 2010 rose for the fourth year in a row.  Four of the nation’s ten large metropolitan areas with the worst poverty levels are in the Central Valley, according to recent census data.

    With 26.8 percent of its residents living at or below the poverty line last year, Fresno ranks second in the nation.  Bakersfield-Delano is ranked fourth in the nation with 21.2 percent of its residents in poverty in 2010.  Modesto is sixth with a poverty rate of 19.9 percent.  Stockton is seventh, with roughly one-fifth percent of its residents in poverty.

    Poverty is not confined to the Central Valley. A recent report concluded that one-third of all Americans raised in the middle-class will fall out of the middle class as adults.

    This touches on another area of my research.  Poverty relates to the civil rights concerns of many Latinos.  Today, poorly funded schools teach Latino students.  Dollars per pupil have declined as the percentage of Latinos in public schools in California has increased.  Poor housing, housing segregation, and exclusionary zoning is a problem for Latinos.  Environmental hazards -- for example, the siting of hazardous waste facilities -- are often located near Latino communities.  These all are class as well as racial issues.

    To me, all these reasons, tell us “why poverty research matters” to the nation and to UC Davis.  People matter.  How our nation copes with poverty tells us volumes about the nation. Poverty is a social problem not just in the Central Valley, but the state and nation.  And, in my view, the UC Davis campus is ideally suited to be a leader in this research.