This article appears in the Jan. 2 edition of The Nation magazine.
A funny thing about poverty: it’s really expensive, especially once you start trying to get out of it. Ginnina Slowe, a 26-year-old who is about to begin college in the Bronx, discovered that irony back in the boom years, when she first attempted to break into the elusive middle class. She was one of many poor and working people who tried to make their American dreams real in those days—and instead learned hard lessons about promises that are too good to be true.
In 2005 Slowe decided to get her GED and associate degree. She found a great-sounding deal at Taylor Business Institute that let her earn both degrees in just two years; it’s a common model at for-profit schools targeting low-income communities. Slowe had to pile on debt and work full time along with classes, but she jumped at the chance. And although the money was stressful, the studies turned out to be a breeze.
“I was like, ‘This is college? I shoulda been doing this a long time ago,’” Slowe says, laughing self-consciously. “It wasn’t as challenging as I assumed it would be. But I was like, ‘Well, maybe I’m smart, I don’t know.’”
She graduated, with a ceremony and a diploma and everything. And her ambition paid off, at first. She got a job as a bank teller, making not-bad money. About a year into it, she received a call from human resources after applying for a promotion. “I thought I got it, but no,” she recalls. They’d run a background check and she didn’t have an accredited degree; they assumed she had gone online and bought a fake one. “The lady was like, ‘Oh, I’m so disappointed in you.’”
The state had shut down Taylor in late 2006, not long after Slowe graduated. Peer reviewers found a shoddy academic operation with “a strong cash flow and unusually high profit.” Its owners came from the world of finance, not education. The school had collected more than $6 million a year in federal and state financial aid through its largely poor students, but in 2004 the library held just four periodicals.
Slowe called around to see if she could do anything to protect herself, but it was a confusing, frustrating situation. Eventually, she settled into a food service job. “You just gotta keep going on,” she says, shrugging as she reflects on the long, winding road she’s still trying to navigate out of poverty. “That’s life.”
That’s life in places like the Bronx, at least, which is the poorest urban county in America. Nearly 28 percent of its families lived below the federal poverty line at the Census Bureau’s last count, in 2010; that rate approaches three times the national mark. Nearly 16 percent of people older than 16 in the Bronx were out of work in 2010.
Those numbers are sadly predictable. The Bronx is nearly 90 percent black and Latino, and that demographic profile remains a solid indicator of dense poverty and joblessness. More than a quarter of blacks and Latinos nationwide live in poverty, too. Six cities have black jobless rates near or above 20 percent—on par with rates during the Great Depression—according to the Economic Policy Institute. Four more cities can say the same about Latino unemployment. National black unemployment is officially above 15 percent and rising. White unemployment is 7.6 percent.
For decades, the myopic national debate on this deeply racialized poverty has invoked images of poor people as passive victims or self-defeating freeloaders. But people like Slowe have struggled frantically for generations to yank up their individual and communal bootstraps. They have not succeeded because the poverty they live in is not accidental. It’s the result of decades of political choices that first created ghettos and then left them prey to a still growing industry that profits from their existence.
The Bronx, in fact, provides a uniquely clear case study of how yesterday’s economic and political choices constructed the poverty that so many people accept now as a natural phenomenon. From midcentury forward, a series of planning initiatives ripped out the community’s interstitial tissue. Middle-class housing subsidies drove white residents into restricted suburbs. Public funds built highways to move those white migrants to and from equally restricted jobs, tearing down housing in the process and replacing it with high-rise projects. Officialdom turned a blind eye as slumlords milked dry the black and Puerto Rican residents left behind.
By century’s end, the South Bronx was synonymous with hopeless poverty in the national discourse. Three presidents used its manufactured destitution as a backdrop for showcasing their poverty plans to middle-class voters. Also by century’s end, the struggling community—like many others across the country—was swarmed with financial businesses that take advantage of the American dream’s particular resonance in poor, largely black and brown neighborhoods.
There are the rent-to-own furniture sellers that make the trappings of middle-class life wildly expensive. The tax “refund” shops that strip away an estimated $600 million in Earned Income Tax Credits each year. The small-money lenders that have built a $30 billion national business from debt-trap credit schemes. Now banks like Wells Fargo—at which loan officers famously targeted “mud people” with high-priced home loans—have developed new products that consumer advocates say are just better-branded versions of payday lending. All these operations are feasting off the economic carcasses that twentieth-century policy-makers created.