MSNBC’s Trymaine Lee and photographer Matt Black are collaborating to highlight the sobering truth about what it means to be poor in one of the world’s richest countries. “The Geography of Poverty” will take the award-winning journalists to more than 70 cities and towns across the United States in which 20 percent of residents fall below the poverty line. About 45 million Americans are living at or below the official government poverty benchmark ($23,850 a year for a family of four; $11,670 for an individual), and this figure doesn’t even include the millions of people who fall into the working poor category. Many others are earning only slightly more than that, according to MSNBC.
We spoke with Lee about the project and what poverty means for people of color in the U.S.
EBONY: How did the project come about?
TL: Well, Matt Black, if you’ve seen his photos, you know this guy is amazing and his work speaks for itself. He’s been doing this work for the better part of 20 years in the Central Valley in Southern California. So he’d been documenting the geography of poverty on a much smaller scale for a very long time. So with this collaboration, we said, “Well, why don’t we expand your idea? Why don’t we take it around the country never crossing the poverty line, visiting cities that have a poverty rate of 20 percent or more and team you up with me, with a writer, who will come in and try to further illustrate what he’s capturing with images in words.” But really, the seeds were planted by Matt Black and our photo director, Amy Ferrera.
EBONY: There were some staggering statistics in the intro to “Geography of Poverty,” one of them being the fact that the majority of public school children are living in poverty for the first time in 50 years. How has it gotten to this point?
TL: Some of it has to do with the continuation of white flight, not just from certain cities, but from certain institutions, like the public school system. When you look at the numbers of white affluent children who are actually in the public schools, they’ve been fleeing for decades now into private schools, kind of an old throwback to the segregation academies, when rather than integrate, they formed their own schools. Part of it has to do with that. Those who are affluent are no longer part of the system. It also speaks to communities that have been struggling, holding on by a string for decades in communities where industry has long since gone and left countless workers and families without anything stable, without stable employment, with access in terms of quality jobs and without access to quality healthcare. All these factors that exacerbate their circumstances. So here we have this moment that should be an ugly stain on our society, on our country that the majority of our public school children are living in poverty and that poverty manifests itself in so many different ways. It’s parents working multiple jobs, children left at home, sometimes without food in the pantry or refrigerator, without supervision, without consistency and that kind of stability. That unfortunately sends too many of our children spiraling into the criminal justice system or contact with gun violence and law enforcement, all of which have made an impact on these communities.
EBONY: Can you elaborate on the phenomenon going on in metropolitan Atlanta, with the suburban poor population growing 159 percent between 2010 and 2011?
TL: We saw this happening during and after The Great Recession, where poverty spread from the cities into the suburbs. Folks had found it too difficult to maintain in the cities. People were losing their jobs; their homes were going underwater. As they spread from the cities, they created these pockets of poverty in the suburbs. Especially when you think about a place like Atlanta. It’s a Mecca for so many people, where people from all over the country were kind of descending on Atlanta for years with this idea that there was this pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and it lived down South. Go to Georgia. Go to Atlanta. So you had whole waves of people hoping for..much like other forms of immigration, people were leaving the North and heading back down South for something better. They didn’t always find something better once they got there and then you had the housing bubble bursting and the Great Recession. Those really…the deep spikes in the unemployment rate that we were dealing with for a number of years, all that created the kind of circumstances that we see now, with so many poor in the suburbs outside the cities.
EBONY: The poverty rate for African-Americans and Hispanics is 27 percent and 23.5 percent respectively. Do you see this trend reversing anytime soon?
TL: I think this is one of the big, kinda tug-and-pull of this kind of conversation and I think early on President Obama took a lot of flack from the Congressional Black Caucus and Black community leaders, who were saying that he wasn’t doing enough to help those who’ve been impacted the greatest. Even when the unemployment rate was 10% plus in America, it was in a number of places in black and brown communities, double that. So President Obama said “by rising tides, we lift all boats,” and he was lambasted for that. Because, okay, while the tide is rising, “What about us?” We’re still double that rate. Now, as the unemployment rate has dropped, the unemployment rate for black and brown people, it’s still double, but I do believe there is some hope. Every quarter when more jobs are added, a number of those jobs are going to black folks. But again, as long as we’ve been in this country, we’ve struggled economically in all of these institutions. So it’s a hard to imagine a time when the field is completely level. It’s just hard because we haven’t experienced that, ever. I think it’s gotten better in recent years just because we were at such a low in 2006, 2007, 2008. We were at such a low. So I think for America, in general, it’s looking like clearly, some Black folks and brown folks have better prospects now than they did several years ago, but it’s still troubling. The numbers are still so dismal.
EBONY: What are your thoughts on Blacks and Latinos serving as the face of poverty in this country?
TL: When you see 27 percent of African Americans living below the poverty line and 24 percent below for Hispanics, that’s not a stereotype. Those are realities. But again, those are realities that have created over a very long time by bad, sometimes racist policy, all the way around. It’s kind of this pathway to the present of “how did we get to this point?” That’s the not the stereotype that is concerning. The stereotype that is concerning is that poor people are poor by their own doing and that poor people are poor because they’re lazy or because they’re criminally inclined or whatever. That’s the stereotype that we need to be concerned about, not just the reality that there are disproportionately more people living on the poverty line who are people of color. By the numbers, there are more White Americans on welfare than people of color, but we’re talking about proportions here, not sheer numbers, because we’re only 13 or 14 percent. We’re concentrated in certain places. When you’re talking about the middle of the country, we’re not out there. We are concentrated in places where there had once been booming industries. Look at Detroit. Look at parts of New York, where people were, during the Great Migration, coming up to work. Again, that industry dried up. So you have all these Black folks in these communities that have moved up for good jobs and a better life and when that dried up, so did their prospects at a better quality of life.
EBONY: What is the current state of the American Dream for immigrants? Do you think it’s still attainable at this point?
TL: I think many people are willing to die trying for the American Dream. For some, they succeed. Others, again, its kind of this perilous journey into America hoping for something better. Again, when you look down in Texas, so many people who are coming just to try to make a living and try to support their families and feed their children are literally dying along the way. We see this isn’t unique to the border with Mexico, but you see it with the Haitian exodus. All around the world, people are willing to put their lives on the line for the American Dream, for something better.
EBONY: What do you hope to accomplish with this project?
TL: I think on one end, it’s to show the true face of poverty in America and that face is white, it’s Black, it’s Latino, it’s Native American. It’s from coast to coast, from border to border. I think a big chunk of this is awareness. Because we live in such a segregated society, we simply don’t live near each other. Society, as a whole, is often blind to the reality that so many of us face. When you talk about what’s going on on Native Americans reservations, who’s gonna be in South Dakota? There’s no reason for you to be there if you don’t live there. Who’s gonna be out in the Badlands in the Southwest? You’re certainly not gonna be there. Look at the South Bronx for that matter. Who’s really going to the South Bronx? If you don’t live there, there’s not much for you there. Look at Appalachia or Flint, Michigan with the poor white folks. It’s to bring awareness that poverty is still a staggering issue in America. This is the face of it. These are the kind of lives that people are living. For the most part, it’s awareness. We’re not trying to be prescriptive here. At the end of this, I don’t think I’ll be able to offer some golden nugget that will change things.
There are no easy answers here. The end goal is awareness and to show this is an issue that we’re dealing with. We all have to shoulder the burden of poverty in America.