Latest Scholarship

October 2, 2014

Major Conference Highlights Impact of Place on Poverty

The UC Davis Center for Poverty Research will host a major conference on the impact place has on poverty and effective interventions on November 13-14. Our own Professor Lisa Pruitt is the conference's organizer.

The conference "Poverty and Place" will host leading scholars in sociology, economics, law, education, social work, geography and planning. They will present new research on how place can aggravate poverty, addressing different aspects of urban, suburban and rural challenges and solutions.

"Concentrated poverty-whether in rural, urban, or suburban places-greatly aggravates the challenges facing those living in poverty, and place-specific or spatial barriers can undermine the efficacy of safety-net programs," said Professor Pruitt. "This conference takes up these and a broad array of other issues related to the geography of poverty."

The conference will coincide with another conference, titled "Poverty, Precarity and Work: Struggle and Solidarity in an Era of Permanent(?) Crisis," held at UC Davis School of Law. This second conference will take place November 14-15. Visit law.ucdavis.edu/class-crits for more information.

November 26, 2013

Native American Poverty in Focus

Professor of Law Lisa Pruitt is also a faculty affiliate of the UC Davis Center for Poverty Research. She recently contributed to a podcast on Native Americans and Poverty.

From the Center's website:

In this edition of Poverty in Focus, visiting scholar Ezra Rosser and UC Davis Law professor and Center faculty affiliate Lisa Pruitt discuss a range of issues related to Native American Poverty, from its lack of visibility and interest for legal scholars to its causes and possible solutions. 

Rosser is a professor of Law at American University’s Washington College of Law. He has also served as a 1665 Fellow at Harvard University, a visiting scholar at Yale Law School, and a Westerfield Fellow at the Loyola University New Orleans School of Law. He has written extensively on American Indian law.

Pruitt writes about the intersection of law and rural livelihoods, considering a range of ways in which rural places are distinct from what has become the implicit urban norm in legal scholarship. She has worked with lawyers in more than 30 countries to negotiate cultural conflicts in several arenas.

Listen to the podcast at http://poverty.ucdavis.edu/post/native-american-poverty-focus.

April 3, 2011

Widening Spatial Inequality and What to Do About It

Wealth and income inequality have been getting a lot of attention in recent months--at least in the New York Times. Op-Ed columnist Bob Herbert has been especially persistent about keeping the topic on readers' radar screens; read some of his columns here, here, here, and here. Paul Krugman, Frank Rich, and Robert Frank have had a say, too. Wealth inequality was also the subject of a "Room for Debate" feature a few weeks ago.

But geographic analysis of inequality has been little examined in the mainstream media until The Economist Magazine ran a couple of stories about uneven development and spatial inequality in the March 10, 2011 issue. The first "Internal affairs: The gap between rich and poor regions widened because of the recession," analyzes various nations' spatial inequality as measured by income and GDP. This analysis shows that Britain is the nation with the widest geography-based income gap: the per capita GDP is nine times greater in central London than it is in some Welsh regions. The smallest regional spreads, on the other hand, were in Italy and Germany, where "incomes in their most affluent areas are [nevertheless] almost three times those of the poorest." The United States falls at the British end of the spectrum, coming in second for inequality across regions among the nations studied. The District of Columbia, for example, is five times as rich as Mississippi. Further, the situation has worsened in the past few years.

Between 2007 and 2009 real GDP per head in the five richest states actually rose by an average of 2%, but fell by 3% in the five poorest. Both groups outperformed the national average, a fall of more than 4%. (The biggest slumps, both by more than 10%, were in Michigan, the eighth-poorest state, and in Nevada, site of the biggest house-price crash.)

The Economist notes that this is merely a continuation of a long-standing trend, and it attributes the phenomenon, in part, to the "dependence of poorer states on manufacturing, which has suffered big job cuts over the past decade." The feature concludes that "the income gap between richer and poorer areas is likely to widen further as government-spending cuts disproportionately hurt less prosperous parts."

One of the story's big attention getters is its comparison of GDP among regions and cities of different nations.

[O]ver a quarter of regions in Britain and Italy and one-tenth of those in Germany will this year have a lower GDP per head than the municipality of Shanghai. All the American states remain richer, but Shanghai looks set to overtake Mississippi by 2015; within ten years half of all the states, including Florida, Michigan and Ohio, could have a GDP per head lower than Shanghai and Beijing.

If the comparison were at the scale of the county rather than that of the state, these Chinese cities would no doubt be shown well out-pacing our nation's persistent poverty counties.

The second Economist feature on spatial inequality, "Gaponomics," takes up the question of what should be done to respond to this problem, particularly in the context of Britain. Instead of investing in particular regions or giving tax breaks to "enterprise zones" in these downtrodden areas, The Economist offers this proposal:

[M]ake it easier for people to move. Given inherent gaps in regional productivity prospects, there is a case for boosting mobility from declining regions to prospering ones. In Britain the main problem is the fetish for home-ownership and high house prices in the south-east, partly the result of severe shortages of supply. Easing planning restrictions below the Watford Gap would be a better way of helping Britons than propping up the north.

As a ruralist, I am immediately suspicious of policies that would aggravate uneven development. Among other things, they ignore those who will remain immobile and inevitably left behind. They also ignore attachment to place as an aspect of the political economy of rural areas in particular.

This story's second proposal is far more palatable: invest in education because it results in "the single biggest reward" for the nation--even if northerners then move south with their enhanced human capital. (Regarding the latter, I am reminded of this book on the rural brain drain).

Back in the United States, a recent New York Times editorial echoes the second of these ideas in relation to New York's funding scheme for education. In "Rich District, Poor District," the editorial staff consider how two of the state's school districts will fare under the Cuomo budget: "Ilion in the economically depressed Mohawk Valley, and Syosset, a wealthy town in Long Island’s Nassau County." Needless to say, it's not a pretty picture. Here' a summary:

The cuts would scarcely affect wealthy districts that rely primarily on local taxes to support lavishly appointed schools. But they would be catastrophic for impoverished rural districts that have been starved of state aid for decades and are still reeling from cuts levied last year .... Already struggling to furnish even basic course offerings, the poorest districts would need to cannibalize themselves to keep the doors open and the lights on.

As the editors express it, the $1.1 million cut Ilion is being asked to take to its $25 million budget "would not even come to a rounding error in the state's richest districts," like Syosset, which is being asked to absorb only a $1.4 million cut to its $188 million budget. But the New York Times editors aren't just arguing that school funding should be more equitable because "it's the right thing to do," they make an argument grounded in economics: Depressed regions like that around Illion "stand[ ] little chance of attracting high-skill jobs if [their] schools are allowed to deteriorate."

Going back to The Economist articles for a moment, I noted that enhanced investment in education is one reason for the income convergence across Germany, even as spatial inequalities become more acute in other nations. The story describes "huge national and European Union funds for infrastructure, R&D and education, as well as the transfer of some manufacturing jobs from factories in the western states to the east." For some reason, Germany sees reasons to take care of its citizens where they are--not to create incentives for residents of the less affluent East to move West. I'd like to know more about those reasons because I suspect they go beyond a sentimental desire to permit people to stay where they are and the attractive orderliness of a more evenly populated. I am guessing these policies are based in part on economic calculations about the value of existing infrastructure and human capital in the historically deprived East. Better understanding those reasons might inform debates in the United States about why regional development and reducing spatial inequalities--not fueling them--makes good sense from myriad perspectives.

Some of my writings mapping the sociogeographic concept of spatial inequality onto legal conceptions of (in)equality are here, here, and here.

Cross-posted to SALTLaw.blog, ClassCrits, and Legal Ruralism.

July 5, 2010

Lessons in Development and Democracy: From India to West Virginia


Photo © Lisa R. Pruitt 2010

The closing line of my recent blog post asked: "Is even democracy a luxury for the poor?"

Shortly after writing it, I came across this quote by Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, featured in the obituary of Senator Robert C. Byrd who died last week. Regarding the vast federal aid that Byrd garnered for West Virginia over the years, Rockefeller said Byrd knew that “before you can make life better, you have to have a road to get in there, and you have to have a sewerage system.”

This comment resonated with me, struck me as accurate. Yet it ran counter to my thinking about Robert C. Byrd for the past few decades. While I have always considered Byrd a fine man (well, aside from his Klan membership as a younger man) and appreciated his dedication to the Senate, I saw him primarily as a poster child for the excesses of pork barrel politics. Rarely was he in the news, it seems, without some mention of the federal aid he was able to channel to West Virginia. Indeed, his obituary in the New York Times states that he built, "always with canny political skills, a modern West Virginia with vast amounts of federal money." Elsewhere, it includes this quote from Senator Byrd himself, “I lost no opportunity to promote funding for programs and projects of benefit to the people back home.” He referred to West Virginia as "one of the rock bottomest of states."

Rockefeller's comment, however, reminded me of what was at stake with all that aid for West Virginia. It was not only welcome centers and courthouses and such. It was the state's development from an economic backwater, which requires roads and bridges. As Rockefeller observed, advanced sanitation makes a big difference, too. Indeed, it goes hand in hand with education and other health and human services in enhancing the state's human capital.

The quote from Rockefeller also reminded me of this provocative line from Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger (2008): "If I were making a country, I'd get the sewage pipes first, then the democracy." The White Tiger is a story from the other side of the world—from India—but it is related to what Byrd tried to do for West Virginia in several senses. The Indian story—like the story of many West Virginians—is about rural poverty. Its social, geographic, and economic context is the uneven development that has left rural India's residents behind while much of the rest of the nation zooms ahead in the name of progress (and, of course, capitalism). Parallels to rural West Virginia are apparent.

India - Sights & Culture - rural transport truck
Photo by McKay Savage

We city dwellers don't think much about sewage pipes. We take them for granted. But lots of people in the U.S. and in India don't have them. Indeed, some don't even have clean water. (Read U.S. stories here and here.) When those living in metropolitan areas fret about roads, it is about getting a car pool lane, or sound walls, or even a whole new freeway. In rural areas, residents fret about how to get your (dirt) road graded, never mind getting it paved. (Read stories about the economic significance of road building in India, too, here and here).

Both the Rockefeller and Adiga quotes suggest the power of government to lift people out of poverty—perhaps even the nation state's duty to do so. If we agree that the government should play a role in responding to deprivation, is it fair for West Virginia to get more federal aid (assuming that it does on, say, a per capita basis) than, for example, Pennsylvania or Washington or Florida? Wouldn't it represent distributive equity to give West Virginia and similarly deprived states more? Of course, the Indian Constitution recognizes some socio-economic rights, e.g., the right to life, which has been construed to obligate the state to provide a certain healthcare and education infrastructure. The U.S. Constitution makes no similar provision, protecting only civil and political rights. (Yet, as Robert Byrd once pointed out, "The Constitution does not prohibit humble servants from delivering whatever they can to their constituents").

Constitutional and other legal mandates aside, the question remains: what should government do in the face of grossly uneven development and the resulting spatial inequalities in access to infrastructure and services? What is just and ethical? I've been writing recently about Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum's capabilities framework for assessing well-being, including their thinking about government's role in endowing residents with core capabilities such as those life and bodily health. I'm recalling Sen's use of the phrase "antecedent inequality" to justify giving more to those with less, to raise them to a sort of parity with the "haves." That has me reflecting on Robert Byrd's career a little differently than I previously had. I'm now wondering: is it really "pork" if it responds to antecedent inequalities? If getting sewage pipes into rural places—be they in West Virginia or India—helps rural residents achieve a minimum level of well-being, shouldn't we be doing it?

To circle back to democracy for a moment, consider this quote from Sen about the very nature of development:

Development consists of the removal of various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency.

That leaves me wondering: At what point are citizens so deprived of what they need to survive—what Nussbaum refers to the as the life and bodily health capabilities—that they are effectively incapable of exercising the civil and political rights so valued by liberal democracies. Isn't the lack of sewage pipes and other basic infrastructure an "unfreedom" that cries out for development—whether in India or West Virginia?

Cross posted to SALTLaw.org/blog and Legal Ruralism.