‘Poverty in America’ course focuses on lived experiences of U.S. poor

The nearly 100 undergraduate students enrolled in the Princeton University course “Poverty in America” listened quietly as Trenton native Michael Nelson recited from memory a poem he wrote about his 17 years in the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton.

“Once you’re in the system, you’re a slave,” he said in his soft, confident voice. “There’s no other way to classify your status in the social economy.”

Nelson, who was released from prison last year, touched his gray beard. Standing before the class in a black leather jacket, he rattled through the poem, his words pounding like a drum beat.

“They might as well get rid of the title Department of Corrections. Cause they ain’t correcting anyone these days. The system is a proverbial cash cow — squeezing out mo money, mo money, mo money.”

The class began snapping and clapping when Nelson, a guest speaker for the semester’s exploration of poverty in America, finished.

Michael Nelson speaking to students

Michael Nelson, left, a Trenton resident who spent two decades in the New Jersey State Prison, speaks with students after the March 14 class on America’s prison boom.

The course is co-taught by two experts, Matthew Desmond, a professor of sociology, and Kathryn Edin, a professor of sociology and public affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, both of whom came to Princeton this academic year. The class mixes lectures, guest speakers and fieldwork, and covers some of the most central aspects of poverty, including joblessness, housing and neighborhoods, crime and punishment, and survival and protest.

Though poverty has declined since the Great Recession, it still remains high; an estimated 43.1 million Americans were poor in 2015. Some live in what’s considered deep poverty, with household incomes below 50 percent of the poverty threshold. Others live in extreme states of poverty — surviving on less than $2 per person, per day.

“America is still home to both abundant wealth and extreme deprivation,” Desmond said. “This course examines the causes and consequences of poverty and studies the lived experiences of Americans below the poverty line.”

Incorporating activity-based learning, the class engages students in structured fieldwork. Students hear from outside speakers and conduct interviews and observations in the community. These ethnographic approaches are rooted in Desmond and Edin’s own scholarly work.

Desmond lived among the poorest of families in Milwaukee and chronicled the lives of eight families trying to avoid homelessness. His 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” brought the issue of eviction onto the national stage. His work now stretches well beyond Milwaukee, and his mining of court records recently has uncovered millions of U.S. evictions, revealing a nationwide issue. As part of this research, Desmond is the principal investigator of the Eviction Lab at Princeton, which has built the first nationwide database of evictions and is an open-source resource. 

Edin has spent decades studying American poverty, including welfare, low-wage work and family. She was one of the first to discover that many Americans are living on virtually no cash income — a revelation that some say turned the sociology world upside down. Her findings were published in the 2015 award-winning book “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America,” which she co-authored with Luke Schaefer.

The powerful pair has constructed a course with a robust lineup of speakers, made possible in part by Princeton’s Community-Based Learning Initiative (CBLI). This curricular effort, led by Director Trisha Thorme, connects students’ academic work with communities, allowing students to apply classroom skills to pressing issues of local populations.

Guest speakers were brought in throughout the semester by CBLI. Desmond and Edin moderated these discussions, some of which are chronicled below.

The prison boom: ‘Once you’re in the system, you’re a slave’

Over the past four decades, U.S. incarceration rates have jumped nearly fivefold. Today, the United States has one of the highest prison-population rates in the world. Such high incarceration rates, often of nonviolent offenders, undercut opportunities for those already disadvantaged. Guest speakers Nelson and Marcos Rayas have experienced this firsthand.

Desmond opened the March 14 discussion with an introductory question, “What was childhood like?”

Nelson and Rayas were both raised by single mothers, the absence of their fathers looming over them. For Nelson, that meant watching his mother receive brutal beat downs from boyfriends. He turned to the streets, dropping out of high school by 10th grade. Numb from childhood, he started to self-medicate. By age 16, he received his first marijuana felony charge.

“You all probably weren’t even born when I had my first handcuffs on,” he told the students.

The felony charge created a lifelong barrier for Nelson, as he quickly became part of a segment of the population excluded from privileges such as obtaining a driver’s license, voting or getting a job. He served nearly two decades in prison, an environment ripe with subcultures and gangs.

When asked what prison was like, Nelson paused. “Think of someone whose presence just stresses you out. Now, compound that by 1,000. And you have to live with these people for years … or even decades.”

Rayas had a similar story, though he was never incarcerated. One of five kids, he learned self-defense early on. The absence of his father taught him how to become one, he said. He now has full custody of his son.

But Rayas spent years entangled in child support payments to the state. Despite working a steady job, he didn’t earn enough to make his payments. He was taken to court repeatedly and almost locked up a number of times. He said the child-support system made him feel like being a criminal — simply for being a dad.

“If you owe child support, they will take your license, they will lock you up, they will bring you to court. They will do anything to catch you, and you’ll do time. They will even arrest you through the phone. You don’t pay? You risk going to jail. You pay? They’ll take your entire paycheck, and you can’t survive. It’s a very bad system,” Rayas said.

The 50-minute class was moderated by Desmond, who carefully asked questions to elicit such honest responses. Desmond explained how the prison boom — alongside low-wage jobs, a shortage of affordable housing, welfare reform, and more — have contributed significantly to poverty in America.

The class was particularly useful to Lily Bou, a senior Woodrow Wilson School major, who enrolled in the course because of its focus on domestic policy. She’s focused her studies at Princeton on anti-poverty issues, examining incarcerated parents and custody rights in her senior thesis. After graduation, she plans to work for Civil Rights Corps, a nonprofit litigation team that fights injustice in the legal system.

“The people who have been personally impacted by the legal system are those who can best describe it, and their voices are the ones that should be elevated in any discussion of the prison boom and its harms,” Bou said. “This lecture was a critical supplement to the academic research we had been assigned on punishment and inequality in the United States.”

Bad jobs: ‘There were no rewards. It was just a paycheck.’

Even though the United States is one of the world’s richest countries, conditions have worsened for poor Americans. Today, nearly 1.5 million American households exist on $2 a day or less.

Low-wage jobs and unemployment carry lifelong effects that extend beyond economic insecurity, affecting marriage and family life as well. Trenton residents Donnell Clark and Lorie McDonough, guest speakers in the March 26 session led by Edin, are all too familiar with this struggle.

Clark’s first job was at a retirement home; he made $1,200 per month. He lived in a one-bedroom apartment that cost around $750. Money was tight, but he managed. “I learned how to separate my needs from my wants, and put my responsibilities first,” he said. “That meant providing for my son before myself.”

McDonough, who dropped out of high school in the ninth grade, worked as a swing-shift supervisor at McDonald’s, averaging between 20 and 40 hours a week. The schedule was unpredictable, making life difficult to navigate as a single mother. After a decade there, she was earning $8.25 an hour. When asked by Edin about the rewards of the McDonald’s job, McDonough quickly said, “There really were none. It was just a paycheck.”

Before Clark got custody of his son, he landed in a homeless shelter after failing to pay rent. McDonough, who came dangerously close to being homeless, was on and off public assistance for years. Edin reflected on how Clark and McDonough were steady workers, yet neither could live self-sustaining lives.

“But then there was a turning point for both of you,” Edin said. “Tell us what happened.”

With a fiery persistence, Clark pursued a job with the state. He applied frequently and visited the office daily. He started out as a garbage collector before moving into his current job in maintenance with a hospital. Now, he’s making around $1,000 or more every two weeks, and is recently engaged to be married, with a baby on the way.

After 10 years of “just receiving a paycheck,” McDonough now has a job she loves at the Trenton Starbucks. She received help from HomeFront, a nonprofit working to end poverty and homelessness in central New Jersey. They helped place McDonough into her current position as a barista. Now, McDonough has full benefits and is considering marrying the father of her son — after 28 years of being together.

“Before, I used to dread going to work. But where I’m at now is about family and the people, and I love going there every day,” McDonough said. “Last week, I paid $80 to get my hair done, which is something I’ve never done before. But I felt like I deserved to do something for myself. That’s what this job gave me.”

While these stories are unfamiliar for some of the students enrolled in the class, they hit close to home for others. Growing up, eviction was always a possibility for sophomore Josue Chirinos, a first-generation student at Princeton.

“As a child growing up in poverty, I often wondered why I didn’t have the same things my friends had, but I was too young to understand then,” Chirinos said.

Chirinos’ mother dropped out of high school, which made it difficult to find a well-paying job later. His father came to the United States illegally in 1978, worked his way from janitor to pipefitter, but the work was never certain, and the pay didn’t make up for it. Neither of his parents were taught to value education, he said, so they didn’t advocate education to their own children. Two of Chirinos’ siblings dropped out of high school, and two graduated, but didn’t move on to college.

“This class provided me with the opportunity to learn more about why my childhood was the way it was. Learning about both sides of eviction — both the tenants and landlords — was enlightening and answered a lot of questions from my past,” he said.

Students in the course agree that Desmond and Edin’s passion for and care about the subject echo across lectures and discussions. Daniel Kim, a first-year mathematics major, read Desmond’s book in high school and was excited to hear he was joining the faculty at Princeton. He’s considering majoring in sociology, mostly because of taking this course.

“Professors Desmond and Edin present the material in a very passionate but down-to-earth manner,” Kim said. “The lectures are structured like a narrative, which makes them very engaging, but whenever they answer questions or delve deeper into the research behind the narrative, their expertise is clear. I really appreciate that this course provides me with the perspectives and experiences of two experts in the field.”

In addition to Desmond and Edin, the course is facilitated by four assistants in instruction, or preceptors, who are earning doctorates in sociology and social policy: Linsey Edwards, Xinyi Duan, Christopher Felton and Ryan Parsons.