'We distance ourselves from economic distress, as if it's contagious'
A Q&A about life on the margins with sociologist and American University professor Celine-Marie Pascale
The economic inequality in the United States is so staggering, it’s hard to get one’s mind around it. A study of U.S. government data by the United Way Alice Project, for instance, has found that 43 percent of all households can’t afford a basic monthly budget that includes housing, food, transportation, childcare, health care, and a phone. That’s 50 million households. (And these numbers are from before the pandemic.)
Still, despite the fact that economic strain impacts so many people in America, we don’t often hear the details of their stories. And sociologist Celine-Marie Pascale wanted to change that. The American University professor herself grew up in poverty, and in her remarkable book, Living on the Edge: When Hard Times Become a Way of Life, she tours the country, interviewing what she calls “the struggling class.”
You begin the book by acknowledging that you have skin in the game. This isn’t just an academic topic for you. Tell me about your background and how it informed this project.
My whole life as a scholar has been coming to terms with my own understanding of class and class privilege. I grew up in a community that was pretty rural and was gentrifying. So, lots of orchards, lots of construction. We encountered a family health crisis. My father ended up with a very serious series of strokes that disabled him. My mother, who had never really worked in her life, was suddenly responsible for finding a job and keeping food on the table for her four kids, herself, and her husband. She ended up with a minimum wage job at a state psychiatric institute, where she worked the graveyard shift. It was really devastating for her and for the family. We had a lot of lean years, where it was never very clear to us that food was going to be on the table. It was always there, but it wasn’t always there in the amount that we would have liked, and it wasn’t always secure. We struggled quite a lot. Minimum wage work is no way to support a family. My mother did end up with some other benefits that helped us out. And eventually we grew up and moved away. She ended up with a better job and more income. So, things did level out for us.
But through all of it — even times when she was forced to sell blood to blood banks in order to put groceries on the table — we thought of ourselves as middle class.
We told ourselves and everyone else that we were middle class when we were really in dire straights. I don’t think that we were deluding ourselves; I think we just didn't have a language to talk about what we experienced. Many years later, I was in a college classroom, and someone was talking about class. I said, “Well, obviously we’re all in a college classroom, that makes us all middle class.” The students jumped at me, and it was the first moment when I had to rethink. My mom used to bring home sheets from the hospital; they were all stamped “property of.” We had days of having to steal dog food and potatoes to keep food going. Still, that mythology of class just settled really deep in us. There wasn’t any language for it.
So, when I went to graduate school, I wanted to study class … Now, years later, as a full professor, I decided to revisit what it means to live on the economic margins in a country where there are so many myths about class.
We’ll get to some of those myths in a moment. But first, you traveled across the United States, interviewing people in poor communities. Some of these communities were so small and economically depressed that there wasn’t even a place to get coffee, because nobody had the disposable income to support a café. Tell me about one or two of the people you met that stand out.
I often talk about Michael Chase, who is a young Black man living in Southeast Ohio. His experience really stands out to me, along with that of Rose, a young woman, also in Southeast Ohio. Both were working multiple jobs; both were unable to live alone. Both were well above the federal poverty line.
Between two jobs, Michael was earning a little less than $16,000 a year. But the poverty line for a single person is, or at that time was, about $12,800. $12,800 is just not the start of poverty for anyone; we start into a crisis well before that. Michael, with his income of $16,000, didn’t have health insurance, didn’t have sick leave, didn’t have vacation time, couldn’t afford his own apartment. Just having a case of the flu would knock him out of being able to pay his rent, because he had no sick time at either job. So, he would work back-to-back shifts for as long as he could tolerate. He would take all the hours that he could get at each job. That left him completely exhausted, but with a little bit of savings. When he had $500 in the bank, he felt really rich. And he never thought of himself as being poor, because he knew people who were in much more dire straits. For Michael, being poor meant not having running water, not having indoor plumbing. It meant not being able to feed your children.
I hear that resonance with my own experience of having trouble identifying where we are. I’ve never met someone — except when they couldn’t afford housing — who would say, “I’m poor.” Because there’s so much judgment. There’s a sense of, well, you failed. How could you be poor in the land of opportunity?
In the book, you write that the poverty line is not the right metric for measuring poverty, that self-sufficiency is a better gauge.
The poverty line that we have in the U.S. right now is based on the cost of groceries. It was developed in the 1960s when economists thought that groceries were one third of your bills. So they created a budget based on the least expensive groceries that you could put together to feed someone, and then multiplied that by three, which is how we end up with $12,800 for a single person. And for a family, if you have a two-parent, two-child family, we’re thinking like $26,500. Well, if you have children, you know that’s not right. That thinking is completely outdated. And yet it is the basis of everything we use for thinking about safety nets: When does aid kick in for families? When does any kind of rent support kick in?
What I looked at was something called basic economic self-sufficiency — and there are many models of it. I use the one developed by the Economic Policy Institute because it’s very transparent. You plug in where you live, whether you have these expenses, and it calculates the cost of rent in your area. And it gives you a really specific kind of budget. Now, it’s limited. It doesn’t include things like debt, and every struggling family I’ve ever met has debt. A lot of middle class or upper middle class people carry debt, but it’s affordable debt — it’s a mortgage or a car payment. Whereas if you’re already struggling, that debt really shapes a lot about your experience in ways that are distinctive.
This economic self-sufficiency [model] actually considers what it costs to live today. So, where the poverty line for a two parent, two child household anywhere in the country is $26,500, in Athens, Ohio, which is where some of the folks that I interviewed lived, that same family, the self-sufficiency budget is $72,000. That’s a huge gap. And then when you have tech areas like San Francisco or Oakland, you’re looking at a sufficiency budget of $148,000 a year … If we’re going to talk about poverty, we have to move away from that poverty line and look at what people actually earn and what it costs to live where they are.
When you look at some of the poor communities, there’s companies that are profiting, like payday loan lenders, medical loan lenders. And with 65 to 80 percent of the American population living paycheque to paycheque, and 40 percent of the country unable to afford a $400 unexpected expense, you can see how these would proliferate. But the one that surprised me most from your book was the dollar stores.
Whenever you are in a poor community, you’re going to see a dollar store. For the most part, these are places that you can buy most items in the store for a dollar. So, you go in and buy a quart of milk for a dollar. You reduce your bill in the moment. What happens, though, is that you end up paying far more. If you purchased a gallon of milk at the prices that they use at the dollar store, you’d be paying eight dollars a gallon. But if you don’t have the money to buy an entire gallon of milk and you need to get milk on the table, the dollar store makes sense. The dollar stores are a delusional process for people. You go in shopping thinking that you’re saving money and you come out with something you can afford — but you’re driving yourself farther under the table.
The dollar stores recognize this. They strong-armed communities to be able to build. Sometimes they require that local governments build them a building, or pay for their utilities in order to bring the store into the area. They will set up stores in ways that will actually prevent mom and pop shops from operating, and also inhibit larger grocery stores from coming in, because they strategically take over markets that are already incredibly limited.
Everywhere you look in a struggling community, you find businesses that profit from poverty. And that is the piece just that keeps blowing my mind, when we talk about income inequality. There have always been rich people and poor people. But when we think about the extent of the inequality? And the fact that the reason that there are so many wealthy people is because they’re making money off the backs of poor people? That’s a whole different conversation.
So many of these communities, as you point out in Living on the Edge, are not safe due to addiction, gun violence, and sexual violence. You visited Oakland, which, as of 2016, has a 259 percent higher rate of violent crime than the national average. You tell the story of Honest and what happened one day while driving his father to work.
Honest was a really sweet young man. He was very charming, very charismatic. He was very clear with me that he thought that we made our own opportunities, that we have to take responsibility for ourselves and make a way in the world. And he was doing his best at that. But, you know, sometimes things happen, and they are out of your control.
He was telling me a story of driving with his dad. His dad was going to work and they were going up a very narrow street. If you’ve been to Oakland, you’ll know that you get cars parked on both sides, and you snake your way through them.
A car came up blocked them, so they ended up boxed in. Men jumped out of the car and started firing into that vehicle in front of them. They jumped out of the car and ran for cover. The trauma was clear as Honest was talking about what that was like. Then he concluded that story with, “My dad didn’t even go to work that day.” That was the example of how things get in your way.
Now, there are parts of Oakland that are terrifically safe — upper class neighbourhoods. Oakland is a city with a lot of economic diversity.
The point that I really want to make about struggling communities is that unexpected levels of violence and stress become embedded in the ordinary.
Another thing I found striking was the ways in which poverty in America is criminalized. You write that if a woman gets caught selling her food stamps, she can be fined up to $250,000 or get a sentence of up to 20 years in jail — or both.
Yeah, I wouldn’t say that we are a nation that is characterized by its great compassion. You know, again, the way that we think about ourselves and the way that we behave are not always in alignment.
In the book, you mentioned a joke Fran Lebowitz made that revealed class prejudice. In the course of your work, how often did you come across that sort of liberal disdain for the poor?
I don’t think it’s necessarily a left or right issue, but I do think it expresses itself differently; it emerges differently on the left and the right. We are still wedded to this idea that you work hard and you can make it — and if you haven’t made it there’s something wrong with you. You’re drug addicted, you’re drinking, you have mental illness that’s not treated. There’s something wrong as a personal failing, or you’re just not putting forth the effort, you’re lazy. That kind of discourse is part of everyone’s thinking.
We distance ourselves from economic distress really quickly, as if it’s contagious. Like, “If I can explain why it happened to them — it’s their personal fault — then it’s not going to happen to me.” But the reality is, among the people that I’ve talked to that couldn’t afford housing, many were older women who had been married. The marriage either fell apart or the husband died. They end up with an illness, no insurance, and they’re on the street before they can blink. So it’s not like this can never happen to us. And I think that we’re always trying to protect ourselves from that thought.
One of the questions you ask interview subjects is: Is there a politician who represents your interests?
Everybody said no. At most, some of them said Bernie Sanders was the person who spoke to their values and who understood their plight … Whether you look at Republican or Democrat, what you see is a government that’s been completely taken over by corporate interests. So, they do enough to address “ordinary” people’s lives in order to get elected. But they’re really beholden to corporations, who are interested in guiding the policies that will be implemented on their behalf.
Where do we go from here? What conclusions do you draw from this research — and how do you maintain hope?
You know, it’s challenging to have optimism about it because there’s so much suffering. There’s so much callousness about the suffering, and an extraordinary lack of awareness about what the economic picture in the U.S. actually looks like.
None of the things that I encountered could be fixed by a little reform here, raise the minimum wage there. You know, it’s not that kind of problem … Until we get corporations and corporate money out of government, we’re just going to see more of the same — where the government continues to work for the wealthy people, the corporations. We get the crumbs. We get enough to keep us going back to the voting booths. But we’re not really getting what we need.
What I think would really help the country — and you have to be quite an optimist to think this could happen — is to have a representational democracy, where there is one person, one vote … If we make elections publicly funded, that’s one significant way of getting big money out of elections. And from there, we can build free and fair elections where you have one person, one vote. And create a government that’s really working for people instead of for corporations.
This interview has been edited and condensed.