Kristin Seefeldt - Abandoned Families: Social Isolation in the 21st Century

March 29, 2017 1:12:00
Kaltura Video

Kristin Seefeldt discusses her new book "Abandoned Families: Social Isolation in the 21st Century." March, 2017.


>> Dean Lynn Videka: I'm Lynn Videka.  I'm the Dean of the school of social work at the University of Michigan and I have the great honor of introducing Kristin Seefeldt to you today.  I want to welcome everyone to this afternoon's book discussion and celebration.  Nothing more fun than celebrating the publication of a book, and Kristin Seefeldt's new book, "Abandon Families, Social Isolation, in the 21st Century."  It's a deep and powerful examination of 45 women who struggled not only with economic recession, but also deep and growing structural disadvantages between the years 2006 and 2011.  It's a very moving book, very deep book, and I very much look forward to the presentation.  Before I make the formal introduction of Kristin, let me just get a few pieces of business out of the way.  So first of all I want to say that this event is co-hosted by the school of social work, the Ford school and Poverty Solutions.  I want to thank Laura Lee and all the staff from the three entities who pitched in to make this such a great event today.  As is the tradition at the Ford School we'll handle Q&A via question cards or twitter as Ford usually does for its events.  So I want to remind our audience that if you have a question for our panelists, please write it on one of the cards passed out at the entrance and volunteers will collect the cards around 4:30.  Professor Luke Shaefer, who's here in co-sponsoring this event from Poverty Solutions and children's grad students will consolidate the cards and read your questions.  And if you're watching online, please send your question via Twitter using the hashtag policy talks.  After the talk there will be a reception and book signing immediately to follow just outside of the auditorium, so we hope many of you will stay and join and continue the conversation.  And now to my pleasure to introduce our author, today's celebrated author, Kristin Seefeldt.
[ Applause ]
>> More [inaudible] will come later.  That was my pause, not the applause pause.  But that's all right.  So Kristin has as many of you know Kristin is an assistant professor at the school of social work.  She's also an assistant professor at the Gerald R.  Ford School of Public Policy, and as in the proud tradition of the University of Michigan and it's excellent long tradition of poverty researchers Kristin holds several additional appointments.  She is an assistant research scientist at the Population Research Center.  She is an assistant research scientist also here at Ford.  She has been assistant director of the Poverty Center and is of an affiliated faculty member of Poverty Solutions.  Kristin holds her PhD in sociology and public policy from the University of Michigan, a masters degree as well, and her bachelor's degree is from Georgetown University in American Government.  Kristin's primary research interests lie, and as exemplified in today's book we'll be discussing, lie in exploring how low income individuals understand their situations, particularly around issues related to work and economic well-being and their place within society.  And this book Kristin will be talking to us about today will be discussing abandon families is one of four books that she has authored or co-authored, and it explores the ways in which various institutions that once fostered economic security and upward mobility has failed low and moderate income families, particularly families of color today.  So with no further ado, I introduce to you Kristin Seefeldt.
[ Applause ]
>> Kristin Seefeldt: Good afternoon everyone.  Thank you Lynn for that gracious introduction.  Thanks to Dean Collins of the Ford School for coming this afternoon and for both the school social work, school public policy, Poverty Solutions for giving me this great opportunity to talk about my book.  I also want to thank you all for coming.  And a special thanks to my colleagues from the school social worker made the track over and my students who are attending, even after they've listen to me talk either so much this week or this the past semester.  I'm just one person who's up here who also apparently advance the slides without knowing, but the work that this book is based on is really a strong group effort.  And although I don't want to take too much time doing thanks yous, I want to recognize a few very important folks.  So one is Teddy Engler, who started working with me when she was a student.  She conducted a good number of the interviews that I'll be talking about today.  She is now a stellar researcher in her own right here at the Ford School.  I also want to recognize Michael Barr of the Ford School and the law school who I think who is on a plane right now, but he really provided me with an avenue for getting this project off the ground.  Sheldon Danziger, the former director of the National Poverty Center provided me with many resources throughout this funding, moral support, and a red pen to many drafts of papers that I wrote.  And finally, without any doubt, this book probably would still be unrealized potential without the support of my partner Greg Levine.  So thank you for all of that.  So with that said, any and all mistakes and possible misinterpretations are mine and mine alone.  And also I wanted to note too that the work to talk about today is work that was done in a community that's not mine.  It was conducted mostly in Detroit and with people who don't share my same positionality.  As a white woman who lives in the affluent city of Ann Arbor, whose well educated and a well compensated researcher.  So I'm coming to this work from a position of privilege, and I will never going exactly know how that might've affected my interactions with women.  And despite I think what, you know, I perceived to be my best efforts I also know that I'm likely to, you  know, in some instances misinterpreted what people said or may be analyzed it through a lens that they might not think is appropriate.  But it's this group of women that I really owe the biggest thanks and the most gratitude toward.  They let me in their homes and shared their stories with me for many years.  So let me go ahead and introduce you to one of these women.  So, Geneva, which is not her real name, nor is this a picture of actually of her, is a mother of four, in her early 40s and she was the first person to contact me about participating in the study that led to abandoned families.  So she said that she was currently homeless and temporarily staying with her sister, although she anticipated that that arrangement was not going to last much longer.  This situation she was in was a dramatic departure from what her life had been like the previous few years.  She was married, and until she hit hard times she'd been employed.  She and her husband have been homeowners.  They owned two cars and Alisha, although she herself grew up in modest circumstances, she considered herself as once having reached the middle class.  Her problems started when she went into work one evening during a major snowstorm.  She slipped and fell in the parking lot and she was unable to get back up.  Her back was badly injured and she was hospitalized for a long time.  Since the accident happened at work Geneva assume that she would be able to receive some form of Workers' Compensation, but her employers didn't agree.  She said to me, "It was absolutely horrible.  They said well, we don't know that you fell, even though they could see the blood and see my footprints and the police saw me."  She tried to return to work, but her injuries and her employer's unwillingness to make accommodation led to her being fired.  She was eventually able to secure disability benefits, but along the way she accrued significant medical debt, got behind on her home and car payments and faced foreclosure and repossession of her vehicles.  Her husband, as Geneva put it cracked under the pressure of all of their financial problems and he left.  Nevertheless, Geneva remained hopeful that she would be able to return to work someday and for a time she was actually very upbeat.  She said, "Sometimes I feel like life is handed me a really raw deal."  But then she quickly added, "But there's nowhere else to go except up.  I've already been down there and if I have to go back down there, at least I'll know how to deal with it if I do."  Trying to go up, you know, Geneva enrolled in a career training program, which promised her that she would gain skills to enter a high demand, high-growth job.  When she finished, though the only job she could find was not in her field and paid just enough to make her ineligible for all of the public benefits she had been receiving.
And in the and worse off financially when her work-related expenses were factored in.  But what this less than year long training program did give her was $10,000 in student loans, and a degree from a for-profit institution that would later be shut down by the federal government for its predatory practices.  So how do we understand Geneva's story?  You know, certainly during the great recession there were stories of job loss and the hardships that followed were all too common.  You could read about them in the paper all the time.  More recently for-profit education providers have come under scrutiny by the Federal Government, and mounting student loan debt is a national concern and affect students attending all types of institutions, including UFM here.  Social workers and social policy analysts might point to the frame safety net, which fails to provide adequate protection and can penalize those who seek to get ahead.  What I attempted to do was look at Geneva's story and those of the other women who participated in the study through a framework that has infused much of the sociological literature on urban poverty, and indeed has informed a lot of our social policy for the last several decades.  And that's the concept of social isolation.  So as some of you very well know in 1987 William Julius Wilson's a book on urban poverty, "The Truly Disadvantaged," was released and it brought the term "social isolation," into the lexicon of social scientists.  So Wilson argued that within central cities and poor predominantly black neighborhoods there lived individuals and families who, as he quoted, "Whose behavior contrasts sharply with that of mainstream America."  And these behaviors that he referred to were consisted of joblessness, criminal activity, dropping out of high school, and so-called dependency on welfare.  However, Wilson noted that this was not the result of bad individual choices, but rather because these folks had really limited contact with employed individuals, with community organizations, and the institutions that helped form and sustained working and middle-class families.  Wilson's argument was a structural one.  And, you know, while social isolation might manifest itself in joblessness or reliance on public benefits, fundamentally what happened was that desegregation efforts allowed the black middle class to move away from central cities and jobs also relocated to the suburbs, cutting off important sources of opportunity and upward mobility for poor individuals who remained behind.  But can we really think about Geneva as being socially isolated in Wilson's sense of the term.  She lived in Detroit, a central city.  She is African-American and at the time she was quite poor.  She had a lengthy spell of unemployment, but for most of her adult life she had been working and at one time even had some of the accoutrements of middle-class life.  She had dropped out of school, but she rather was trying to get more education.  What I'm arguing instead is that the structures of opportunity and mobility themselves have been altered and they've been altered through various economic policy and political changes.  Labor, postsecondary and housing markets don't offer the same opportunities for advancement and wealth building that they once did.  Social protections have been stripped away leaving families exposed to great financial risk, and families are not only unable to move up economically, but they're left in debt, both from their investments that they try to make for the future and also their struggles to make ends meet.  This is what I call social abandonment.  Moreover, social abandonment is a new form of separate and unequal.  Affected individuals are relegated to separate and segregated labor and housing markets., separate postsecondary institutions, and separate financial products.  And the death of families must take on the functions as a modern day form of sharecropping, and I'm using these terms "separate and unequal and segregated and sharecropping," very deliberately, because as I argue in the book the phenomenon of social abandonment is the latest set of policy choices and institutional changes that serve to perpetuate racial inequality.  And certainly poor and lower income whites have been affected by aspects of social abandonment, but fundamentally social abandonment is tied to our particular sociopolitical history where passed and ongoing discrimination, as well as racial residential segregation and predatory practices in lending are more frequently deployed against people of color.  Finally, social abandonment can help us understand the maintenance and growth of income and wealth inequality between blacks and whites.  So this is the primary argument of my book.  What I'd like to do next is back up a little bit and outline the rest of my presentation.  So for the remainder of the time I want to talk a little bit more about you.  Who are these abandoned families, in what domains to social abandonment occur, and finally conclude with, you know, what are some things that might help alleviate it.  For the sake of time, and also so that I can really provide a broad overview of what's in the book I'm not going to go into detail about the study behind the book, except to say that my findings are based on interviews with 45 women.  The same women were interviewed yearly from 2006 to 2011.  At the beginning most of them lived in southeast Michigan and of those most in most in Detroit.  Although many moved lots of times during the course of the study.  Most of them are African-American and single mothers.  Although many have been married previously.  Some got married over the course of the study.  Most of them were poor or very had incomes very close to the poverty line, although a few had slightly higher incomes.  In the book I call these women strivers.  They're actively engaged in activities and attempts to move out of poverty and into the middle class or to maintain the very precarious middle-class status that they've latched onto.  So by conducting in-depth interviews with the women and analyzing that data, thousands of pages of interview transcripts, and then placing those findings into the context of larger social trends and the findings from other studies, that is what led me to my conclusions about social abandonment.  A couple other points worth noting.  Even though my study is based in Detroit, I don't think that social abandonment is really fundamentally a story about families just in Detroit.  If you look at data on homeownership, on college enrollment, on student loan debt, predatory lending, and other trends, it lends credence to the argument that this is a national phenomenon and is helping to reproduce and maintain inequalities.  I also don't believe this is a story about the great recession, which of course occurred right during the time of our data collection.  When we asked most women directly about how the recession was affecting them, some could point to friends and family members who had lost jobs, and there was a general sense that it was a little bit harder, you know, to find jobs, but only a couple really saw themselves as being directly affected.  Certainly the subprime mortgage crisis and the bursting of the housing bubble did play a role in draining families of any wealth they hoped to accrue through homeownership.  In other parts of the country housing prices are climbing back to their prerecession levels, but in Detroit and as well as in other predominantly African-American communities this recovery in prices has not happened.  So let me now turn to the various places where social abandonment plays out.  And so the first I'm going to talk about is employment.  So for many of us in the room work is our primary source of income and it's probably, you know, if you're not in school, the major organizer of your time.  Within the poverty literature, and as I noted earlier, unemployment is thought to contribute to this phenomenon of social isolation.  So it's then assumed that work can be an integrating mechanism.  And we know that there has been just quite a bit of research done on all of the various negative aspects of the low-wage labor market.  The labor market in which most of these women worked.  These include, you know, unstable hours and schedules, low pay, the lack of benefits in these jobs, and indeed the jobs in which women in the study worked had all of those characteristics.  But I want to focus on a couple of other issues over and above this.  So to do that let me introduce you to Shanice.  So Shanice was just 19 years old when we started interviewing her.  At the time she was looking for a job, but she already held a lot of different positions.  Some in light manufacturing, some in retail.  They all were temp jobs though and none of them lasted very long.  She dropped out of high school in the 12th grade because she didn't like the alternative school she been sent to when she got pregnant, and she really did believe the lack of a degree was holding her back from getting a better job.  The next year though she was excited to report that she completed training to become a certified nurse's assistant, and she had just passed the state certification exam.  She hadn't found a job yet, but her certification was brand-new and she felt very confident.  The following year when we met up with her, she had a job, but it wasn't as a nurse's assistant.  She worked for an agency that sent her out to people's homes to do as she described it, quote, bathe them, dress them, clean up for them, help them with their prescriptions.  Well, Shanice had definitely received training in all of these tasks.
She was really functioning and had her job title as a home health aide.  This one of the fastest growing occupations in the country, but it is one that is quite low paying.  Moreover, Shanice had very little supervision on her job.  When I asked her, you know, how much supervision she received, she said, "I'm basically on my own."  As for coworkers, she said, "I pretty much don't even see my coworkers."  She often faxed in her timesheets and got her work assignments over the phone, rarely even going into the agency's office.  So why would working alone matter?  In one regard Shanice was basically invisible to her employer.  And one might think that that could make her all that much easier to fire, except for her clients she saw she had no connections to anyone else at her workplace, making it harder for her to learn from others, harder to do any labor organizing if she wanted to do that, and harder to form bonds with coworkers.  And these bonds might be particularly important in, you know, in the low-wage labor market given other things that happen in these workplaces, which I will just talk about in a in a moment.  And this experience wasn't just limited to people who worked as home healthcare jobs.  Many other low-wage jobs are isolated in that sense, including jobs where people are working on the night shift when things are very sparsely staffed.  Jobs that require people to work out of their home and other service sector jobs.  Workplace isolation also present potentially exacerbates another challenge found in the sector of the labor market and that's the extent to which workplace violations occur.  So to illustrate this I'm going to return back to Geneva.  So Geneva did try to go back to her job at the telecommunications firm after she was mostly healed from her injury, but she needed some accommodations.  She needed to have her desk move closer to the restroom so she wouldn't have to walk very far.  She needed access to a handicap parking space in the lot, and she needed a special chair with lumbar support.  Her desk never got moved.  She didn't get the parking pass, but she got the chair for at least a short period of time.  She relayed the story though of what happened next.  She said they took my chair, because other people started complaining, oh, she has a special chair and her chair does this and that and so they took my chair.  And told me I had to just sit in a regular chair because they're getting too many complaints about the chair.  Shortly after that Geneva was fired due to attendance issues.  She often had to miss work when her pain got bad.  Although the telling of this firing is clearly only from Geneva side of the story, the incident of the chair does seem to be a clear violation of the Americans with Disability Act or ADA.  Geneva had a doctor's prescription for the chair and under the ADA if Geneva could perform the essential functions of her job with reasonable accommodations, she should've and provided those accommodations.  The chair was one of those and it might be conceivable that allowing some flexibility in her schedule could be a reasonable accommodation, but Geneva didn't know that she could've possibly filed a lawsuit for ADA noncompliance, and her employer probably counted on that lack of knowledge.  With workplace isolation workers lack connections to others who might help inform them about their rights.  However, low-wage workers are very much unlikely to have the money and the time to engage in a potential court case, which is what the ADA requires.  Many of them had injured previous abusive workplace behavior, they distrusted their employers and they really believe their only recourse when faced with situations like this was to quit.  Now some folks might argue that one way to escape this sort of environment was to get out of the low-wage labor market and to do that get more education and get a better job.  And many women tried this, but they were abandoned by the promise of higher education for promoting upward mobility.  Let me introduce you to Yvette whose story illustrates this.  So despite having your first and second children at a very young age, Yvette completed her bachelor's degree in business management, but that degree was a long time in coming.  She said, quote, well it took me about 12 years, one class at a time, but I just stuck with it, because when I had my eldest child, everybody said my life was over, ruined, you know.  But I still had that get up and go about me.  For a starter like Yvette that get up and go translated into working a full-time job, raising her sons, and of course taking one class at a time.  Originally she enrolled in a community college in the state she was living in at the time.  She moved back to Michigan and she started taking classes at Wayne State, but ultimately her degree came from the University of Phoenix, a largely online for-profit degree granting institution.  The cost of community college and Wayne State had actually been low enough that she could afford to pay out of her pocket what financial aid didn't cover, but when she moved to the University of Phoenix she needed to take out loans to pay tuition, $30,000 of loans in total.  Ten years after finishing she proclaimed the degree to be quote worthless.  She said I'm paying $30,000 on the student loan for something that's given me a job one step above McDonald's.  After all the years and all the money she'd invested in higher education the payoff was a stressful isolating phone sales job where she was earning $45,000 a year with no real chance of ever earning much more.  The experience of women like Yvette who were enrolled in postsecondary education programs is markedly different compared to those of student attending a four-year institution like the University of Michigan.  You know, full-time living on campus and taking classes in the physical classroom where there's other students and there's actually an instructor there in person.  Going to school could be a lonely and really isolated enterprise for these women, very separate and unequal from the traditional system of higher education.  Many women took online classes, never seen an instructor or classmates.  Further, some women lacked examples in their networks of people who had gone to school, so they often didn't understand the implications of going part-time and what that would do for financial aid or choosing and changing majors and what that would do for extending the course of their study.  Yet they were left to navigate the process of choosing classes and monitoring progress largely on their own, attending underfunded and under resourced community colleges or for-profit institutions that charge dearly for degrees with questionable market value.  And finishing that degree was really difficult.  Of the 21 women who were enrolled in some form of postsecondary education, only eight ever finished. and those who did were unable to find better paying jobs.  Homeownership has long been considered one of the fundamental markers of achieving the American dream, but owning a home is not just a marker realizing that dream.  It's also one of the most important assets a family can have.  For these families though homeownership could be more of a nightmare than a dream, and it was a real drain on wealth rather than a building block of it.  The homeless woman homes were typically modest, one story Cape Cod's built in the 1940s or 1950s, and some looked as if they hadn't been updated much since then.  Carla had put a great deal of effort into getting her west side Detroit home into livable shape.  When she purchased it the kitchen had no appliances, no cupboards, she received a lot of assistance from family members in financing the renovations, including the labor that they supplied, but because she was calling in favors the work was done very slowly.  A year after she moved in the kitchen still wasn't completely finished, countertops were still waiting to be installed and the refrigerator sat in the middle of the room.  Despite all of the money and labor being poured into the house, which Carla had purchased for $10,000, she didn't have homeowners insurance.  She explained to me, "I don't even have homework homeowners insurance right now because when I bought the house after I signed I went to go get insurance and they was like, well, you could be trying to buy a house and then trying to burn it down so you can get the insurance."  I was like lady luck, but, you know, that's what the story is for the city of Detroit.  Carla reasoned that once she was done with the renovations she'd try again.  You know, so the insurers would know that she was serious about living in the home and not trying to just get an insurance payment.  In the meantime, though, any damage occurred or if she was robbed she'd not be covered.  We tend to think of redlining as a practice that, you know, reinforce segregation by denying loans to people living in predominantly minority neighborhoods.  Redlining and lending is technically illegal.  I mean that technically it is illegal, but other forms of redlining still occur today.  Redlining people of Detroit so that they are unable to get homeowners insurance.  Further, setting fire to properties as a way to file insurance claims, you know, was a practice that lived in Detroit neighborhood lore, but it was one that affected two homeowners in the study.  Lisa lost her home when a neighbor's house was set on fire under suspicious circumstances and Marie's house was burned to the ground, an unsolved crime.  To return to Geneva she was a victim of private predatory lending.  She purchased the home in 2008.  Although she didn't realize at the time that that's what she was doing.  She recounted the processing.
I was going to rent knowing that my credit was ruined.  I answered an ad in the paper and it was rent to own, so I wasn't sure what the program was, and I went down and they told me about it.  I was like, okay, whatever that will be fine.  You know, they take $100 off the rent and put it towards the purchase of the home.  Yeah.  Okay, fine, you know, that's good.  And when it all came down to it, they said, "You can actually buy this house based on your credit."  And I'm going, "My credit score is 575, are you kidding me?"  And they said, "No, you qualify."  She remained incredulous that she could possibly qualify for a mortgage, but she ended up thinking she wasn't going to be able to buy anyway since all of the homes the realtor showed her were too small, except for one house that had a potential buyer lined up.  But then the house became available.  Geneva and the rent-to-own agent, along with the person that she referred to as a little man went back one more time, although Geneva thought it was just to take a look.  She said what happened next.  The lady said you can get the house if you want to, and she had me sign, I don't know what it was.  It was just a book of things, but it was my closing.  She didn't tell me that, you know.  She didn't tell me we actually closed on the house.  We sat on the floor in the kitchen and she said, "Sign this, sign this," and I'm going, Okay, what the heck am I doing in here, you know.  [Inaudible] and the little man left and he shook my hand and he said, "Congratulations."  I didn't know what he was talking about.  Then she said, "Well, I think we're done here," and then she gave me a coffee mug.  She said, "Well, you should be hearing something shortly.  You should have the keys to your house in a little while, and just look in the coffee mug."  I was like, what the heck is wrong with this lady?  She left and I looked in the coffee mug and it said, "Congratulation, Geneva, here are your keys."  At first she was thrilled.  Only later did she realize she'd been a victim of predatory lending.  You know, she was the first to admit that she should've looked more carefully at what she was signing, but as she said, "I thought it was just signing another million papers, because I had been doing that the whole time.  You're just signing all these different papers, you know, to check my credit, to get permission to do this, to do that, and the other."  When she had a friend look over the terms of her mortgage she saw just how bad of a deal she had received.  She could afford her monthly mortgage payment, but just barely.  But what she had thought that the payment also included her property taxes, but those were separate and she hadn't budgeted in having to pay nearly $2,000 a year to the city of Detroit.  The loans interest rate was nearly 11 percent, much higher than the six percent average on mortgages that were made during that year.  By 2011 her house was in foreclosure.  Finally, the public safety net is another area where social abandonment plays out.  So when people lose jobs in the United States, we have a number of programs that are supposed to, you know, help buffer them against hardship during unemployment, as well as when people are working low wage jobs.  However, the arduous process of these women faced in trying to apply for and use public programs demonstrates declining public commitment to help.  Just to be able to secure benefits and have them arrive in a timely and regular basis was a time and energy consuming process, fraught with roadblocks throughout.  So around the situation as an example of these problems.  She's a single mother who lost her home healthcare job in February of 2010.  Due to her low income she receives food stamps, and the amount of that benefit should've increased to account for the loss of her earnings.  In March instead of going up, her benefits actually stopped.  Rhonda was usually,  you know, very even keel, didn't show much emotion when we talked to her, but in recounting the story she got very animated.  Her welfare caseworker had promised to correct the mistake, and, you know, and Rhonda ended up receiving her food stamps later in the month, but in April, her benefits ceased again.  She called her caseworker repeatedly, but the caseworker never returned her calls.  Rhoda eventually got in touch with the supervisor in the welfare office and her food stamps returned in May, then stopped again in June.  In July she was receiving them again.  Her caseworker claimed that this problem was due to a glitch in the states computer system and she couldn't figure out how to fix it, but the onus of monitoring her food stamp case was placed entirely on Rhonda.  And Rhonda reported that the caseworker, instead of apologizing took her to task for not letting the matter drop.  Rhonda's experience was not unique.  Women routinely reported delays in receiving benefits.  Mistakes that took months to correct and phone calls that never were returned.  Employers also routinely contested the filing of uninsured employment insurance claims and other work-based benefits, perhaps in part because the system structure gives a strong financial incentive to keep the number of successful claims low.  You know, the taxes that employers pay go up when unemployment insurance claims increase.  So sometimes families went without or they took on debt.  People used credit cards to pay for basic expenses, like food and gas, but then they lacked money to pay down the balances.  Sometimes they didn't pay one bill, so that they could pay another, engaging in a very complicated strategy of juggling different bills that left them perpetually behind on everything.  They also took on debt in attempts to achieve upper mobility, to attend school or to buy a home.  But the financial products they could get had very bad terms and the debt was never paid down, unless their wages or their tax refunds were garnished.  And that was an event that contributed to extreme financial turmoil for those who experienced it.  So this cycle that families experienced, not making enough money, losing jobs. not being able to quickly access the safety net and then going into debt, you know, coupled with taking on debt to try to achieve upward mobility in my mind is an eerie parallels to the sharecropper system in place in the post-Civil War South.  So just as a little history refresher for all of us.  Sharecroppers formed plots of land owned by someone else in return for a share of the profits from the crops.  In the South this was predominantly, but not exclusively African-Americans.  But in order to raise a crop the farmer needed to purchase seed, supplies, and other items from the landowner and on credit.  The high interest rates that many landowners charged for these loans and the unscrupulous practices in which they engage when it came time to settle up at the end of the harvest often meant that sharecroppers remained in debt to the landowner and needed to stay on for another season to work off their debt.  Meanwhile, the landowner could sell the crop on the market for a higher price than the value that was credited to the sharecropper, and the cycle continued.  For abandoned women now the wages that they were paid or the benefits that could replace lost wages were never enough or didn't come in a timely enough manner to keep up with bill payments.  Employers control when and how much women work.  The social welfare bureaucracy has a great deal of control over the disbursement of benefits, and the credit card companies set the terms for borrowing.  And in the end families are left with debt when the money coming in is always less than the money going out.  Families today use debt as a way to manage like sharecroppers did when they had to borrow in order to plant, to pay rent, and to purchase food.  Debt kept the sharecropper tied to someone else's land and today debt thwarts upward mobility.  Debt is the fallout of social abandonment, of employment not providing true inclusion, of education and homeownership not providing upward mobility and of the safety net failing, all contributing to the production of existing inequalities between the poor and the non-poor and between whites and people of color.  So what could we do about this?  You know, most people when I talk about this they think this is a very depressing picture, and I wouldn't disagree.  So in the book I offer a number of policy suggestions and none of them are going to seem particularly feasible in our current environment.  Nevertheless, I think it is very important for the discussion to continue.  So one I'll talk about is a workers Bill of Rights.  We need some form of legislation that would better protect workers and shift some of the balance of power away from employers and to employees.  So this is not an original idea.  A number of advocacy organizations working on behalf of certain occupations, like restaurant employees and domestic workers have proposed such legislation, and the city of San Francisco adopted a Bill of Rights for retail workers.  Provisions in these bills typically include a guarantee of a minimum number of hours a week, the ability of workers to have more input on their scheduling, the right of part-time employers to obtain full-time work if it becomes available, and the right to organize.  Also, you know, a workers Bill of Rights today should probably include an increase in our minimum wage.  Secondary reforms to the safety net.  Making programs easier to access and perhaps providing agencies with better automated systems and the staffing levels that are needed to process payments.  The last thing that I'm gonna suggest is reparations.  So of all of those suggested policy reforms that I go over in the book. I understand that this is probably the most controversial.  And when I raise it as a possibility with a group of Ford school students in 2009 it got no traction in the classroom.
But since then, you know, Ta-Nehisi Coates has brought the discussion of reparations more into the mainstream.  You know, and the problems that, you know, the urban poor that Wilson described and the continued challenges faced by economically vulnerable African-American families today really are fundamentally rooted in the legacies of slavery.  So one possible form that reparations could take our baby bonds.  This is an idea being advanced by Sandy Darrity of Duke University and Derek Hamilton of the New School.  These are child savings accounts that are available to children whose parents have lower than median levels of wealth.  It's a progressive system, so that those with lower wealth get larger bonds and then the bonds can be cashed in at age 18, and use for baseline for further wealth building in the future.  So while families of all races and ethnicities have been exposed to social abandonment, it is a problem that we see particularly in African-American communities.  And the very institutions that once promoted opportunity and inclusion have changed in fundamental ways that leave too many families abandoned, lacking in hope and lacking in faith that those in power actually care about their plight.  But social abandonment is something that can be undone.  Geneva once said that people weren't meant to be thrown away, and we as a nation I believe need to find a will to bring abandoned families back in the fold.  Thank you, and I'll stop with that.
[ Applause ]
>> Courtney Sanders: Hello and we just want to thank you so much for this wonderful talk.  My name is Ms. Courtney Sanders.  I'm a second year masters in public policy student, and my interests are in social welfare and [inaudible] equity.
>> Cain Rhineheim: Hi, I'm Cane Rhineheim also a second year masters in public policy student interested in education policy and social welfare policy more promptly.
>> >> Courtney Sanders: So our first question is from the audience and it's were the women you met connected to community institutions, and to what end?
>> Kristin Seefeldt:  Not really.  They were certainly connected to their children's schools and some quite involved in their children's schools.  But children moved schools a lot, and that's, you know, no surprise to anyone who follows what's going on in the city of Detroit.  Some are more connected to their churches, but not everybody.  When we talked to people about community organizations though, there was the sentiment that they shouldn't be using the services of these organizations.  That these organizations were met for people who were really poor, and they weren't really poor.  They, you know, usually had a roof over their own head.  They weren't out on the street living in a box, and, you know, folks realize that these resources were scarce and didn't want to use them up when someone else might need it more.
>> >> Courtney Sanders: Thank you.  So the second question is "Can you speak a little bit about the rising political weight of the struggling and despairing white working class?"  That's all in quotes.  "in the context of your research?"
>> Kristin Seefeldt: That's a question I got asked a lot after the election and I actually wrote a piece that appears in Newsweek's online version about that.  I do not in any way want to denigrate the individual suffering that any family in this country experiences.  You know, we live in a capitalist system that is, you know, inherently unfair in the way it picks winners and losers in the economy.  That said, when we think about averages, you know, unemployment rates between people of color and white folk, especially white males, you know, are much higher.  When we look at income it is much higher, and I think crucially when we look at wealth the disparities are remarkable.  And, Trina, you can correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that the average wealth held by a African-American college graduate is much lower than the wealth held by a white high school dropout.  These are amazing disparities.  And wealth, whether it's wealth you hold yourself or wealth that's in your network.  And that's something all these families lacked was wealth in their network, is something you can draw upon it in difficult times.  But only if you have it.  So I think, you know, while again, I don't want to make light of any economic challenges that any person might be experiencing, I think if we look broadly across the board, you know, these are the disparities are quite remarkable.
>> This question is from Twitter.  How is social abandonment different from social exclusion and lack of social capital?
>> Kristin Seefeldt: So I think social and maybe this is in my mind different.  It might be a more nuanced argument.  I think social abandonment is different from social exclusion because social exclusion argues that people are excluded from -- it's much like social isolation.  People are excluded from opportunity, are not part of the mainstream.  I think social abandonment is different because people are participating and what we think of as mainstream activities.  People are working.  They're going to school.  You know, they own homes.  It's just that the institutions themselves have changed so dramatically that all those efforts don't promote any kind of economic stability or upward mobility.  They have access to them, but it's just access to an entirely different set of institutions.
>> Thank you.  So with your use of sharecropping as a concept, do you see this as a parallel to the new Jim Crow arguments by Michelle Alexander?
>> Kristin Seefeldt: You know, that was suggested by an editor of the book. [laughs] But I do.  I do.  I mean I think, you know, we say, you know, the Civil War was fought, slavery ended, but you can go through and just find all sorts of different ways in which racial oppression continues to be institutionalized.  And mass incarceration is certainly a huge one, one that really affects, you know, African-American males.  You know, social abandonment, you know, one that is affecting folks that aren't incarcerated.
>> This is a two part question.  Often academics and policymakers support the institutional racism and oppression by justifying neutral language instead of calling it what it is.  Do you think your book successfully unveils the institutional racism and oppression hidden in the language we often call on policymakers to reform?  And can policymakers reform current or write new policies that ensure the success of language of discrimination stops in America?
>> Kristin Seefeldt: I appreciate that question.  And, you know, I will be quite honest.  You know, when I first started in the business of poverty research, which there is a business, you know, attached to it.  You know, I use very race neutral language.  You know, everything was very much focused on how you could change incentives.  You know, the incentive structure.  You know, what kind of programs could you use.  But over time, and I think, you know, in part because of now been in a school of social work that has given me exposure to a lot of ideas that I don't think I otherwise would have been exposed to had I not sought them out.  I've really come to realize that, like that has to stop.  I mean inequality is not just, you know, what something that happens.  It happens because of systems of oppression, and we do need to call it.  Have I been successful in doing that?  I've tried, but, you know, I think that's for other folks to judge.  But I also really believe that as a white person, and other white folks in the social policy arena, we need this start doing this more.  We need to call it what it is, and, you know, because otherwise we're just perpetuating our own cycle of,  you know, of programmatic responses to something that is deeply systemic, structural, and institutional.
>> So the current Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Dr. Carson, grew up in a low income neighborhood of Detroit before earning a medical degree from the University.  He strongly argues that welfare programs teach poor people to be dependent.  He may now supervise the termination of urban block development grants.  Did you find any evidence in your research supporting Dr. Carson's hypothesis?
>> Kristin Seefeldt: No.
[ Laughs ]
Sorry to answer no.  I mean, you know, the story of what happened to Rhonda, you know, is sort of used like people couldn't be dependent on welfare.  They could not depend upon welfare.  You know, that's what the real issue was.
And this wasn't just, you know, the case of, you know, everyone in this study was going to the same welfare office and had the same awful caseworker.  No, there were different offices and sometimes these stories were from different states when women had moved.  You know, and I don't want to also in any way like denigrate, you know, people who work in those offices.  It's a tough job and our state and others have really just decimated the staffing of those agencies through a whole variety of different policies in Michigan early retirement policies and then not re-staff them.  So the workers who are still there are left with much larger caseloads.  The same demands on their time and sometimes even higher performance standards to meet.  But all in all, you know, that just I think speaks to the pervasiveness and the depth that that sort of claim has taken root in this country.
>> This question is from Twitter.  I wonder about digital storytelling telling as an output for a woman's story.  Could you speak more to that?
>> Kristin Seefeldt: I think that would be terrific.  I mean I think, you know, and, you know, we've talked about this in one of my classes.  You know, social worker, social policy researchers often find themselves talking for other people.  Other people who are systematically silenced.  And, you know, methods that could get the words, you know, directly from those who are experiencing the story I think would be quite useful.  I started this project using the actual, like cassette tape recorder [laughs] so I improved my technology over time.  But digital storytelling I think would be something quite fantastic to explore.
>> So for-profit online institutions of higher education offer reasonable placement services.  They really pursue openings for their graduates.  Specifically you mentioned the University of Phoenix.
>> Kristin Seefeldt: So this is one of the areas that the federal government, at least under the Obama administration had been starting to investigate quite rigorously, you know, that one of the claims was that, you know, they get graduates jobs.  And a lot of the institutions that have been shut down have been shut down for a variety of reasons, but one of the main ones because they were overpromising on the ability to find students jobs.  We have a new administration.  We have a president who had his own for-profit largely online educational institution, the new Secretary of Education, who is quite pro-privatization of education.  So I think it remains to be seen whether or not some of those efforts are going to continue.
>> Do you see any social programs that are working for the women in your study?  Did they have hope because of them?
>> Kristin Seefeldt: Any that were working.  A couple of women had children enrolled in Head Start.  Some of their young children were enrolled in Head Start and they assessed Head Start as being very beneficial to their kids.  You know I can remember, you know, sitting there with some mothers, you know, bragging, rightfully so, about how the vocabulary of their little ones that really increasingly and they attributed this to their program.  You know, and there's a whole body of research that says, you know, investing early is what we need to be doing.
>> So similarly, given the current federal government role.  Given the current federal government's role, is there a larger role that state and local governments can play?
>> Kristin Seefeldt: I think it's going to be challenging.  I mean I think that the mood seems to be to push not just, you know, there's this talk about devolving responsibility to states and localities and giving, you know, the local level the ability to experiment.  And that's fine up to a point. but there's also a lot of talk about declining resources.  So if I were running a state government, or if I were, you know, on a City Council I'd be really worried about receiving pretty large funding cuts.  So I think some of the work that has to take place in the short run is pushing back against some of that, pushing back against deep cuts to fund to, you know, to fund tax cuts, and pushing back against efforts to block grants.  Programs like food stamp or Medicaid.  Luke Schaefer has written extensively about this and can speak about it more eloquently.  But when you block grants something the logical conclusion that it leads to is just cutting the program and cutting it to its bare-bones.
>> This question is from Twitter.  What types of questions would you like to see included in your survey?  What concepts from your research do you think are missing?
>> Kristin Seefeldt: What do I think is missing?  That's a good question.  I wish that I had been able to get more of people's sort of life history.  I got, you know, you talk to the same person for six years.  You do learn a lot about them, but in interview questions that I wrote, so it's my responsibility.  We really focused on like so what was going on right at the moment and what had been going on over the past year.  It would have been, you know, nice I think and informative to learn a lot more about where they came from, because certainly I got a lot of hints about, you know, some folks have really grown up middle-class or working-class.  Their parents had good jobs.  Their parents were getting and their grandparents were getting pensions.  You know, and these are things that they were never going to be available to them.
>> So how do we ensure that the most vulnerable populations are knowledgeable about workers rights and other regulations that you mentioned?
>> Kristin Seefeldt: You know, I think there is a role for social, for policy minded folks, whether they're in a school public policy or in a school of social work to work with agencies and organizations that are trying to do labor organizing.   You know, there's the restaurant opportunities coalition, [inaudible] I think, you know, is an exemplar of an organization that's done a lot of grassroots efforts to help, you know, permanently people who work into the back of the kitchen, the most underpaid folks.  So I think, you know, giving people the tools that they need to organize and the supports to organize is crucial.
>> This question is also from Twitter.  Can you talk more about what reforms to safety nets you feel are most valuable?
>> Kristin Seefeldt: So I think, you know, the first thing I would actually want to do is rework the unemployment insurance system in a couple of different ways.  First, and some states are doing this, would be to overhaul a set of rules that favor full-time, full year, higher paid workers who got laid off.  It is harder for lower wage, more intermittently employed workers to often to qualify, and I think there's also some evidence that people, you know, think they don't qualify so also some education efforts about what the unemployment insurance system is.  I also, you know, think that we need to be looking more into this employer contestation phenomenon.  A number of years ago there was a short New York Times article about a company that specializes in helping firms just kind of blanket approach, you know, protest the filing of any unemployment insurance claim.  And, you know, a lot of people who are eligible just give up, because it just, you know, it just seems like it's gonna be a long drawn out process.  And, yes, they're right, it would be.  So doing something about, you know, about some of these incentive structures I think would also be important or at least providing some other kind of temporary cash assistance to folks if a claim is being litigated.  I think too, you know, it seems to me kind of unfathomable that in the this day and age of technology we can't have computer systems that can issue checks regularly.  I mean clearly we do it in the Social Security system, you know.  So what are we doing right there that we could perhaps apply to a public welfare office.
>> So you mentioned the ways in which the study is generalizable beyond Detroit, but were there any conclusions you reached that were specific to Detroit's unique policy and contextual environment?
>> Kristin Seefeldt: Yes.  So one was I mean the sheer scale of actual abandonment in the city is, you know, is something that is unique to Detroit.
And by that I mean homes that have been abandoned.  Businesses that have been abandoned or, you know, just empties parcels of land.  The other thing that women talked a lot about was the phenomenon of squatting, which I don't necessarily I think is unique to Detroit, but I think is probably a little bit more -- occurs more frequently in a city that just has so much excess housing stock that isn't being watched.  So, you know, people came of came down on both sides of the fence on that.  So some, you know, really thought squatters were bad for the neighborhood, that these were drug dealers who were up to no good.  Other people were like, you know, we should be encouraging low income, single-parents, you know, to move into these homes and rehab them, and if they can, you know, show that they're invested in them let them take on the ownership of those homes.  But, you know, that and sort of the degree to which people experience a lot of theft of anything that had metal in it was also, so appliances being stolen, siding from the house being stolen, you know, to be sold on the market I think that are probably things that are little more unique to the city of Detroit.
>> If there is a conspicuous relationship between past historical imbalances and the current problem of upward social mobility for these underserved communities then why is the ideal or reparations such a contentious issue?  Shouldn't we find redlining and these kinds of contemporary separate but unequal policies equally as outrageous as people being driven out of their homes?
>> Kristin Seefeldt: I can give my own opinion as to why it seems like it's so outrageous.  I mean I think as a country we just do not want to talk about issues of race.  And, you know, even when opportunities arise, like the Civil Rights Movement or even more recently around issues around police violence against African-American males.  Like these provide us with some opportunities to really grapple with this history, but instead we like to move away and I think the more time that passes, the more this argument of well slavery was a long time ago takes hold, and no one wants, you know, wants to think about, you know, the fact that all of our institutions in this country, you know, in some way shape or form, you know, are built on the backs of people who were exploited.  And that's just seems like a really hard thing for us to do, and perhaps it's because we also have this myth that this country, you know, is all about individual opportunity and we don't really want to think about our own collective responsibilities.
>> So this question is from Twitter.  What inspired you to pursue this work?
>> Kristin Seefeldt: Oh, interesting story.  So in 2006 Michigan was experiencing an economic downturn.  As it turned out it was just, you know, sort of the canary in the coal mine for the rest of the country.  But at the time I was doing a lot of work around the '96 welfare reforms, and, you know, for those who are little less familiar with that, this is, you know, the reforms are a system that like impose work requirements.  You meet with people, women mostly have to work in order to receive benefits.  And that was implemented during like an unprecedented booming economy.  So I thought well this might be an opportunity to look at what happens with the safety net, you know, when the economy doesn't look so hot.  So that was my original objective, but like once, you know, found folks and started talking to people, it just became clear that, like the this is not a story about welfare reform and like this now, really tiny and insignificant part of the social safety net.  It's a much bigger story.  I mean it took me a long time to kind of like figure out what that story was, and, you know, you may not be convinced that I have it correct.  But, you know, I came in thinking I was going to do this little thing, and but really that's not what people really wanted to talk about.  And that's not really what was driving what was going on with them.
>> To follow up, do you continue to meet with the women from these interviews?  What is your relationship with them?  Do you feel as though you have been a part of the process of community boating with the women, despite not being a part of the community and coming from a different perspective?  Positionality, excuse me.
>> Kristin Seefeldt: I've kept in touch with some.  More like over email or phone, and not as much in person.  I've lost touch with a lot of folks and can't find them.  You know, people moved, phone numbers, you know.  One thing in doing the study, both myself, Teddy Engler, we spent a lot of time just trying to find people, but, you know, but we found most of them.  You know, which was good.  As a researcher, I've never really figured out like what my role should be in people's lives.  So what I've tried to do is take the cue from women individually.  So if people expressed an interest in keeping in touch with me, I have and we continued that relationship.  But there a lot of other times where the distinct feeling or even, you know, is even articulated to me that I got was I was someone, it was okay to talk to me because I was not part of the community.  They didn't want me to be part of their circle, because they didn't want anything they told me to like come back around at them.  So, you know, in these interviews, in these situations it was, you know, I could almost feel, you know, when we were kind of closing out the interview, like it was sort of like, you just need to leave now.  And I respect that and I've tried to maintain that kind of distance that people seem to want.
>> So following up on the sort of specificity of Detroit.  What do you think Detroit as a city government can do to better serve these women, especially amidst the gentrification happening in Detroit.
>> I mean the gentrification of Detroit is, you know, is troubling to me.  I mean obviously the city does need revenue, and, you know, it needs a stronger tax base, but it's continually alarming to me to like see the neglect in a lot of, not all, certainly not all.  And I think, you know, organizations like the Skillman Foundation have invested a lot in different neighborhoods.  But a lot of what at least I see going on at a higher policy level does seem to be about reinforcing the downtown core, making that strong and anything about what happens out in the neighborhoods to be, you know, either an afterthought or not even talked about.  I mean and one of the more troubling events that I participated in, I went to a conference in Detroit and every single panelist was a white male.  And all they were talking about was, like bringing in tech companies and things like that and am I in Detroit?  Something's wrong with this picture.
>> Okay, this will be the last question.  What is your final call to action for future social work and policy students who might be interested in similar work and what can communities members do as well?
>> Kristin Seefeldt: My final call.  What I always, you know, could end my social work classes at the end of the semester and I did this with when I was teaching policy students too.  And I think it applies to, you know, anyone with interest is, you know, first of all pay attention.  Pay attention to what's happening.  Keep informed about what the issues are.  What's really happening and what's really happening on the ground.  That's, you know, sort of step one.  Step two is, you know, figure out a way that you can be involved.  You know, figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are.  Not everybody can go out and lead a movement and not everybody should go out and lead a movement.  You know, movements need people behind them.  You know, so if you're comfortable being a leader and, you know, a rallying point, that's great.  Maybe it's writing an op-ed, maybe it's becoming an expert in some,  you know, particular subject matter.  You know, so that you're the go to person that a state legislator calls, you know, when they want to know more about affordable housing or problems with the K-12 education system or something like that.  You know, find your niche.  You know, and then also find ways to make sure that the work that you're doing is not just being done upon a community.
But is being done with and,  you know, for the best interests of that community.
>> Lynn Videka: Okay.  Thank you so much [applause] Kristin.
[ Applause ]
Who did a beautiful talk about a very moving and rich book and please, I invite everyone to stay if you can.  Join us.  There's a book signing right outside in the hall and we very much hope the conversation will continue.  Thanks to our question answer askers also.  Thanks everyone.