America’s wealth gap has been cratering since the 2008 Great Recession, although the groundwork for this form of grotesque inequality has been laid for decades before and since through policies that have systematically impoverished communities across the country. In her book, “The Fight to Save the Town: Reimagining Discarded America,” Michelle Wilde Anderson, a professor of property, local government and environmental justice at Stanford Law School, takes a closer look at four places in the U.S. in which residents are dealing with poverty while their local governments see their budgets slashed.
On this week’s installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” Anderson shares how examining Josephine County, Oregon; Stockton, California; Lawrence, Massachusetts; and Detroit, Michigan revealed the hope hiding in the cracks of the most broken parts of America. She also reveals that, while studying and reporting on these four places, the law professor came to understand how poverty is often pathologized in the way it’s discussed, which in turn causes more harm to the communities in question.
“All of the places that I write about show up on all these click bait blogs, like ‘Most Miserable Place to Live in America,’ ranking the horrors of poverty and dying towns and so forth. We use all this language that heavily stigmatizes poor places, and saps our belief, our basic optimism that things can get better. And I don't care what color the statehouse is, I think officials in all 50 states are very susceptible to the narrative that if they put money behind these problems in very poor places, they're ‘throwing good money after bad,’ or ‘they're trying to save places that are categorically dying and can't be saved.’”
To Scheer, the plight of the towns portrayed in Anderson’s book are symptomatic of widespread failure on behalf of our dysfunctional bipartisan political system. The examples Anderson provides are also indicative of a broader systemic inequality in which towns like Stockton become feeder towns for low-wage jobs in Silicon Valley—which contains some of the wealthiest ZIP codes in the nation. The Stanford scholar, however, manages to find bright spots in the shape of exceptional progress and people who beat the odds that are heavily stacked against them.
“I think ultimately, this book is a project of political will,” concludes Anderson. “It's a project of saying if you actually show up on the ground and you see how hard people are fighting and how much progress they're making, these heavily pathologized, stigmatizing stories do not line up with the reality on the ground.”
Listen to the full conversation between Anderson and Scheer as they pinpoint the ways America has failed its towns and citizens from California to Massachusetts and everywhere in between.