Sending Troops to the Border Will Cause More Migrant Deaths

Late Friday night, Defense Secretary James Mattis approved the deployment of up to 4,000 troops to the U.S.-Mexico border. The order, which came after President Donald Trump called for an increase in troops in response to a caravan of refugees making their way north to seek asylum, is not the first time the National Guard has been sent to the border (President George W. Bush sent 6,000 troops in 2006 and President Barack Obama sent 1,200 in 2011). However, many people living in the borderlands believe the action escalates an already-weaponized war zone, and at a time when the United States is seeing the lowest border crossing numbers since 1971.

The National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR) defines border militarization as “the systematic intensification of the border’s security apparatus, transforming the area from a transnational frontier to a zone of permanent vigilance, enforcement, and violence.”

The NNIRR further states that “the outcome of border militarization has not been to deter migration, but instead to create more vulnerability.”

Sixty miles south of my home in Tucson, at the U.S.-Mexico border, a crude steel wall cleaves the town of Nogales in half. Once a single town, relatives now stretch their arms through slits in the wall to hold hands. North of the border, Interstate 19 runs through a scrubby desert, past dusty Arizona ranch towns and gated retirement communities, paralleling the green line that marks the Santa Cruz River. The desert stretches out as far as you can see: thousands of acres of rocky mountain ranges, remote wilderness areas, First Nations land, and cattle ranches.

In 1994, the U.S. Border Patrol began a new strategy called Prevention Through Deterrence. Urban areas from Brownsville, Texas, to San Diego, California, were outfitted with more Border Patrol agents and military-style equipment, including cameras and walls. As a result, it was no longer possible for migrants to cross the border in urban areas. They now had to traverse remote stretches of desert by foot.

In the Sonoran Desert, summer temperatures can climb up to 120 degrees near some of the most commonly used crossing routes. Monsoon storms turn bone-dry arroyos into dangerous flash floods. In winter, below-freezing nighttime temperatures can induce hypothermia. There is little shade and the only water might be found inside the belly of a cactus, or an algae-filled cattle tank. There are rocks to turn ankles, rattlesnakes, and miles upon miles of spiny cacti.

In the last two decades, more than 7,000 bodies of migrants have been found in the Arizona desert, most having died of exposure or dehydration. Thousands more men, women, and children have disappeared. In 2015 alone, more than 1,200 missing persons cases were opened by the human rights organization La Coalición de Derechos Humanos, in response to people looking for loved ones who went missing on the journey through the desert.

A report co-authored by La Coalición de Derechos Humanos and humanitarian group No More Deaths reads, “The region has been transformed into a vast graveyard of the missing.”

*                    *                    *

In the late 1990s, southern Arizona communities began to witness the effects of increased border militarization. Human remains were found in the desert. The Medical Examiner’s morgues continued to fill up throughout the early 2000s, as missing persons reports and phone calls increased from frantic family members. Border Patrol checkpoints appeared along rural roads and highways. Reports of racial profiling in urban areas increased, as did raids in neighborhoods and workplaces.

A widespread citizen response began—one that, full disclosure, I joined as a volunteer for La Coalición de Derechos Humanos and No More Deaths when I moved to Tucson in 2005. Several groups were formed to provide legal support, missing migrant searches, public education, and direct humanitarian aid. Others continued the work they’d been doing to support border crossers since the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s. Local volunteers—including retirees, pastors, nurses, and youth activists—drove desert roads and hiked into remote areas to leave gallons of water along migrant trails, hoping it would save lives. “¡Hola, hermanos! Somos amigos de la iglesia. Tenemos comida y agua,” they called as they walk through the desert brush. Hello, brothers! We’re friends from the church. We have food and water.

In the last two decades, more than 7,000 bodies of migrants have been found in the Arizona desert

Over a three year period between 2012 and 2015, No More Deaths tracked approximately 31,000 gallons of water they placed in an 800-square-mile radius. Eighty-six percent of the water was used, demonstrating high need. But over that same period of years, water jugs were vandalized by humans at an average of twice per week. “Although it is likely that multiple actors are responsible for the destruction of humanitarian aid at our water-drop sites, the results of our [geographic] data analysis indicate that US Border Patrol agents likely are the most consistent actors,” states the report.

A series of videos taken by wildlife cameras and personal cameras clearly show Border Patrol agents destroying water jugs and other humanitarian aid supplies. In one video, a female agent kicks a line of water jugs one by one, smashing the plastic containers against the rocks. In another, a male agent looks into the camera and sneers at the unseen videographer. “You’re gonna’ get a good shot. Just picking up this trash somebody left on the trail,” he says. “It’s not yours, is it? All you have to do is tell me that it’s yours.” He pours out water from the jugs as he talks, his forehead glistening with sweat.

On January 17, 2018, just hours after the above video footage was released, eight No More Deaths volunteers were apprehended by Border Patrol. All are being charged with federal misdemeanors, except for Scott Warren, a faculty associate at Arizona State University and a longtime No More Deaths volunteer, who is being charged with a felony for harboring migrants after agents witnessed him providing two people with water and food. If convicted, he could face five years in prison. In Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge—where the volunteers had been looking for distressed migrants and leaving humanitarian aid supplies—No More Deaths volunteers discovered 32 sets of human remains in 2017.

This is not the first time that the federal government has brought charges against No More Deaths volunteers. In 2005, Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss were arrested while transporting three severely dehydrated migrants to a medical facility, and charged with smuggling and conspiracy felonies. They each faced a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison and a $500,000 fine. After over a year of legal proceedings and a widespread grassroots campaign in support of humanitarian aid, the charges against them were dropped. In 2008, Walt Staton, then a seminary student, was cited for littering after U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers found him leaving water containers on trails in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. Several months before Staton’s citation, Dan Millis was cited for littering, also by U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers, for leaving water containers in the wildlife refuge.

For Millis, the citation came just two days after he and three other No More Deaths volunteers found the lifeless body of a 14-year-old Salvadoran girl in a nearby remote area. Josseline Hernandez and her 10-year-old brother had been traveling with a group of other border crossers when Josseline became ill and was left behind. The siblings were on their way to California to meet their mother. Millis spent months in court fighting the littering charges, arguing—as Sellz and Strauss did—that “humanitarian aid is never a crime,” and that water containers left in the desert with the intent to save lives is not litter. He won the case in an appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court, which ruled that the water containers were not garbage.

*                    *                    *

Todd Miller, a journalist and the author of two books about the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, says the Trump Administration’s decision to send the National Guard troops to the border “reinforces, supports, and frees up the U.S. Border Patrol, a self-described paramilitary agency.”

Since 1993, the U.S. Border Patrol’s annual budget has increased more than ten-fold, from $363 million to over $3.8 billion, and the number of agents increased from 4,000 to 21,000. The combined budgets for Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2017 was $19 billion—more than the FBI, DEA, and U.S. Marshals Service combined.

“The Border Patrol not only operates on the international boundary line, but also in 100-mile jurisdictions, and they do it with extraconstitutional powers above and beyond what normal law enforcement can do,” says Miller. “They can put up checkpoints, pull people over in roving patrols, and essentially violate the 4th amendment—the right to not be searched or seized. This is why the ACLU calls the borderlands a ‘constitution-free zone.’”

The effects of militarization also spill into courtrooms in communities along the border. In 2005, under President George W. Bush, Operation Streamline began, a daily assembly-line courtroom processing of undocumented migrants found crossing the border. During the Obama presidency, Operation Streamline increased dramatically. In just two hours, up to 70 people can be tried and sentenced.

Miller has spent the last eight years researching the private military companies that also want to cash in on border militarization. He describes attending border security conventions with “vendors and companies adamantly discussing their desire to break into the border security market.” In the early 2010s, as U.S. military operations were winding down in Iraq and Afghanistan, Miller says many of those companies expressed that they were in search of new markets. “One vendor, who had before sold his company’s products to the U.S. military, told me ‘we are now bringing the battlefield to the border.’”

In the years since Prevention Through Deterrence began, poverty and violence have continued to force those fleeing for their lives to head north. And so they come—exhausted from the journey, some with babies in their arms, seeking work, seeking a good safe life—and when they reach the border, they are inhumanely squeezed into the gauntlet of the desert, where, as Miller says, “death has become one of many deterrents.”

“When you consider human security, such as the right for a person to have shelter, food, health, education, a future, you see quickly that the billions of dollars put into border militarization are drastically misplaced,” Miller says, joining the many border residents who say that the U.S. government should address the socioeconomic and political reasons driving migration in the first place.

But instead of tackling those root causes of migration, Miller says the U.S. government has focused on putting up walls and bringing the military to the border. In an April 5 interview with Democracy Now, he said, “There will be more agents. There will be more walls. There will be more technologies. There will be more checkpoints. There will be more drone surveillance. There will be more expansion of this apparatus into these 100-mile jurisdictions. And I think that’s the intention.”



Six Months Into #MeToo, We Still Aren’t Helping Victims Heal

Living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is, in many ways, similar to living with cockroaches. When you first notice the infestation, it’s all you can think about. Even if it’s small, even if you only see a little black bug scuttling across the kitchen floor once every few days, you are consumed by panic. You feel their legs brushing your face as you lie in bed trying to fall asleep. You imagine their wiggling antennae poking out from the bottom of your coffee cup. Under every pillow, behind every cabinet, you imagine you will uncover a new nest, writhing with horrible little bodies that scurry across your toes as they try to escape the sudden exposure.

Then, after a while, you get used to them. They get worse; they multiply. But you stop noticing. Eventually, you flick them off your body like nothing. You watch with dull reserve when you uncover yet another nest. They become a part of your life. Once you have roaches, you can never really get rid of them—you can only try to mitigate their effects.

Women have been dealing with a lot of roaches. The viral MeToo hashtag has brought to light the horrifying impact of sexual and physical assault against women, which is an inarguable advance from the (sometimes not-so-distant) times when violence against women was so widely accepted it was used to sell household products. Like any powerful social movement, however, it has its critics. “Why now?” has become one of the biggest questions detractors are asking. If this is such a major problem, why didn’t survivors come forward earlier? Why do so many still hold back from reporting, or testifying in court?

People still ask me those questions. They ask even though it’s 10 years after the end of my abusive relationship, and even though I still live in a world overrun by my trauma. They ask even though providing the testimony that would incarcerate my abuser meant inviting a lifetime of PTSD, which arises only in the aftermath of trauma, when the long-used survival mechanisms fail to shut off.

I still live in a world overrun by my trauma

The events that took place between the ages of 15 and 20 remain trapped in my body like shrapnel too precarious to be extracted. They are distanced from the rest of me by dissociation and selective amnesia; psychological post-traumatic scar tissue. I can’t always recall the details attached to each trigger, but I know them by their symptoms: anger, shame, debilitating self-doubt, panic attacks, suicidal ideation, substance use, an unshakable sense of not belonging.

I didn’t know exactly how much the aftermath would hurt until I finally walked away, but I had inklings every time I tried. I would spend days cycling between joy and misery; torn between my desire to live free from violence, and the despairing knowledge that healing would require painful, arduous work. When I finally testified, it was in spite of myself. I had already recanted previous reports countless times before I finally gathered the courage to stand my ground.

Domestic violence is so intensely damaging because it is personal, targeted, isolating, and private, but that pressure to recant is nearly universal. In a 2011 study of abuser-victim dynamics, Amy Bonomi and other researchers listened in on recorded conversations between jailed male abusers and their female partners. In 17 of 25 pairings, the abuser was able to convince his partner to recant her testimony (the other conversations were inaudible or included people who were not the primary victim). All of these conversations followed a pattern: The abuser first minimized the assault, then elicited sympathy from his victim by describing the hardship of life in jail, before romanticizing the “good times,” bonding over a shared dislike of a hostile authority figure, and finally requesting that she recant.

Given the likelihood that victims recant, it’s no wonder prosecutors seemed concerned when my abuser’s conviction hinged on my testimony. The county assigned me a victim’s advocate who coached me through the court process and periodically checked in on my welfare and willingness to speak in court. But after the sentencing, it was four years before I heard from their office again—and then only to meet with me briefly about his release. I was not set up with a network of trauma care workers. Nobody followed up to learn whether I had stable housing, or how my job search was going after school. I was left alone to deal with the aftermath, and 10 years later I am still struggling to overcome that oversight.

Studies have found that women who survive intimate partner violence suffer myriad long-term physical and mental consequences. (Although domestic violence happens across the gender spectrum, it is most common between male assailants with female partners; because of this, most research focuses on couples that fit this dynamic). Digestive problems, eating disorders, issues with reproductive organs, headaches, and blackouts are some of the most common physical ailments associated with domestic violence. PTSD develops at a 74:3 ratio in women who have been abused versus those who have not.

I’ve always lived below the poverty line, but before developing PTSD, I never struggled for what I really needed. The aftermath of abuse left me floundering for everything. No one warned me how hard it would be to stay alive after the relationship was over. I was able to complete graduate studies in writing, but not without a good dose of heroin—and that, of course, came with its own set of debilitating consequences. Before building enough contacts and credits to work as an income-earning freelance writer, I was mostly unemployed, occasionally bouncing between telefunding jobs, and constantly struggling to keep my family housed and fed. Even recently, when my husband suffered a costly health complication, we ended up with an impending eviction that we were only able to skirt through an online fundraiser.

PTSD develops at a 74:3 ratio in women who have been abused versus those who have not

The financial devastation I experienced is not unique. Since the 1990s, health officials have known that battered women experience significant interruptions to their jobs that include unemployment, missing work, being late or leaving early, and even being fired. More recent data confirm that financial insecurity continues to be a major issue for abuse survivors—domestic violence is thought to account for a combined total loss of 8 million work days each year. Couple that with the fact that 99 percent of women who are physically abused also experience financial abuse, and the well-recorded difficulties associated with escaping poverty (especially if mental illness is involved), and you begin to see a very grim picture—one that leaves already-vulnerable victims struggling to access enough resources to survive.

Survivors of intimate partner violence should not disappear into a black hole after escaping the abuse, nor should we assume they are okay just because they are “safe.” The evidence says they are not. And so, six months into #MeToo, we need to start dealing with the wreckage.  #MeToo allowed women to realize that they were not alone—that many of us have cockroaches, and the filth does not belong to us. #MeToo allowed women to let out a long-awaited sigh of relief. But it also triggered some survivors, who weren’t ready to face their trauma. It made women feel guilty for not being ready. It made those on the outside think that sending the aggressor to prison was the end of the story. It made people forget that domestic violence survivors still need help, even after the relationship ends.

There is no longer any basis to argue that domestic violence doesn’t have a long-term physical, psychological, and financial toll. The question is now, what are we going to do about it?



Hospitals Are Leaving Rural America. Rural Americans Are Staying Put.

Kendra Colburn spent a decade uninsured. During those years, she worked as a carpenter near her hometown in rural Vermont, earning just enough that she didn’t qualify for low-income health care, but not enough to afford health insurance on her own. While uninsured, she suffered two major work injuries that landed her in the emergency room—once, a nail shot through three of her fingers, and another time, a piece of wood kicked back on the table saw and sliced her arm. When she was unable to pay the emergency room costs, her credit took a hit for years.

Today, Colburn works on her brother’s farm and is covered by Medicaid. As a manual laborer, Colburn has developed nerve damage, which flares up in her hands and wrists with overuse. “I cut back my hours to deal with it. I can’t afford to not be able to use my hands,” she says. “That’s how I make all of my money.”

As a child who grew up in a farming community, Colburn says she observed that pain is just a part of being a farmer. “It’s taken for granted that your body hurts every day, that your back always hurts.” That’s true for workers employed in some of the most dangerous jobs: Many manual laborers with high rates of injury and repetitive stress injuries are also more likely to be uninsured. In fact, a 2015 study found that 65 percent of commercial farmers identified health insurance costs as the most serious threat to their farms.

Alana Knudson, co-director of the Walsh Center for Rural Health at NORC at the University of Chicago, prefers to discuss rural health care in terms of strengths, but she does recognize the real barriers demonstrated by statistics. “Overall, we know that people who live in rural communities are likely to have lower incomes than their urban counterparts,” she says. Rural residents are also more likely to have multiple chronic conditions and lower educational attainment, and they’re more likely to face barriers in accessing transportation to medical care.

But there are also less tangible barriers. Colburn says that many people she knows don’t feel comfortable navigating the complicated web of professional medical interventions when experiencing health issues. And the Medicaid system can often lack efficiency. Colburn says her state’s website often doesn’t work, and she still hasn’t figured out how to find a primary care doctor who takes her insurance. Once, a computer glitch resulted in her being removed from her insurance plan, and she was charged hundreds of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses. Even though it was an error on Medicaid’s part, Colburn was still responsible for the bill. “Generally when we’re talking about rural health care issues, we’re talking about access, as if once you get access that actually means something. But when you get access, it still can be a nightmare,” she says.

77 percent of rural U.S. counties are considered Primary Care Health Professional Shortage Areas

Faced with whether to seek medical attention or “make do,” Colburn says many people simply don’t go. She notes that farmers especially have a hard time leaving their farm obligations to take care of themselves. They also spend significant time outdoors, and it’s difficult to imagine a hospital stay. Colburn says, “I have treated myself or not gone a million times.” One spring, she stepped on a potato fork and punctured her foot. Instead of going to the doctor, she spoke with a community herbalist, used an herbal tincture, and soaked her foot in salt water.

“I know for a fact that I need a root canal,” Colburn says, “It used to hurt and now it doesn’t hurt, so I just deal with it.” She pauses. “I know a lot of people who just get their teeth pulled. And the dental piece is important because what your teeth look like has [a] direct impact on what opportunities you have.”

This reality is echoed by rural journalist Sarah Smarsh. “In the past year, the Affordable Care Act, or ‘ObamaCare’, has changed many lives for the better—mine included,” she wrote in an essay for Aeon. “But its omission of dental coverage, a result of political compromise, is a dangerous, absurd compartmentalization of health care, as though teeth are apart from and less important than the rest of the body.”

*          *          *

The fabric of rural America is shifting, in large part due to changes in agriculture. Knudson grew up in North Dakota and says she’s seen that change firsthand. “Our neighbors are farming our land and they seed over 10,000 acres. A lot of the small farms are not there anymore.”

Many children of farmers choose not to take over the farm. Land is then sold or leased to larger farms. Small businesses that once depended on a critical mass of farm families as customers also go out of business. The effects of this rural migration are particularly severe on rural elderly with complex medical needs—and no younger generation remaining in the area to care for them.

Last year, a photographer and I drove across Kansas and Iowa to report on the hidden crisis of farmer suicide. We visited Onaga, Kansas, a small town with a newly renovated hospital. Just blocks from the hospital’s beautiful lobby and squeaky-clean floors were empty streets and boarded up storefronts. One doctor said the hospital had a hard time attracting medical professionals to practice there. The therapist had left months ago, she said, and they were struggling to fill the position.

An online search for “benefits for rural medical professionals” turns up a slew of sites about attracting medical talent to rural communities. Rural medical establishments are advised to advertise the lower cost of living and ability to buy acreage, less traffic, a quieter life, student loan forgiveness in certain underserved areas, “the potential to become the ‘town hero,’” more time spent with patients, and increased proficiency due to physicians seeing “a broader scope of illness.”

Still, rural communities are facing the closure of hospitals and clinics. In 2016, The National Rural Health Association (NRHA) announced that 673 rural hospitals were at risk to close. Of those, 210 were at “extreme risk” of closure. The NRHA warns that “Medical deserts are forming across the nation, significantly adding to the health care workforce shortage in rural communities. Seventy-seven percent of rural U.S. counties are already considered Primary Care Health Professional Shortage Areas.”

Knudson says the health care industry is undergoing a significant transformation in terms of how medical care is being reimbursed. “Our reimbursement system is moving from a volume to value,” she says. ”Historically hospitals have been reimbursed by the number of hospitalizations they provided—you have 10 hospitalizations and you get reimbursed for 10 stays. Our country has really shifted as much as possible to outpatient to make health care more affordable.”

That means a decrease in admissions, more outpatient procedures, and less reimbursable care for hospitals. Additionally, Knudson says many of the rural hospitals closing are in states that have not expanded Medicaid, which has led to a higher number of uninsured patients. “When people are uninsured, it’s difficult to collect payment for that hospitalization.”

Hospital closures can be devastating to rural communities, creating gaps in access to the detriment of residents. “Many of these hospital closures are happening in areas with the highest concentration of heart disease and diabetes, and in some of the poorest communities in the country,” says Maggie Elehwany of the NRHA. “When that hospital closes, it’s like putting a nail in the coffin of that community. You can’t attract businesses or families with kids or keep retirees. So we’re fighting not only for rural hospitals, but also for the economies of these rural communities as well.”

Rural communities are known for being innovative, self-sufficient, and organizing quickly in an emergency

In June 2017, Missouri Congressman Sam Graves introduced the Save Rural Hospitals Act (H.R. 2957). The bill doesn’t increase reimbursements, but it does offer stability for “the closure crisis” by eliminating cuts and Medicare Sequestration for rural hospitals. It also establishes a new Medicare payment designation, called the Community Outpatient Hospital, that would guarantee rural access to emergency care and give hospitals the choice to offer outpatient care. The bill was co-sponsored by 21 representatives (14 Republicans and 7 Democrats), but it is still waiting for a vote.

*          *          *

Rural residents can’t afford to wait, so they are using the assets they have. Rural communities are known for being innovative, self-sufficient, and used to organizing quickly in an emergency. Families may have been rooted in one area for generations, which manifests in a deep knowing of their neighbors, as well as each other’s talents and stressors. And rural communities are often filled with people who want to help one another.

One story Alana Knudson tells me goes like this: One winter, in a northern rural community, an elderly man was treated for chronic urinary tract infections. He was treated and advised by medical staff to flush his kidneys as much as possible by drinking water. But he soon returned with another infection. When a community health worker visited his home, she discovered the man lived in the back of a shed, did not have an indoor toilet, and had to haul his own potable water.

At last, the urinary tract infections made sense. Knudson says, “It was not easy for this elderly man to traverse the snow and the cold in the dark to access the outdoor restroom, so he limited his fluid intake which contributed to reoccurring UTIs.”

To serve the health care needs of the nearly 60 million Americans who live in rural communities, Knudson says “it takes an entire team.” Ideally, Knudson says community health workers are part of that team. As public health workers who are also trusted members of the community, community health workers are particularly equipped to provide valuable connections between health or social services and the community. Primary care providers, pharmacists, social workers, health departments, and even agriculture extensions are critical members of the rural health care team. Knudson says, “A lot of different entities come together and complement each other. We can’t afford the luxury of duplication, so we really work together.”

“People come together to support others,” she says. “In my home community in North Dakota, we had a neighbor who had a heart attack during harvest, and all of us got together and finished the harvest for him. If you needed the help, you could count on your neighbors doing that.”

This frame is important, Knudson says, as much of the media attention about rural communities has been negative. As a result, she says, “There is such dystopia about rural America. We’re hearing from some rural communities that potential businesses are saying ‘we’re not interested in investing in rural America.’”



Raj Chetty on His Groundbreaking Study on Racism and Inequality

A great deal of what we know about inequality in America comes from Stanford economist Raj Chetty’s work. He’s shown us how much place matters in determining upward mobility, the long-lasting effects of experiencing poverty during childhood, and that inequality has connections to everything from inventions to mortality.

Now, in a groundbreaking new study by a team of researchers at Harvard, Stanford, and the Census Bureau, he’s changing the conversation yet again. This latest study finds that even when children grow up next to each other with parents who earn similar incomes, black boys fare worse than white boys in 99 percent of the country. And, perhaps even more staggering, those gaps only worsen in neighborhoods with low poverty rates and good schools.

I spoke with Chetty to unpack this new study and what it means for our understanding of racial inequality in America.

Rebecca Vallas: So the racial income and wealth gap has long been documented, but your study sheds new light on what’s driving income inequality across racial groups. What did you find with your colleagues?

Raj Chetty: What’s new about the study is that it takes a perspective across generations. So most prior work on racial inequality in the United States has looked at people with a snapshot at a point in time—comparing adults who were, let’s say, 40 years old who were black versus white versus Hispanic and looking at how their incomes and other outcomes differ. But what we do here is use data that span across generations where we can link kids to their parents. And in this case we’re able to use anonymized data covering about 20 million kids and their parents and look at how these disparities evolve across generations.

The key finding that emerges from this analysis is that there are very large differences by race, especially when it comes to kids’ chance of climbing and staying at the top of the income ladder. Most strikingly, even among kids who grow up in high-income families, if you’re black, you have a much lower chance of remaining in the next generation at the top of the income distribution or even in the middle of the income distribution than if you’re white. Black kids have almost an equal chance of ending up at the bottom as they do of staying at the top if they start out in a high-income family.

The reason that’s so important is that it tells us these disparities are not just arising from something that’s happening today. Trying to climb the income ladder for black Americans is almost like you’re on a treadmill. You climb up in one generation only then to fall behind again and have to climb up once more, and it’s that feature, that cycle that has to be broken to combat these disparities in the long run.

This is not about immutable factors like differences in ability.

RV: Your study also found that racial inequality can’t be explained by differences in cognitive ability, which maybe sounds common sense to a lot of folks listening, but is actually pretty important as an empirical finding considering a lot of the narratives that still persist out there about what explains poverty in America.

RC: That’s right. We really don’t think differences in ability explain the gaps that we’re documenting, and there are two simple reasons for that. The first is the pattern that I just described of downward mobility across generations. It’s really only there for black boys. Black women do just about as well as white women once you control for their parental income. And that suggests first of all, if you look at most prior theories of differences in cognitive ability, The Bell Curve book for example, it does not present evidence that you’d expect these differences to vary by gender. Furthermore, if you look at test score data, which is the basis for most prior theories about differences in ability, the fact that black kids when they’re in school tend to score lower on standardized tests than white kids, that actually is true for both black boys and for black girls to the same extent. In contrast when you look at earnings there are dramatic gender differences.

And so that suggests that these tests are actually not really capturing in a very accurate way differences in ability as they matter for long-term outcomes, which casts doubt on that whole body of evidence. So, based on that type of reasoning, we really think this is not about differences in ability. One final piece of evidence that echoes that is if you look at kids who move to different areas, areas where we see better outcomes for black kids, you see that they do much better themselves, which again demonstrates that environment seems to be important. This is not about immutable factors like differences in ability.

RV: You mentioned gender differences. One of the most interesting pieces of the study—to me in particular—was that when it comes to women, it seems to be a very different story.

RC: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I think we were quite surprised by that. So there is earlier evidence showing that gaps in wages, for example, are smaller for women between black and white relative to black and white men. What we were struck by is if you just control for parental income so you look at two children, say growing up in a family making $50,000 a year, if you look at their daughters they have essentially the same outcomes in terms of earning, wage rates, employment rates, their chance of going to college. Lots of different outcomes you can look at.

If you look at boys, it’s a completely different picture. If you compare black boys to white boys you see enormous gaps in earnings and employment rates, perhaps most starkly in the context of incarceration. One in five black men born to a low-income family is incarcerated on a given day, which is just an astonishingly high rate. You don’t see anything like that for both black and white women.

Thinking about socioeconomic class and neighborhood is not a substitute for thinking about race

Now, one thing I want to emphasize here is that in some of the public discussion following the paper, people have been a little bit surprised. “Are you saying there is no issue here for women? That doesn’t really sound right.” I want to emphasize that that is not what we’re saying. First of all, if you just look in the raw data, there is still a significant difference in the earnings of black women and white women, and the reason for that is black women still grow up in much lower-income families than white women. So it’s only once you control for parental income that their outcomes look much more similar. The second important point to note is that black women, white women, and black men all have relatively similar levels of earnings, that it’s really white men who have considerably higher levels of earnings. The reason we focus on black men is when we look at certain outcomes like the probability that they have a job or their odds of being incarcerated or their chances of completing high school, they do look like an outlier relative to all the other groups. Black men are significantly less likely to be employed than black women, they are significantly more likely to be incarcerated, they’re significantly less likely to complete high school. And so it does seem like there are a special set of challenges confronting black men. That’s not to say that there’s no issue for black women or that gender equity is not an issue, that’s just not the focus of this study.

RV: The gaps that you found in your research only worsen in neighborhoods with low poverty rates and good schools. Why is that?

RC: Both black kids and white kids do much better in places that have better schools, that have low poverty rates, that you might think of intuitively as “good neighborhoods.” So we’re not challenging that intuition at all. However, what you see in the data is that white kids gain more from being in these lower-poverty areas and from attending better schools than black kids do. And as a result the gaps between white kids and black kids are larger in those areas. So the takeaway from that is not that schools are not important or that having lower-poverty, lower-crime areas are not important; all of those things would help black kids and white kids as we’ve shown in our prior work.

What this study is showing is it is not adequate by itself to close black-white disparities. You need to do more than that. You need to perhaps integrate black kids into these better schools so that they can take advantages of the resources they offer to the same extent that white kids do.

To put it differently, thinking about socioeconomic class and neighborhood is not a substitute for thinking about race. We need to think about how to narrow racial disparities separately.

This interview was conducted for Off-Kilter and aired as part of a complete episode on March 23. It was edited for length and clarity.



A Gun Violence Expert Explains the Link Between Inequality and Gun Deaths

Support for gun safety laws is at an all-time high. Heading into Saturday’s March for Our Lives, more Americans than ever supported new laws to reduce gun violence—including nearly 70 percent of adults and half of all Republicans. But gun safety measures, while critical, are only the tip of the iceberg in addressing gun violence in the country.

In both the United States and globally, gun violence is strongly correlated with both poverty and inequality. A recent World Bank study found that inequality helped predict the difference in murder rates between states in the United States—as well as between countries. Suicides, which make up the majority of gun deaths in the country, skyrocket in times of economic distress. The Great Recession alone was linked to more than 10,000 suicides, according to one study.

At a time when the Trump administration is undertaking an all-out assault on health care, food assistance, and the broader safety net, I reached out to Mark S. Kaplan, a professor of social welfare at the University of California, Los Angeles, to discuss the link between inequality and gun violence.

Jeremy Slevin: It sounds like from your research, the primary way we can quickly address the gun violence epidemic in this country is through gun policy—reducing the amount of guns that are available in circulation. Is that fair to say?

Mark Kaplan: Limiting access to guns is a form of harm reduction. What guns do to a society that is inherently violent—and we are a violent society—is that it lethalizes the violence. So if we are able to tamp down that violence by reducing people’s access to guns, that might be a first good step in the direction we’re talking about.

JS: Could you talk a little bit about your research on how inequality correlates with levels of gun violence?

Gun deaths are only the tip of the iceberg

MK: For one, we know that the numerous studies that have looked at the intersectionality of race and class and gun violence have clearly shown that there is some relationship between issues of racial segregation and issues of deprivation—social and material deprivation. The reduction of guns is not going to alleviate those problems. But there is a very troubling and very strong association, and gun deaths are only the tip of the iceberg. Often we don’t talk about the other 90 percent of that iceberg—people who have to be hospitalized, the financial cost, members of those families, the pain, the post-traumatic stress associated with it. So it’s a much bigger problem than gun death.

JS: Is it fair to say that to address the gun violence issue, you need to tackle both the issue of guns, but also tackle the issues of poverty and inequality?

MK: There isn’t one epidemic of gun violence—there are multiple epidemics of gun violence. Suicide doesn’t come up as often, but that represents two-thirds of gun deaths in this country. And that’s a problem that is different from the interpersonal violence. But both are particularly sensitive to the issue of gun availability.

Let me give you an example. California is rated as an A+ by the Brady scorecard, which rates states by the number of gun laws they have on the books. Nationally, 51 percent of all suicides are gun-related. In some states, it runs even higher, all the way to 80, 90 percent. In California, it’s 30 percent, on average. So it means that with fewer guns, there’s a window of opportunity to intervene and possibly rescue people who are suicidal. But with the presence of a gun, the opportunities to intervene diminish dramatically.

JS: Has there been any research, either by you or other scholars, on how suicides are linked to economic factors?

MK: I did recently complete a project, funded by the NIH, looking at the impact of the Great Recession on suicides. And indeed, there is a relationship! There’s some evidence that with the Great Recession we saw a rise in unemployment, we saw a rise in foreclosure rates, we also saw a rise in the rate of poverty—which may have contributed even more than the other two measures in economic distress. That rise in poverty contributed to an uptick in the suicide rate.

There are data that seem to suggest, both coming from the United States and more so from Europe, that many European countries such as Greece went through a very hard time. The EU imposed very restrictive, draconian measures that were attached to the loans they got, and that caused a cutback in welfare and health care and all sorts of other things. And in countries that traditionally had lower suicide rates such as Greece and Italy during the Great Recession, rates of suicide went up. But we know in this country too that the long-term research looking at periods of unemployment and following up five years or more show that for each percentage-point rise in unemployment, there’s also a rise in the suicide rate.

JS: And of course, in the United States, it’s very easy to get a gun, which seems to be the most fatal form of suicide. Of all suicide attempts, those attempted with a firearm are unfortunately more likely to be fatal.

MK: Yes, that’s referred to as the “case fatality rate.” With the use of guns, it’s nearly 95 percent.

We’re dropping the safety net, meaning that people are going to get hurt.

JS: What would you recommend as policy solutions that get at both the firearm access and the social justice issues of gun violence?

MK: I think that we need to approach this in a more holistic way, a more comprehensive way. The gun issue is perhaps the first step. It’s how we tamp down the lethalization, which I brought up at the beginning. That’s something that researchers have looked at globally—the presence of guns. The first thing we need to do is lower the rate, the prevalence of gun availability, access to guns. California is a great example. Some of the most restrictive gun laws have produced very positive results, fewer gun deaths in the state. They say the winds blow from the west to the east, so hopefully that will happen.

And then we can begin to tackle some of these social inequities and inequalities, and some of the structures that promote inequality. Violence is a more difficult social problem to tackle. It represents more than just the loss of lives: The economic toll on society is huge. How do we redress the various measures of inequality? The distribution of wealth and income, the issue of racially segregated communities, the under-resourced and underfunded social welfare infrastructure that seems to be taking a hit in the current administration—those are issues that also need to be addressed. We are lowering the safety net right now. In other words, under the current government … we’re requiring work for health care, so we’re dropping the safety net, meaning that people are going to get hurt.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.