A mentor of impoverished Chicago youth describes ‘desolate’ poverty of the city’s poor


Up With Chris Hayes guest host Sam Seder argued on Sunday’s episode that poverty is almost entirely absent from the 2012 presidential election as a campaign issue. When President Obama and Mitt Romney do address the matter, the conversation is often framed by statistics and a sense of poverty as an abstract ill. But on Sunday’s Up With Chris Hayes, Seder strove to make the abstract into something concrete and visceral by asking some of his guests about their direct experience with poverty.

Steven Gates, program director of a Chicago youth mentoring program called Youth Advocacy Programs-Illinois, said he has seen desperate poverty in Chicago’s South Side. “The poverty’s so desolate and deep, and the South Side’s so desolate, it’s strange, almost, to hear [Tanya Wells, another guest on that show] talk about going to apply for food stamps, and that being painful when, in Chicago, on the South Side, the food stamp thing, or applying for [an Illinois Link Card] is almost normal because the poverty level is so desolate,” he said.

For people living at the margins, Gates argued, access to education alone isn’t enough. “There are millions of people who utilize the food stamp program,” he said, “and I’ve seen it where they’re not trying to go to school. They’re trying to feed four or five kids. And when it comes to education, how do you begin to learn when you’re hungry? You talk about the chicken and the egg coming first, but how do you focus or talk about test scores when there’s no lights, there’s no gas? We’re talking about deep, deep poverty.”

Though education alone may not be enough, guests nonetheless argued that inequality in schooling helps reproduce poverty. Gates also noted that poverty is highly racially stratified.

“Perhaps we also want to talk about this in the context of the American criminal justice system as well,” said Columbia University Professor Stephen Pimpare, “because I don’t think we can think seriously about poverty without that.”

Tying it all together, Pimpare said, “The problem is that we’ve got, especially in very poor neighborhoods, this enormous array of systems pushing constantly against them and directing barrier after barrier after barrier after barrier so the simple act of getting food in your stomach and getting to school without being injured requires superheroic efforts.”

A mentor of impoverished Chicago youth describes 'desolate' poverty of the city's poor