The Stories Behind Inequality and Why We Must Listen

Poverty and inequality look and feel differently depending on where you live. Poverty in New York City looks and feels much differently than poverty in rural California. Inequality across Native reservations and nations looks and feels much differently than inequality in inner-city Chicago or suburban Ohio. Across all of these settings, you never truly know what someone or a family is going through and what decisions and circumstances led to their current circumstances, unless you speak with them. It is easy to judge individuals and groups of people from the outside looking in. You gain a totally different perspective when someone welcomes you into their home, and you begin to understand that there is a story behind every human experience and viewpoint. Something happened in that person’s or family’s life that led them to believe in their actions, whether that is politically, religiously or socially. There is great significance in speaking with strangers.

I spent much of 2019-2020 as a field researcher through Stanford University’s Center on Poverty and Inequality living in and moving from city to city and town to town to better understand the lived experiences of people and families living across America, with a keen focus on impoverished individuals and families. From the inner cities and farm towns to the desert and everywhere in between. Canvassing across the country, door-knocking and having deep conversations with strangers was my job description. My job wasn’t to judge, it was to listen. Giving space to the voices and experiences of the most marginalized people only helps us to conceive of a more just and inclusive society. We discussed things such as finances, healthcare, family, education, experiences with law enforcement, domestic violence and abuse, childcare, politics and most importantly, what they believe the public officials that represent them should be doing to address their needs.

The goal was to inform public policy decisions by policymakers at the local, state and national level based upon the stories and lived experiences of the people I spoke with. I decided to go on this journey because I would eventually like to become an elected official, and I believe too many are out of touch with their constituents, which was proven to me countless times throughout the year. Along the way my desire was to continue challenging my viewpoints and preconceptions, and to remain nonjudgmental.

It was hard enough hearing about the difficult experiences of the people we spoke with prior to COVID-19. Add a global pandemic, economic collapse and unemployment crisis on top of that and you understand just how disproportionate of an impact that systematic inequality has on the most vulnerable people in our society, including COVID-19 death rates, unemployment claims, eviction rates, homelessness, proximity to quality healthcare and likelihood of being a frontline worker, among others. The global pandemic exacerbated and accelerated these preexisting disparities. Those that had strong foundations coming into 2020 were far more likely to be able to weather this storm. The people and families who didn’t almost certainly fell further behind.

As a society we know who those people and families are. They are disproportionately Black, Hispanic, Indigenous and immigrant communities. I vividly remember speaking with an elderly woman who was caregiving for other elderly people in her neighborhood for extra money despite the possibility of contracting COVID-19. I also remember the immigrant mother of four who escaped a war zone, and now had to navigate the United States safety net in a language she did not speak.

Directly or indirectly, systems and institutions intersect. Food systems, trade, supply chains, health and employment all intersect and converge in ways that have major implications. For example, I spoke with a family of farmworkers who developed “Valley Fever” because of poor construction regulations and practices where they lived. This created a pre-existing condition that now makes that family more susceptible to worse COVID-19 outcomes if they contract the disease. Although this is one family, there are thousands across this region and throughout the country that have been similarly affected by government regulations and corporate policies that are now contributing to disproportionate outcomes in marginalized communities.

As society begins to acknowledge and grapple with the inequality and marginalization experienced by the aforementioned groups, we must take bold action to address it. As individuals, nonprofits and corporations we can play our part, and the first step is talking to each other with decency, respect and humility. Secondly, we must build trust with the communities whose trust has been lost over the course of many generations. This includes valuing their input in policies that could potentially be implemented on their behalf. Lastly, the systems and institutions that we navigate must be representative of the background and experiences of the general public.