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Nikhil Goyal, Live To See The Day
Transcript of Interview with Writer’s Voice with Francesca Rheannon
“I think it's very important that as writers and as ethnographers, that we don't fall into what I call the spectacle of suffering trope, where here are these poor folk and families, and we feel pity and sympathy, and then we go about their days. I wanted to make sure that the book had a very strong underpinning of history and policy to understand how we got here, and then how we get out of this mess.” – Nikhil Goyal
Over 11 million children were living in poverty in 2020. That's the highest child poverty rate among advanced industrialized nations. And of course, poverty's burdens fall heaviest on the backs of children of color.
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It's a shameful record for the richest country in the history of the world and a direct result of the neoliberal policies that have shredded the social safety net of the New Deal and LBJ's war on poverty.
Nikhil Goyal brings the devastating impact of those policies vividly to life in his book, Live to See the Day. In it, he follows three Puerto Rican children from Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood.
It's a coming of age story, one beset by the multifaceted violence of poverty. But it's also a story of the incredible resilience of these children and their mothers as they strive to survive with dignity.
Nikhil Goyal is a sociologist and policymaker who served as senior policy advisor on education and children for Senator Bernie Sanders when Sanders chaired the US Senate Budget Committee and Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
I spoke with Goyal last week. Here's that conversation.
FR: So this book, Live to See the Day, follows three Puerto Rican children growing up in North Philadelphia: Ryan Rivera, Emmanuel Correano, and Giancarlos Rodriguez. Introduce us to these children and tell us about their North Philadelphia neighborhood.
NG: I met Ryan, Giancarlos, and Emmanuel, now known as Coreano, when they were students at El Centro de Estudiantes, an alternative last chance high school in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia.
Each of them had dropped out of school previously, or I would say [were] pushed out in various capacities, and came to the school with the ultimate goal of getting a high school diploma. And each of the main characters, these young people, have very distinct but also very similar trajectories.
In the book, I talk about Ryan's experience going through the juvenile justice system as a middle school student when he started a trash can fire at school. I talk about his experiences dealing with his father's incarceration and his mother's economic instability.
Similarly, Emmanuel grew up in a single-parent household, dealt with evictions and housing insecurity, and he and his mother just tried to survive with very limited resources. The social safety net was just absolutely abysmally meager and did not provide them with the basic necessities for dignified life, in spite of the fact that Yvette, his mother, was disabled and raising him on his own.
And then finally, Giancarlos, also raised by a single mother. To me, his story is most powerful when I discuss his activism against school privatization, school closures, austerity measures, and zero-tolerance discipline. I think he really shows a student voice in the impact of these policies on young people, on educators, on communities.
And so, all three of them illustrate the various repercussions of destructive and inhumane policy decisions, legislation, business practices, and a country that fundamentally has failed poor and working-class people a great deal.
“And so this neighborhood of Kensington, the poorest neighborhood in the poorest large city in America, is a microcosm of many of these challenges where upwards of 50, 60% of children are living in poverty.”
Yes, and what I think is so remarkable about your book is your ability to bring the lives of these kids and their single moms to life. It read like a novel. And there is also a whole lot of context that's given. So before we get to the novel part, let's talk a little bit more about the context. You write that the level of American child poverty is one of the highest in the industrialized world. So talk a little bit about the level of American child poverty and how it compares to other industrialized nations.
So the most recent data that we have that I have turned to is the OECD data from 2019 comparing a variety of countries on child poverty metrics. And the United States has largely for the past number of years been at the higher end, if not the highest end of the poverty scale. So that means that roughly one fifth to a quarter of American children are living in poverty.
And then compared to the Scandinavian and Western European countries, which typically have child poverty rates of usually less than 10%, even less than 5% of times, you look at Finland and Denmark in particular, it is just a stark, stark contrast. Those countries make sure that parents and families have paid family medical leave, affordable childcare, a child allowance, universal healthcare, all the things that ensure that young people can live with dignity and flourish.
And then ultimately, the point that I make in the book, which I hope readers will grasp, is that we can't really truly talk about an issue like public education without accounting for poverty, incarceration, lack of healthcare, food insecurity, all these other social ills and challenges that confront young people in their lives and especially affect them in the classroom, affect their ability to learn.
And so this neighborhood of Kensington, the poorest neighborhood in the poorest large city in America, is a microcosm of many of these challenges where upwards of 50, 60% of children are living in poverty.
And their life expectancy is so much lower than the rest of the city.
In the beginning of the book, I detail that babies born in Kensington are expected to live up to the age of 71, whereas kids just a few miles away in the wealthy, white society Hill neighborhood are expected to live up to the age of 88. Just think about the sheer contrast, 17 fewer years of life. If that's not a crime against humanity, I don't know what is.
So yeah, it's just a very bleak, unfortunately dire situation in Kensington.
“A social contract in tatters.”
And likely not getting better. In fact, I believe that mortality, the age to death is falling in the United States, not increasing. So the book covers the neoliberal era, which began of course with Ronald Reagan's presidency, a story of a social contract in tatters, you call it.
And you trace the history of Puerto Rican migration in the book, deindustrialization, the war on drugs, and the end of welfare as we know it, as the Democratic President Bill Clinton so famously called it.
Sketch out the impact of these, the migration, deindustrialization, war on drugs, and the end of welfare in a little more detail. You just spoke about Philadelphia being the poorest big city in the country, but what does this actually mean to people?
It's a deeply important question, and it's one where we need to begin by interrogating the legacies of deindustrialization, of the war on drugs, welfare reform, all the other political and economic policies that helped us arrive at the current conditions in the city and the neighborhood.
I think it's very important that as writers and as ethnographers, that we don't fall into what I call the spectacle of suffering trope, where here are these poor folk and families, and we feel pity and sympathy, and then we go about their days. I wanted to make sure that the book had a very strong underpinning of history and policy to understand how we got here, and then how do we get out of this mess.
And so Philadelphia, at least in the neighbor of Kensington, was the site of the world's largest and most diverse textile industry in the 19th and 20th centuries. On almost every street, you had bustling factories and businesses, vibrant working and middle-class life, where even if you dropped out of high school one day, within a couple hours, you could probably get a job in one of those factories, a job that would provide you with a good middle-class life, maybe unionized, maybe not.
And that has all gone away. In a city where most people were in manufacturing in the mid-1900s, it went away, and most people began to either go into the service economy, or in the neighborhood of Kensington in particular, went into the drug trade. Those are the two areas of prosperous or somewhat available employment. And especially for people who did not have high educational attainment, there were very few options for them.
So I trace the history of the war on drugs and the effect that it had in terms of criminalizing entire neighborhoods, decimating families, breaking up families, the incarceration rate shooting through the roof.
And the young people's family members, their fathers, their mothers, their uncles, other male family members, had gone through that period of the war on drugs and hyper-incarceration and attained criminal records. And many of them are either dead or still in jail today. And that has had a profound impact on the economic stability of their neighborhoods.
And then I talk about welfare reform, the end of welfare as we know it. When Bill Clinton came into office, he and his administration replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children, AFDC, and turned that into a block grant program called TANF, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which gutted guaranteed welfare, typically for single mothers. And it essentially imposed work requirements on recipients of TANF in order to continue to receive benefits or they would lose all their money.
And so that threw millions upon millions of people, some of the poorest and most vulnerable children in this country, off essential social assistance.
And the research is very clear. If you look at the percentage of poor families who receive TANF today, it has now gone down to just 23 families out of all families living in poverty receive TANF, just 23 families out of that ratio.
And then you've seen a rise in the deep poverty rate because at the very low echelon of the income strata, those families are getting almost virtually nothing.
We've seen more than a million people have either no income, no jobs, virtually no level of economic stability. You know, so it's a profound, profound crisis.
And when you say 23, you mean 23% or 23 families out of 100 eligible?
Yes. 23 out of 100. They call it the TANF caseload ratio.
And just to put a figure on this, one of the families in your book, Yvette, the disabled mom and Emmanuel, this family of two received just $10,000 a year in Social Security, disability and TANF benefits plus food stamps. Now did this cover their living expenses?
Absolutely not. It was just absolutely an insufficient amount. You know, Yvette had a disability. She fell down the stairs randomly one day–incredibly unfortunate accident. And she eventually was not able to walk or stand up for long periods of time.
She was able to manage navigating the bureaucracy of applying for SSI, which can be an incredibly burdensome experience. She went to the doctor. She got a determination that she was eligible for disability and was able to get a few hundred dollars a month in SSI. And then additionally, Emmanuel was able to get what is known as child only TANF. So Yvette wasn't getting TANF, but Emmanuel was able to get TANF just around 200 bucks a month or so. And so together, plus food stamps, known as SNAP, that's what they lived on.
And that meant that they literally lived one welfare check to another and they often ran out of money each year. And because of that, each month they could not afford their rent. They could not afford food, school uniforms, just the basic necessities of life. And that led them into great economic precarity. And it meant that they struggled more so than most American families at the bottom of the income strata.
You talk about housing a lot in this book. Just the level, the scale of evictions, the continual evictions and the housing, the incredibly squalid conditions in which people are forced to live. Describe that for us.
You know, Philadelphia has a very old housing stock. These houses were built more than a century ago. Many of the kids were living in housing that was dilapidated, that had mold, rats, mice, vermin, conditions that no human being should be forced to endure.
And then they had to deal with the housing market, the hyper-capitalistic housing market where oftentimes it wasn't these big private equity firms that have come onto the scene in many American cities; these were usually small-time landlords who had a couple of properties. And these families were at the mercy of these landlords, whether they decide to jack up the rent one month and kick them out.
There's a scene in the book that I think is just absolutely shattering to me, where it's one morning, Emmanuel's at school, Yvette is sleeping in her bedroom, and somebody from the real estate office literally has walked into the house and is in her bedroom, and she thinks she's about to get robbed or something even worse.
And he goes and tells her that, we've sold the house, you have to leave within 24 hours.
And now, here's this mother who has literally nowhere to go, and is frantically going through her Rolodex, the limits of her social network, to find some place for her and her child to live. She had a boyfriend at the time, and fortunately, the boyfriend had a friend who took them in.
But the process of starting over again in a new neighborhood took a toll on Emmanuel. In this particular incident, he had a budding romance, his first romance with a boy on the street, and now he didn't have a chance to say goodbye to his friend. And that is just an experience that was replicated time and time again, in his life.
And later on, when he gets rejected by his mother, due to coming out to her as bisexual, and then going on the run to friends' homes and to an LGBTQ homeless shelter, and then trying to graduate high school all at the same time. It was shocking to read this, the constant stress.
“These were the kids that nobody else wanted to educate.”
I'd like to get to the school that is at the center of this story, El Centro de Estudiantes, maybe by way of the fact that it's an alternative high school, an alternative of the schools-to-prison pipeline schools that the boys go to before they go to El Centro de Estudiantes. So tell us about this school and the Big Picture learning approach.
So in Philadelphia, the school district, over the past two decades, has been issuing contracts to non-profit, for-profit, various school providers who are then tasked to open up alternative schools.
In the beginning of the book, I talk about a for-profit, disciplinary school called Community Education Partners, which is a very hyper-criminalized, dehumanizing educational institution. And then that's in far, far contrast to El Centro, which I would call a progressive, student-centered school.
There's no metal detectors, no school resource officers, known as police officers. There's no school uniforms. Kids call their teachers by their first names. And the school is structured in the form of advisories.
You start your day in what they call morning circles in your advisory, where you talk about what's on your mind, what are your goals for the day, what's happening outside of school. And that system creates a sense of social cohesion and makes sure that every child is known by at least one adult in that building. And you follow that advisory over the course of the day.
And when you add that to the fact that El Centro had resiliency specialists, a very low student-to-counselor ratio, it meant that incidents of violence and bullying and other things that you typically see in underfunded urban high schools did not exist at anywhere that scale. And so it was a safe, nurturing place for these young people.
They typically spent a few years at the school, one and a half, two years. Kids would sometimes come in and out of El Centro. Ryan dropped out of El Centro, came back.
And these were kids who had been pushed out of school. They had very low educational performance. They often had pretty severe and lengthy disciplinary records. These were the kids that nobody else wanted to educate. So El Centro was the last place for them to go.
And my God, it was just an incredibly beautiful place. It still exists today, not in Kensington, but in another neighborhood of North Philly.
But in the face of incredible challenges, these educators went to bat every day for the kids of North Philly. And I commend them for that in the book.
And as you say, it still survives today. But part of the reason for that is due to one of the characters in your book, Giancarlo. As you mentioned, he was an activist. We meet him in the midst of an enormous push to close El Centro and a whole lot of other schools.
You call it a right-wing revolution against public schooling. What happened?
So just to clarify, there's two different scenes of school closures.
There's one scene early on in the book where Ryan had just started at El Centro and they were trying to shut the alternative schools in the city. And those schools were ultimately saved.
And then Giancarlo was an activist in 2013, just two years later, when they tried to close 24 public schools. So the alternative schools were not part of the later closure effort.
But the school district had been bleeding in the red and they had a major budget deficit. And the school district and its leadership decided that the way to plug that deficit was to close down a historic number of public schools.
They had enlisted the help of the Boston Consulting Group, a consultancy firm, to figure out how to manage the district's finances better. And one of the proposals that BCG had issued was to close down dozens of schools, turn them over to private providers, gut the central office, fire hundreds, if not thousands of school district employees. It was just a remarkable, radical policy agenda that BCG, an unelected body, was prescribing for the city of Philadelphia.
They were given a multi-million dollar contract to put out these recommendations.
There was a lot of resistance from the civil rights community, from teachers unions, from labor, from parents and students like Giancarlo, who were involved in Youth Unite for ChangeThey were not going to accept the selling off of their schools to the highest bidder.
Unfortunately, I don't want to spoil the book, but they were not able to stop those closures in 2013. And it was absolutely disastrous in making these young people find new schools after the closures.
It was just a terrible transition. A number of kids dropped out. And I eventually met them years later at the alternative schools and centers in the city because they could not find another school to take them in.
So Giancarlo courageously was involved in those efforts. And those students did not have to do that, but they took their education in their own hands and fought those policies.
“This is a systematic, deliberate process of keeping people at the bottom, of denying them basic resources, of ensuring that they are simply exploited by the labor market, by housing markets, by employers. The Kensingtons of this country are places of just absolute dispossession.”
Another point I think that's very important about this book, Live to See the Day, Nikhil Goyal, is the incredible resiliency of these kids, here typified by Giancarlo, but Ryan as well, and Emmanuel. I mean, resiliency on their part, resiliency on their parents' part, and even on their community's part, that shows the humanity of people that is just so relentlessly undermined or attempted to be undermined by the powers that be.
It is remarkable that they have somehow made it through this system of denial of basic resources, of deep humanizing public policy. I cite at the end of the book a study that found that only 4% of children at the bottom quintile make it to the top.
This is a systematic, deliberate process of keeping people at the bottom, of denying them basic resources, of ensuring that they are simply exploited by the labor market, by housing markets, by employers. The Kensingtons of this country are places of just absolute dispossession.
So I am just amazed by the resilience of these young people and their families, that they were able to somehow make it out or deal with it in some ways.
And I want to also just mention very briefly that in a country as rich as ours, we have the resources to provide people with a decent life.
I worked on the Build Back Better bill in 2021 during the early extent of the Biden administration, and there was a hope that we could actually transform the conditions of this country to provide us with a real social democracy to end the miserable conditions of the Kensingtons of America. And I remember the struggles of these children. I took them into the US Senate and crafted policy based on that.
And so I think as readers, as human beings, as American citizens, we have a great duty to not just look at the suffering and continue with our days, but actually act upon it and demand our policymakers put forth an agenda that will end this misery and inequality across our communities.
So you worked on Build Back Better that famously went down because of the opposition of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.
What do you think about the Biden administration record? Do you think they should have fought harder for the programs? I mean, we have seen the roaring back of child poverty again, which was slashed during the pandemic, but now is back because those pandemic programs were allowed to go. Do you think Biden could have done something to keep them going?
First I would say that I strongly believe that President Biden is the most progressive president since Lyndon B. Johnson. He has shattered this neoliberal bipartisan consensus where we sacrifice life before the altar of the market. He has fundamentally believed that working class people, their interests should be at the heart of public policy making.
And we tried very hard to get Build Back Better across the finish line.
My first day on the job was the day the American Rescue Plan was passed by the Senate. And some people might argue that we should have done Build Back Better early on, that we shouldn't have waited several months into his administration where he lost some of his political capital to get that very big bill through Congress. So it's something that I will constantly ponder for years to come.
But I think the fact is that Democrats had a very, very slim majority, 50-50 Senate with Vice President Harris as the tiebreaker. It is remarkable what they were able to accomplish in the face of that political division, the Bipartisan Infrastructure bill, the CHIPS and Science Act, and then a version of Build Back Better that still had significant investments for climate and renewable energy in reducing the price of prescription drugs, expanding health care subsidies, and then taxing some of the largest and most wealthy corporations to make sure that they're paying their fair share. So obviously, we didn't get everything we wanted. But the fight continues.
And if we have a trifecta in 2024, I know that Democrats will be relentless in getting through the rest of the agenda on child care, the child tax credit, home health care, universal preschool, tuition-free public college. The list goes on and on. There's a lot more that we need to accomplish for the people of this country.
Well, Nikhil Goyal, it's been a pleasure to talk with you about your very important book, Live to See the Day, Coming of Age and American Poverty. Thanks so much for talking with us here.
Absolutely. Thanks so much.
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