UW Today

May 20, 2015

UW-led network seeks to reframe poverty locally and globally

News and Information

A presentation during the network's kickoff event, a conference in October 2014.

A presentation during the network’s kickoff event, a conference in October 2014.Lisa Faustino

Two University of Washington geography professors are leading an effort with what might be considered a staggeringly ambitious goal — to reframe how poverty is perceived and studied around the world.

Victoria Lawson and Sarah Elwood are the co-founders of the UW-based Relational Poverty Network, a coalition of academic institutions and organizations around the United States and as far away as Europe, Asia and Africa. The network seeks to recast perceptions of poverty from something impacting others — what Lawson terms “this shiny object or person called the poor” — to a condition created by a complex web of societal relationships involving power and privilege.

It’s a sharp departure, they say, from the traditional view of poverty in the United States as resulting from people’s own decisions, rather than the effect of economic forces and structural inequality.

“There’s a tendency to blame the poor for their poverty,” Lawson said. “That’s the individualist explanation. There’s a lot of judgment.”

The network’s website allows members, who currently number close to 300, to share published works, access teaching resources, find out about upcoming events and peruse successful proposals for funded poverty work. It also highlights members’ projects, which range from research on inequality in post-apartheid South Africa to a study of poverty in remote locations of the Pacific Northwest.

Bringing academics together to talk about alternate ways of studying and approaching poverty, Lawson and Elwood say, can help advance research on a global scale and, ideally, influence policy decisions that impact people living in poverty.

Students participate in a discussion with Sanford Schram, a professor at New York's Hunter College, after his lecture on campus in April 2014.

Students participate in a discussion with Sanford Schram, a professor at New York’s Hunter College, after his lecture on campus in April 2014.Elyse Gordon

The initiative has prompted insights on how cultural attitudes about poverty vary among countries. Colleagues in Argentina, Elwood said, interviewed middle-class residents about economic vulnerability and found that they largely saw the fallout from their country’s economic crisis in the early 2000s as a collective burden.

By contrast, she said, many Seattle residents who nearly lost their homes during the last recession “could see no connection” between their own vulnerability and that of homeless people living in their communities.

The network launched in 2013 with a five-year, $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, the first-ever NSF grant for a research coordination network in geography.

“We are a groundbreaking project, in a sense,” Elwood said. “It’s a huge responsibility.

The first event was a conference last November that drew more than 300 attendees; future plans include a summer institute for junior scholars, a writing retreat and another large conference in 2018.

Lawson and Elwood are working to integrate the network into as many areas as possible. There’s an undergraduate salon series this spring focused on issues related to poverty, and plans for a research exchange that would connect students with faculty members doing poverty-related work.

Lawson, who directs the UW’s honors program, is putting together an honors course with a relational poverty focus, and Elwood is teaching a mapping workshop that involves pairing students with community organizations on projects focused on inequality and social justice (read about it here). A group of undergraduates hosted a peer education seminar about poverty, and students are contributing to the network’s blog.

“Undergrads are hungry to get involved with this,” Elwood said.

Francis Fox Piven from City University of New York, left, with Lawson, Elwood and Tim Harris of Real Change at the conference.

Francis Fox Piven from City University of New York, left, with Lawson, Elwood and Tim Harris of Real Change at the conference.Josef Eckert

The roots of the network date back several years, when Lawson was doing research in Ecuador on women and poverty. She became disillusioned by the realization that her work was reinforcing the notion of Latin America as poor and in need of rescuing, and the U.S. as the model for a solution. So Lawson refocused her efforts back home, collaborating on a five-year project with Lucy Jarosz, a UW geography professor, about poverty in the American Northwest. Through that work, she said, she realized that policies around poverty were being set primarily by people who were middle class.

“The middle classes have the power to say what constitutes poverty because they design policy,” she said. “They are the gatekeepers and leaders of their communities. So what they say about who is poor and why becomes deeply influential.

“We realized that a lot of the ways poverty is framed, defined and understood is done by people in power, not by people who are poor. That was the birthing of this network.”

Lawson teamed up with Elwood, who has a background in community organizing around affordable housing and gentrification, and the two created the network. Its launch comes at a time when issues around inequity are dominating national and local discourse — 2016 presidential hopefuls from both parties are talking about wealth inequality, and in Seattle, skyrocketing rents, livable wages and increased homelessness are increasingly pressing concerns.

“We’re in a moment not just regionally, I think, but globally, of looking at how we address the question of poverty,” Elwood said.

Lawson and Elwood envision the network as an international community of geographers, historians, economists and others who can learn from one another and collectively redefine the global research agenda around poverty.

“It’s not that we want to replace a lot of great work that’s being done, but we want to expand that conversation,” Elwood said.

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