Poverty and Predatory Social Practices

Interview with Corinna Spencer-Scheurich
of the South Texas Civil Rights Project

By Nick Braune
Mid-Valley Town Crier

Several weeks ago I heard a powerful presentation on why poor people in the Valley have a difficult time building up a “nest-egg” to get out of poverty. It was given by an attorney for the South Texas Civil Rights Project, Corinna Spencer-Scheurich, who has an office behind the United Farm Workers (UFW-LUPE) hall in Alamo. Meeting her again at the May Day immigration rights march, I arranged this interview.

Author: By way of introduction, your organization is a “Civil Rights Project,” and yet you are working on poverty issues. What’s the connection?

Spencer-Scheurich: Civil rights and economic justice are profoundly connected. It is difficult to worry about, let alone exercise, your 1st Amendment rights if you are struggling to make ends meet. But, it is also hard to critique and change the economic forces that are working to keep people, minorities in particular, in poverty if you are not able to march, write, and speak about what is happening to you. So, to be the human rights organization we hope we are, we must address both issues.

Author: In the speech I heard, you gave some startling data on the general gap between rich and poor. Please go over it again.

Spencer-Scheurich: Well, in the U.S. in 2001, the median net worth of white families was $120,989. But for Latino families it was $11,458. What a huge difference! And because economic assets, like inheritance, land, and education, are often passed from one generation to the next, the deck keeps being unfairly stacked against low income, minority families.

Author: And along the Border, the deck has been stacked for generations, through social habits, discriminatory laws and policies.

Spencer-Scheurich: Yes, for example, after the US-Mexican War, it is estimated that as many as 80% of Mexican-Americans lost their land to Anglo-Americans, because they were not able to prove their title in courts run by Anglo judges and juries. Then the 1933 Social Security Act did not cover farm workers, laborers, housemaids, and other service workers. And since many Latinos worked in these occupations, they lost out on this security net in their later years.

After the US Border Patrol was created in 1924, many Mexican American citizens and their families were exported, and again, with Operation Wetback in 1954, even families with native-born children were deported. Factor in the historic segregation in schools limiting the futures of many Latino children, affecting generations to come. These are just a few historic examples of how Latino families have been divested of their wealth in prior generations, setting the stage for the current situation where Latinos lag behind Anglo whites in all categories of wealth and economic security.

Author: Building on that history, you spoke about various things working against the poor today, such as consumer issues that make getting out of poverty, building a nest egg, very difficult. Is that right?

Spencer-Scheurich: Yes. There are a number of examples of the stacked deck today. Studies have shown that, on average, low income people pay more than higher income people for basic consumer goods and services. Low income drivers will pay more on average for car insurance. Studies even show that low income neighborhoods are charged more for certain grocery items than upper income neighborhoods.

Low income people are more likely to use predatory financial institutions that charge extremely high interest rates for short term loans, and the poor often use check cashing services as opposed to mainstream banks. Low income families are more likely to use a rent-to-own store to buy a television on a high interest rate than to be able to find a great deal on one.

This inequality does not just happen because low income people are higher credit risks. Many times it is because low income families have less access to information, fewer choices of businesses in their neighborhoods, become targets for unscrupulous businesses, and have less ability to get transportation to better deals in other places.

Since low income families pay too much for their necessities, they have an even harder time saving for the education of their children or for a car that will allow them to have a better job – keeping them in the cycle of poverty and stacking the deck against future generations.

Author: Where should we start on these issues?

Spencer-Scheurich: Immediately, we should encourage individuals and groups to start examining which businesses are having a positive effect on the community and which are predatory and sucking important capital and resources away. United, we can wield power as consumers, and we have local power to choose leaders who will draw good businesses and mainstream financial institutions into our communities and discourage predatory businesses.

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