A portrait of Prof. Jamila Michener standing in a hallway

Professor Studies Issues at the Intersection of Race, Poverty, and Public Policy

Jamila Michener’s childhood in NYC inspired her to explore the root causes of inequality in the U.S.

By Beth Saulnier

Jamila Michener was a grade schooler in New York City in 1989, when David Dinkins was elected its first Black mayor. Assigned in class to write him a letter, she told Dinkins she was glad he got the job—because maybe he could do something about the drugs, crime, and poverty in her working-class neighborhood.

Michener—now an associate professor of government and public policy—forgot about the letter until years later, when she was a grad student in political science at the University of Chicago. “I told my mom, ‘I don’t know that this is what I should be doing,’” recalls Michener, whose research falls at the intersection of poverty, race, and public policy. “And she showed me the letter and said, ‘Oh, yes it is; you’ve been interested in this stuff since you were a kid.’”

In addition to her government appointment in Arts and Sciences, Michener is associate dean for public engagement at the new Brooks School of Public Policy and co-director of the Cornell Center for Health Equity, a collaboration between faculty in Ithaca and at Weill Cornell Medicine. Her book Fragmented Democracy: Medicaid, Federalism, and Unequal Politics was published in 2018 by Cambridge University Press.

What do you think about this particular moment, when so much attention is being paid to issues of racial and economic inequality?

It holds both promise and peril. The promise is in the fact that we’re talking about these things. I’ve been studying racism and poverty for a while, but I’ve never been asked to talk about them as much as in the last two years—and by people who weren’t asking before, like medical schools, boards of corporations, federal agencies, and state governments.

There’s a lot of promise in people learning about the systems, policies, structures, and processes perpetuating inequality, and thinking about ways they can use that knowledge for change.

And the peril?

It’s in stopping there, which often happens. We’re recognizing these problems more than ever, because COVID has been disproportionate in its impact or because of the massive protests following the murder of George Floyd. The hard part is doing something. Getting over that hump is going to be really challenging.

Why?

One of the biggest aspects is the deep level of polarization in this country. Change requires navigating a political process—and there are increasingly irreconcilable differences in how people understand governance, policymaking, and living together as a diverse society. I can’t say I’m especially optimistic, even though I want to be.

The cover of the book "Fragmented Democracy"

One of your areas of research is Medicaid. Why?

It’s a pillar of our healthcare system, and also of our social policy system. Upwards of 80 million people rely on Medicaid, and they span a wide gamut.

Many of the adults are living in or near poverty, and the vast majority who can work are working. I don’t actually think that matters; people deserve healthcare whether they’re working or not.

But to be clear on the empirical facts: we’re talking about working people who cannot afford healthcare, either through their employer or through personal means.

You devoted a book to the topic. What’s its focus?

A big thing is the implications of federalism. Because Medicaid is a federal/state program, it’s actually more than 50 programs that look very different. States and territories have a lot of discretion; they decide what benefits you get when you give birth to a child, whether you’re eligible for hospice care if you’re dying of cancer, or if you can get physical therapy after an injury.

Do Americans really understand how Medicaid and other social safety nets work?

I don’t think so. I teach a class called “The Politics of Poverty,” and we break down myths around who relies on government benefits. For example, although there are disproportionate numbers of people of color—because they’re more likely to be living in or near poverty—in terms of raw numbers, more white Americans rely on these programs.

Because Medicaid is a federal/state program, it’s actually more than 50 programs that look very different.

How do you dispel stereotypes like the “welfare queen”—an able-bodied person living large off public benefits?

The welfare queen was literally made up for political purposes; we can trace it to the Reagan era. But fraud in public programs is extraordinarily rare, between 1 and 3%. What does that mean? Roughly 97 to 99% of benefit recipients are not defrauding the government or looking for a handout. In fact, most are working.

What does that say about the state of jobs in this country?

Because wages are so low and work is so volatile and unreliable, people are in and out of the labor market. And our society and our economy rely on people moving in and out of the formal labor force; people who receive public benefits are often upholding our care economy, our gig economy, and certainly our wage-labor economy. But because of policy choices, none of those things is enough to take care of families or pay our astoundingly high housing costs.

An info graphic showing the racial/ethnic breakdown of Medicaid recipients

How did you land on this area of research in the first place?

Mostly personal experience. I grew up in a low-income, working-class family. My parents were immigrants who came from the Caribbean in the 1970s with nothing, and often worked low-wage jobs to help us stay afloat. As a Black woman from that kind of background, even as a young kid, I had an interest in understanding why things seem to be a particular way.

Could you elaborate?

When I was in third grade, there were two shootings in my neighborhood close to where I lived, one resulting in the death of a boy about my age. And I remember thinking, “Why does it seem like all the Black and brown people are in one place, and all the white people are in other places—and where they live seems nice and safe, and where we live seems dangerous and hard?”

One of the first classes I took [at Princeton] was called “The Sociology of Poverty,” and it was like a light bulb went on, because there were terms for things I’d seen and historical processes explaining how they got this way. That was exciting—because if you can understand something, you can change it.

Top image: Photo by Ryan Young/Cornell University

Published February 25, 2022


Comments

  1. Javier Gonzalez-Ramos, Class of 1987

    The problem of abuse by one group to another group of people has it’s roots in the colonial era in the 1600s. In about 1735 Carl Linnaeus published the Systema Naturae for species classification with no interest on phylogenetic relationships. Homo sapiens was loosely grouped in four categories. But, by the 10th edition these groups were described with questionable opinions about groups’ behavior. The colonial empires took convenient advantage of these apparent race differences as justification for abuse and slavery. This was the beginning of the so called “scientific race” concept. And therefore, as long we continue to use this racist narrative there will be no justice. Today, genetic and genomic data do not support the race concept providing further evidence that the apparent differences found among the groups are the effect of a handful of genes that provides adaptation to humans living in the different geographical region of the planet.

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