DeRay, Brittany, Clint and Sam discuss Felicity Huffman, LA’s draconian proposal for anti-homeless measures, California’s public prison ban, the complicated history of sugar in America, and post-incarceration finances. Paul Tough, author of “The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us” joins DeRay to discuss the broken collegiate system.
- Guardian: California bans private prisons – including Ice detention centers
- LA Times: Could Homeless People Sleep In Your Neighborhood Under New Laws?
- NY Times: The Barbaric History of Sugar
- The Marshall Project: What Gate Money Can And Cannot Buy
[00:00:00]DERAY: Hey, this is DeRay, and welcome to Pod Save the People. On this episode we have me, Brittany, Clinton, Sam as usual. And then we have Paul Tough [:10], author of The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us
PAUL: Social mobility—this idea of, you know, young people to change their lives, reach another class, reach another kind of life as adults—has been something that has run through everything I’ve written.
DERAY: Now the only advice for this week is that “every day is the right to tell the truth.” Don’t let people shame you about “why did you say this on this day?” There isn’t some magical day that is the best day to tell the truth; there isn’t some magical time that’s the best time to tell the truth. Every day is the right day to tell the truth. We tell it when we know it. We tell it when we made the case.
Hopefully today is your day. Let’s go.
BRITTANY: Hey y’all, it’s the news. This is Brittany Packnett, @MsPackyetti on all social media.
SAM: And this is Sam Sinyangwe, @samswey on Twitter.
CLINT: And this is Clint Smith, @ClintSmithIII.
[00:01:00] DERAY: This is DeRay, @deray on Twitter.
BRITTANY: Lots of news this week, you all. A lot of people have definitely been talking about the ruling that was handed down in the case of Felicity Huffman. As a reminder, she essentially bribed her child’s way into Stanford. And there have been some fascinating conversations that have come out of this. She was ordered to pay a fine and I believe spend about 14 or 15 days in jail. That amounts just to about two weeks, and a lot of people have rightfully pointed out just how disproportionate that is compared to black women who have gone to jail for far longer for using a different zip code, for instance, to send their children to school, or people have been talking about Crystal Mason who is facing five years in prison for casting a provisional ballot as a formerly Incarcerated person, which she did not know she couldn’t do in the state of Texas. But an even more important conversation, in my opinion, has been emerging in the fact that it is both right to point out how the sentences for black women in the sentences for this white [00:02:00] woman do not match whatsoever, and also talk about the fact that we need to reimagine accountability, that if we’re going to be bold enough to believe that we can live in a world without prisons (at least is they exist right now) that it’s not right to want to see Felicity Huffman go to jail either but it is right to see that the consequences are equitable across the board.
CLINT: Yeah, I think over the last couple years, we’ve had a range of different examples of crimes being committed by people who represent a special type of villain, so to speak, in the public consciousness, you know, whether it be Paul Manafort, or whether it be Michael Cohen. And then in this iteration, you got, like, Felicity Huffman and all these other celebrities and people—you know with regard to Paul Manafort, with regard to Cohen, with regard to, in this context, Felicity Huffman—obviously the nature of their crimes are different, but part of what happens is when wealthy white people are given sentences that are perceived as being not commensurate with the crime they committed and, [00:03:00] or are less than that of black or brown or poor people who committed ostensibly, you know, less harmful crimes and are being punished in much more harmful and Draconian ways.
People are like, “Oh, well this is ridiculous. Like, she got two weeks in jail. She could have got ten years or twenty years or, this isn’t enough” and what it reflects, as Brittany alluded to, is the way that imprisonment and incarcerality [3:25] is so central to our collective understanding of what punishment or justice looks like that we are unable to sort of imagine different versions of what accountability can be, you know? Because, like, Felicity Huffman is going to be in prison for two weeks. It is true that there are lots of black and brown and poor people who are serving far longer sentences for far lesser crimes, and it’s also true that no one is being helped by Felicity Huffman being in prison for two weeks and no one would be helped if she were in prison for 5 years or 10 years or 20 years and that like prison, we have to remember, are violent and [00:04:00] unjust places in our goal should be to be pulling as many people out of them and preventing as many people from going into them rather than wanting any person to spend more and more time there, especially when they don’t represent any threat to someone’s immediate sort of safety in this way. So I think that we have to use all of these moments as a chance to think differently about what accountability and what justice might be able to look like.
SAM: And you know, as part of the sentence there was a thirty thousand dollar fine and Felicity Huffman has a lot of money; thirty thousand dollars is not a lot for Felicity Huffman. This reminds me of you know, you think about think the Sackler family and the direct role that they played in manufacturing the opioid crisis and then, ultimately, they ended up getting fined, basically like a slap on the wrist. Many of the corporations involved were basically given a slap on the wrist for their role in perpetuating the opioid crisis. Similarly, Facebook got a fine that was a tiny fraction of their total revenue for all of the data and privacy violations that they had that contributed in [00:05:00] part to Trump’s election through Cambridge Analytical and other misuses. So I think this is part of a pattern where you have, you know, wealthy white individuals and corporations that when the criminal justice system does actually seek to hold them accountable, it’s a very tiny sort of slap on the wrist. And, you know, just if we’re trying to think differently about what the punishment could be, I mean a thirty-thousand-dollar fine is not really an adequate punishment. I mean, it would be different to think about “what if there was the ‘Felicity Huffman College Fund’ that supported a whole range of folks actually going to college, being able to afford college, folks from underrepresented groups to access the institutions that Felicity Huffman try to cheat her daughter into.” I think there’s a range of things we should be talking about in terms of punishment that are different than incarceration. But a thirty-thousand-dollar fine and two weeks incarceration doesn’t do anything to actually restore or repair the harm done.
DERAY: You know, it’s interesting because some people who have heard the conversation about prison not being the answer, they have taken that to mean that there should be no consequence, [00:06:00] and nobody is saying that there should be no consequence, but prison doesn’t change anything. Remember the Felicity Huffman is actually petitioning to go to one of the federal facilities that actually has no bars. So, for the people who think she should be in jail for 14 days, this isn’t even like the jail that they are thinking it is; it’s not where Felicity Huffman is probably going anyway, And her estate is worth about 45 million dollars. So again, $30,000 is not even what she paid in one year probably of tuition for the cheating that she did to get her child into school. So, there could be a fund, there could be a much bigger fine levied for her and for everybody else to really send a signal that this will have lasting consequences. But remember that the abolition is not saying that this is a consequence free world. It is saying that the consequence of prison and jails actually doesn’t change a behavior and doesn’t change the outcomes that people seem to believe in.
BRITTANY: So, I’m starting off the news segment today. We’ve [00:07:00] talked a great deal about the housing crisis in America, the ways in which wages are stagnant, especially in the lower quartile of wages. Housing prices continue to rise, especially in major Urban cities, and few people are willing to invest in the kind of solutions at scale that we know can help fix the problem. There’s a proposal in front of City Hall in Los Angeles right now that as far as I can tell is not only not going to make the problem any better, it’s going to make life much, much more difficult for homeless people. And so right now, Los Angeles is considering a new rule that would prevent homeless people from sleeping on streets or sidewalks that are 500 feet from schools, daycares, parks, or popular venues. As you can imagine, this is particularly difficult in a city like Los Angeles, where poverty is incredibly high and so is the rate of homelessness. There was a decrease in homelessness in Los Angeles previously, but over the last year, Los Angeles city has seen a 16% increase in [00:08:00] homelessness and Los Angeles County has seen a 12% increase, again in just the last year alone.
There are a total of 59 thousand people across the city and county who are housing insecure or homeless in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times recently released a report estimating exactly what this rule, if enacted, would do spatially. So they looked at the fact that even though this rule would spread out the restricted areas, that in total it would be about one hundred and twenty four square miles. That’s 1/4th of the city that would be eliminated as far as where homeless and housing and secure people could sleep if they needed to.
They looked also at specific neighborhoods and how this would affect various regions within the city and county. Places like Skid Row would be suffering the most. Skid Row, of course, is a place where a number of housing insecure people live in encampments. And from The Los Angeles Times research: about 46% of Skid Row would now be off-limits. They estimate that that would affect 1500 [00:09:00] people. What we don’t need here is more punishment of people who are already suffering from the sin of poverty. What we do need are real solutions that are going to help solve the housing crisis so that fewer people are on the streets. Giving them fewer places to sleep if they’re already on the streets cannot be the answer. I’m very hopeful that this does not go into law.
SAM: So this is a similar situation to what we’re talking about with Felicity Huffman, where you’re policing and incarceration is just so obviously, especially in the situation not a solution,
We’re talking about a situation where folks who are homeless are going to now be fined for being homeless in huge swaths of the city, including, as you said, Brittany, 46% of Skid Row, which has one of the highest concentrations of homeless people in the city. And ticketing folks, making them pay more who don’t have the money to afford housing in the first place? First of all, I mean, the city is not going to make any money or revenue off of that because folks don’t have any money to pay those tickets. What that’s going to do is lead to questions about: how are they enforcing those tickets? Are they going to be [00:10:00] arresting and incarcerating people now for the act of being homeless and not being able to afford being homeless, which now has this premium placed on it because of this proposal?
It is the opposite of what the city should be doing. They should be investing in providing people access to housing, investing in making sure that the rent does not keep going up, making housing out of reach for so many more people each year, contributing to rising rates of homelessness across the state and across the country.
So, I mean again, this hasn’t yet been passed. I’m hopeful that the city will reject this, but you know, these are the kinds of ideas that make the problem worse.
CLINT: So, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty recently found that among the 187 major cities the group tracks, 34% banned will be those camping. But camping in the context of cities is typically done by people who don’t have a shelter to live in, and so, you know people living in tents and under blankets and sleeping bags under a bridge. So, in 34% of cities it’s banned, [00:11:00] 59% banned it in certain public spaces. The majority of cities band loitering, begging, or sitting or lying down in public areas, while between a quarter and a third of them being each of those acts everywhere and not even just in public areas. 43% banned sleeping in public vehicles, and some of you might have seen like in—and these have gone viral at different points—but, you know, different cities trying to make public spaces as uncomfortable and sometimes as harmful as possible for homeless people. There are some branches that are covered in metal spikes. They’re replacing covered bus stops with leaning post so that people without homes can’t sleep under there or lay there to any ledge or to any flat surface. They’re adding different spikes or pricks or things that would prevent people from sitting or laying down. And so, all of these things are just a way to further criminalize poverty. And as we know, these are the folks who are most at risk for being incarcerated and at risk for getting the fines and fees that keep them indebted into a system in perpetuity that [00:12:00] ultimately is never going to help them escape this cycle of poverty and this cycle of incarceration.
DERAY: You know, one of the interesting things about homelessness is that there are a set of myths out there that perpetuate the current set of things that people call “solutions.”
So, a lot of people who face homelessness either are also dealing with issues of poverty and or addiction. And there’s a conventional wisdom that says, you know, if you are dealing with addiction and your homeless, we need to get you in services around addiction. If you are dealing with poverty and you’re homeless, we need to make sure that you get those necessary services, like food stamps or things like that.
And while the services are really important right— like people deal with addiction certainly should have access to any treatment or services to get them off of whatever they’re addicted to and the same thing with poverty. But we know now is that a housing first strategy is actually the best strategy, that people make different decisions and are set up to make different decisions when they actually have housing.
So what you find with that service based approach [00:13:00] is that when you lead with services for people who are homeless or people who are housing insecure, they actually aren’t able to access those services as necessary, as frequently, as readily when they don’t have a home to come back to you, which, like, just makes sense.
So, when we think about the solutions to homelessness, it is about building affordable housing for people; it is about government housing for people. In most cities, the waiting list for a government housing is so long that people have been on it for decades. It also is about leading with an idea that housing should be the first good that we secure for people and that we should do it rapidly, that the quicker we get people from homeless to having a house, they actually are set up in the long-term to make a different set of decisions [13:43] and, shocker, that is cheaper than every other random solution that people keep throwing out like arresting people for being homeless and things like that.
SAM: So, my news is about California, which this past week passed Assembly Bill 32 [00:14:00], which bans private prisons statewide.
This is incredible because California will become the fourth state in the country that explicitly bans private prisons behind Illinois, Iowa and New York. And it’s also important because when we look at the national situation with regard to private prisons, we see the Trump Administration dramatically expanding the use of private prison and detention centers, particularly around immigration, and in the absence of anything helpful coming from the federal government on this issue, it has been largely up to the states to either reject what the Trump Administration is doing and take action on their own to address this issue, and California is the nation’s largest state is really showing leadership in doing this.
Statewide there about 2222 people incarcerated within private prisons in the state. There are four private prisons currently in the state that will be impacted by this, and, you know, I wanted to talk about this because it is an example of what states can do right now to address this issue while we continue to push—in this [00:15:00] presidential election and thereafter—for the federal government to take up the mantle on addressing this issue.
CLINT: So what’s interesting—and you might have heard us talk about this previously—is that the national prison population has kind of been gradually descending since 2009-2010 by a hundred thousand to a hundred fifty thousand, at least between 2009 and 2016. We’re still waiting for more data so we can have more information about the past few years. And there are several reasons for this decline: ongoing decreases in crime rates, which lead to fewer felony convictions; scaling back of the war on drugs and those policies; more interest in evidence-based approaches to sentences and re-entry; more concern across the aisle of the fiscal cost of incarceration. And so, when people hear that like, “oh, the population is being gradually descending. This is great, this is amazing,” it can make people think that like every single state across the country has been decreasing the prison population. That’s actually not true. There are lots of states across the country in which the prison population has increased. It’s just that the [00:16:00] state of California alone has been responsible for thirty-six percent of the overall decline in our prison population, which is a result of a 2011 US Supreme Court ruling declaring that California’s overcrowded prison system was unconstitutional, and thus it created a series of legislative responses that we use to reduce the state incarceration rate. And so it’s interesting. If you look at a graph that shows like how incarceration rates are changing throughout the country, it’s kind of like Oklahoma way up high or in a bunch of other states it’s increasing. But again, California, the state is so huge and has had such a huge prison population that a significant drop in their prison population creates a drop for everyone else and as we know and talk about private prison it’s still a pretty small proportion of the larger pie, but they’re also an incredibly insidious one. And so this is good news, and hopefully California continues to decarcerate and other states will follow.
BRITTANY: Closing private prisons is simply not enough. It is a step, but it is simply not enough. Less than [00:17:00] 112 of all incarcerated people in this country are currently being held in a private prison.
But as we’ve discussed on this pod many times, there is private interest in public prisons that continues to keep people beholden to the state. Groups like CoreCivic, the Correction Corporation of America, Geo Group, and others are the folks who make phone calls and emails. So expensive. They’re the folks who make commissary items so expensive. They’re the folks that make food that is not nutritious and sometimes inedible. There is private interest in public prisons that is affecting far more of the incarcerated population than the folks that are just being held in private prisons. So it is an important step, but I’m hoping that this continues to open up the conversation so that we could continue to push private interest out of the prison industrial complex all together. If we eliminate the possibility for profit, then we can have a very different conversation about how we hold people accountable and how we sustain people in their humanity, their dignity, and build strong communities.
DERAY: Around eight [00:18:00] percent of the prison population total is in a private prison. That works out to be about 15 percent of federal prisoners and about seven percent of State prisoners. The last time that the big study was done, in at least 28 states that incarcerate people in private facilities, eight of those states used private facilities to house at least up to 15% of the prison population, and Montana topped the list with around 38% of prisoners in private facilities.
Now, here’s the thing: is that people forget to like the end of private prisons does it mean that the people get free. Right? It just means that they go back to a public facility. But as we know with privatization in general, but certainly with private prisons, like the outcomes actually didn’t get better.
So I’ve seen some people defend private prisons, like, “you know it must have been hard, the government had to have a rationale.” The rationale was literally just paying companies more. The outcomes in private prisons aren’t better. It’s not like people commit less crime when they leave a private prison. If anything, the conditions are worse, the oversight’s worse; most of the things that people care about are actually worse, not better. So shout out to [00:19:00] California for doing this. I hope that this spreads to more places across the country. And remember, what’s important about the California bill is that it also means that ICE can no longer detain people in these facilities.
So shout out to limiting ICE’s ability to detain people because Trump has scaled up ICE’s detention efforts in a way that nobody could have even foreseen that he would do. So, let’s get rid of private prisons; let’s decarcerate in general. And I hope that CoreCivic, Geo Group, all these big groups—I hope they struggle and buckle financially.
DERAY: Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save the People is coming.
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[00:21:00] CLINT: So I wanted to bring a piece back from the 1619 issue in the New York Times which we spoke about broadly, but I wanted to bring up a specific essay that was written in there that I thought was really interesting. And so, it’s about sugar and the context of how we think about the United States contemporary relationship to sugar and how we sort of contextualize that in a sort of longer historical understanding of where and how sugar emerged. So, for context today, the United States makes about 9 million tons of sugar annually, ranking it sixth in global production. The United States sugar industry receives as much as four billion dollars in annual subsidies in the form of price passports, guarantee crop loans, tariffs, and regulated Imports of foreign sugar, which by some estimates is about half the price per pound of domestic sugar. So, this is a really subsidized thing. Louisiana, my home state, the sugar industry there by itself is worth more than three billion dollars and generates almost 20,000 jobs. Americans consume as much as 771 pounds of sugar and [00:22:00] related sweeteners per person per year, according to the US Department of Agriculture. That’s nearly twice the limit that the department recommends based on a 2,000 calorie diet. And so sugar is, you know, tied to obesity, it’s tied to folks having diabetes, it’s tied to heart disease, it’s tied to all of these different things most important to understand how sugar emerge as a global superpower and a superpower in the context of the US economy, and in my state of Louisiana particularly. So, in 1795, Étienne de Boré, who was a New Orleans sugar planter, granulated the first sugar crystals in Louisiana territory. Five decades later, Louisiana planters were producing a quarter of the world’s sugarcane supply and enslaved people were producing the vast majority of that. The enslaved population soared in Louisiana when people realize that sugar was such a global economic staple—it quadrupled over a 25-year period. And essentially, New Orleans became what Kahlil Gibran Muhammad, who wrote the piece for the New York Times, he calls it, New Orleans became the “Wal-Mart of people selling” [00:23:00] essentially. All this is to say that we can’t understand our contemporary relationship to sugar without understanding how the reason that Sugar became so plentiful in the United States and across the globe was because we brought in more and more and more enslaved Africans and black people from the upper South to the Lower South in order to produce this thing that is in almost all of the food we eat and sort of shapes the sort of global culinary landscape in many ways.
BRITTANY: I found myself struck by the statement that it was actually Christopher Columbus who brought over sugar cane stalks, which I knew, but you know, if Christopher Columbus had minded his own business, we might not be dealing with this problem. But even more than that, that prior to him bringing this over and enslaved people being made to produce sugar, it was considered a luxury item. Why? Because refined sugar was so back-breakingly difficult to produce that they could only produce it in small quantities, therefore you had to be wealthy enough to afford to use it. [00:24:00] But when people started to want to make it more massively available, they said “let’s have the enslaved folks do it.”
So I think it just bears repeating that it’s not just the fact that so many of the things that are central and cellular to what we experience as Americans is connected to the American institution of slavery. I also think we have to remind ourselves that all of the work that nobody else would do was given to enslaved people.
I was just struck in particular by that reminder that it was incredibly labor-some and back-breaking work and that people made the choice to exploit that labor for things that we use every single day.
SAM: So, two things. First, it’s really been wild to unpack the role that just basic spices played in fueling so much of the slave trade so much of colonization across the world.
The second thing that is important to remember is that a lot of these things are still happening today. [00:25:00] So, you know, when we talk about sugar, just last year they unearthed the remains of nearly a hundred people—black people in particular—who had died, really had been killed under conditions of forced labor, while they were being required to labor to produce sugar on a prison in Texas, in Sugar Land, Texas, which is near Houston.
And even today when you look at many of the plantations that were producing sugar, producing cotton in the Antebellum era before the Civil War and emancipation, many of those places today, those plantations have actually been converted to prisons where folks who are incarcerated are forced to do the same type of labor, in the same fields, to produce the same ingredients for people to consume.
So, whether that is we’re talking about Cummings prison in Arkansas, whether we’re talking about Angola in Louisiana, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, which used to be the Parchment Farm, which was a plantation in Mississippi. So, a lot of this is still happening and it’s happening under the guise of the system of mass incarceration in the United [00:26:00] States.
And you know, we’re still seeing folks doing back-breaking labor to produce sugar across the world in similarly exploitative conditions. So, you know, we need to be understanding the history so that we can be active in dismantling those structures today.
DERAY: What I was struck by was first this idea that something proceeded cotton.
I don’t know why growing up it was like cotton was the only thing I learned about as sort of the fuel of American slavery. I hadn’t learned about—and I guess I learned about tobacco little bit—but everybody was like cotton was the thing and to realize that sugar was actually the thing before cotton was really striking.
Also, I didn’t realize it :Tobacco had actually destroyed so much of the soil. So, there were huge lots of lands and plantations that like, cultivation of tobacco had just done real damage. So they needed to be some sort of transition, and cotton and sugar actually allowed that to happen. And then what I thought was really interesting is that cotton and sugar collectively actually allowed slavery to flourish. Before the cultivation of cotton [00:27:00] and sugar happened, there was an idea that, like, the marketplace around slavery was just on a decline, that, like, people were still invested in the racial politics of slavery: But what would the enslaved actually do? What would be the crop? And then cotton takes off, and then before that sugar. It really is—when people talk about the wealth of the country is created on the backs of black and brown people. That is so not hyperbole that it is frustrating that people take that as some sort of dramatic thing.
And I was in a car the other day going somewhere, and the driver (we were talking about the police) but one of the things he said this idea that, “like, you know, we can’t blame the police for all the ills in Black America.” And of course, this is a straight white guy older. So I respond to that. But then he follows up with like, you know, “people need to help themselves.” And I say to him, “name one group of people in American history who suddenly just have helped themselves, like who, no government assistance? Like name that group because I want to know.” And he just sat there silently.
And it’s like, whiteness in this country was helped [00:28:00] so dramatically by the government and by the history of enslavement that it is insulting when white people specifically say things like, “well, they just need to make better decisions.” Whiteness didn’t make a set of better decisions; they exploited other people. Like that just happened, you know, and there’s a legacy that still benefits from that today.
So my news is about an article that was in The Marshall Project called “What Gate Money Can and Cannot Buy.” So, “gate money” is the money that people who are released from incarceration that they get upon release, and again this matters because if the purported goal of incarceration is that people don’t reoffend, then part of people’s release should be setting them up so that they, you know, don’t actually reoffend.
So, there are about 600,000 people who are released each year from federal and state prisons, and experts say that the first 72 hours after release are the most critical in determining the decisions that formerly incarcerated people will make for the long-term.
So, a set of researchers reached out around gate money, the money that you get. Now, let [00:29:00] me just read this sentence to you, because I read it a million times, and was like, “okay, this is nuts.” At the highest end, California and Colorado provide $200 and $100, respectively. At the lowest end, people in Alabama and Louisiana often leave prison with as little as $10 or $20 in their pockets and people in states such as New Hampshire may leave with no money.
Now the high end is $200 in California, $100 in Colorado. The amount in California has not increased since 1973. The last time Oklahoma increased the gate money was in 1974 (in Oklahoma it’s $50) And I say this because there’s some people who are like, “well, why should we pay people for getting out of prison,” and it’s, like, if you were really worried about money, you wouldn’t incarcerate them in the first place because it is costing a gazillion dollars a day, a month, a year to incarcerate [00:30:00] people with so little services being rendered that it is not an investment at all. But if the goal is that people make different decisions coming out, it is, like, really simple to think that they actually need resources to make those decisions because they earned almost no money while they were incarcerated.
So, like you would ostensibly have to give them something. You know, some people use all of their gate money just going home, because a lot of places don’t even give you a bus ticket or train ticket. So, you know, you get $150, you get let out nowhere near your house, getting home is actually all the gate money you have, and this is just one of the parts of the system that people don’t think about; it’s a part of the system that goes unnoticed, unrecognized. But these are the things that people who work closest with issues of incarceration think about all the time because it really matters.
SAM: So, what’s interesting about reading this article, you know, when you say prisoners get this money, what a lot of people don’t realize is that the prisoners actually worked for this money.
Like, this was the money that they made working full-time, making, in most states, you know, less than a [00:31:00] dollar an hour—far less in some places, like four cents an hour, 16 cents an hour—saving up what little amount of money they could in the context of grueling prison labor to then get that amount deducted from their account to pay for this card that they get on release. And then on top of all of that, in many cases, the card itself has its own debit card fees.
So, if you are holding onto this card for longer than a certain amount of time, you could get charged, for example, $1.50 a day in some states just because you hadn’t used the card quick enough. So, while it’s important that we identify and look at what are we actually giving people upon release so that they can reintegrate into society so that they have the resources to start a new life and for re-entry, in many cases, this is operating as another component of an existingly exploitative system that gives people very little money, doesn’t increase that amount or index it to inflation, and then, on top of all of that, just tries to find new opportunities to take that money back through fines and fees just like [00:32:00] in the prison system and before.
BRITTANY: You know, I was on a panel yesterday at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual legislative conference about how the modern incarceration crisis impacts families. I was on a panel with a number of folks whose parents had been incarcerated or are still incarcerated, whose siblings had been incarcerated (my cousin has been incarcerated before) and having this conversation was a real stark reminder of some new research that has been put out by Forward U.S. What they discovered is that one out of every two black Americans is affected by the modern incarceration crisis.
That means that they themselves have been incarcerated, or that a loved one has, or is still, incarcerated. That is a staggering statistic, and when you think about the disconnection that the modern carceral system relies on, it’s impossible to get reconnected to folks who’ve [32:50] only got 10 or 20 dollars in your pocket.
It’s hard to get anywhere; it’s hard to connect with anybody. It’s hard to [00:33:00] get any of the things that you need to rebuild your life. Unfortunately, in a capitalist society, it takes money to make money, and no one is going to be able to build a sustainable and thriving life if they don’t have anything to start with. Sending people out of the doors with ten dollars or even three hundred dollars frankly is shameful, and it’s all deeply connected to the fact that people want to hold on to massive profits out of this system.
CLINT: One of the things that I appreciate that this article pointed out was the dignity of what it means for somebody to have enough money to buy themselves a meal or a home, or in the case of Eddie Kane—who somebody who got out of prison in Baltimore County Maryland, who they mentioned in the article—they said that his wife had supported him for more than a decade of his time in prison, and he took his money that he had at the release and how it was so important for him to be able to buy her a sandwich and some soup at Panera. And, you know, this is a [00:34:00] woman who supported him endlessly while he was incarcerated for years and years and years and years and for him, it was so important both as a gesture and as someone who is a human, who knows that the only way he was able to sustain himself on the inside was because of the sort of unceasing love of this person and of her generosity and of her patients, to be able to contribute to be able to give something to her when she given so much to him was so important in terms of grounding what their relationship would be like once he left. And I thought that that was so important that we don’t often talk about the sort of abstract things: the things like hope, the things like dignity, the things that are of value, the things that are so central to all of our lives in ways that when we create public policy we often forget because they’re not easily measured; they don’t fit nicely into an Excel sheet. But I think that those pieces of this conversation are as important as anything else.
DERAY: That’s the news.
Hey, you’re listening to Pod Save the People. Stay tuned! There’s more to come. [00:35:00]
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DERAY: And now my conversation with Paul Tough [36:23]. He joined me to talk about his most recent book, The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us.
We’re here with Paul Tough [36:33], everybody. The king of grit [36:35], the man himself, and now talking about college. Thanks for coming to Pod Save the People.
PAUL: Thank you. Great to be here.
DERAY: Did you teach?
PAUL: Uh, no, never been a teacher. Everyone in my family is a teacher but not me.
DERAY: You know, I first came around you because you wrote about the Harlem Children’s Zone. Then you wrote about grit [00:36:51], instead of teaching in classrooms. Classrooms weren’t the only focus of the book, because you talked to doctors and, you know, all these [00:37:00] other people. And now this will go a college where you like set and the Calculus class—like you did—it’s still sort of to me like a book about teaching, you know, or about the value of education. What has it been like to spend so much time in education and not have been a teacher?
PAUL: It’s, like, giving me a lot of appreciation for teachers. Yeah, I mean, I, you know, I feel like I’m a journalist, so I like believe in that idea that journalists can understand things that they don’t do—that you can like report on politics without being a politician, and you can report on sports that being an athlete. And so that’s the way I feel about education, and my goal is always been to try to cover whatever I’m covering from a lot of different angles at once. So, I definitely talk to educators here, but I mean mostly I talked to students for this new book. But you know, I also want to be able to talk to sociologists and economists and administrators and financial aid people and really try to get that whole picture.
DERAY: I do have a couple questions about grit 00:37:47]. I know we’re here about the new book though. The grit book came out [00:37:51] I think when I was in the classroom.
DERAY: I was working for the school system in [00:38:00] Baltimore then. What it did was that it made people believe this was real. Like, people had always thought about the non sort of hard skills as important, but then it was like in a book, as people were like, “this is real.” How do you think about grit [00:38:06] today versus when you wrote the book?
PAUL: Yes, so I wrote a whole other book trying to really understand my thinking about all this. I wrote another book called Helping Children Succeed that was a directed more for educators and practitioners, and I think the reason I wrote that book is that I felt like there was a lot about the way people were talking about how children succeed that didn’t make a lot of sense to me. I mean a lot of it was great. You know, I feel like I was pulling together all these different strands of research that all had to do with these non-cognitive skills, as they’re sometimes called.
So the stuff that I was most interested in was the research about trauma and stress, and how it affects kids, especially on this sort of biological level that affects them not necessarily cognitively but non-cognitively and how able they are to deal with stressors later on in life and that that seems really important in terms of understanding early childhood, in terms of understanding [00:39:00] neighborhoods, families.
The grit [00:38:58] research to me was sort of the most simple version of that, right? It was this idea that there was this one quality that you could measure with a simple test and that was the thing that defined whether someone was going to succeed or fail. You know, I think it’s interesting research. I don’t think it’s a hundred percent reliable research.
But I there was this way that that one study was the thing that got everybody’s attention. I think it’s sort of indicative of a lot of how we think about education—that like if there is a quick fix out there, we are going to grab it. And so even though we know the book was talking about like what I felt to be pretty deep systemic things about how did how kids get traumatized and how stress, like, affects our biology and what happens in like different sorts of classrooms and classes ,a lot of the coverage I felt like got boiled down to that.
So the third book, after The Harlem Children’s Zone book [00:39:41] and, uh, how children succeed, Helping Children Succeed, was about trying to explore this idea of environments. And so the thesis of that little book was that it is the environment that shapes young people’s non-cognitive skills, their grit [00:39:54], and everything else. And so rather than thinking [00:40:00] about it as a personal thing, like, “well, you’ve got grit you don’t have grit. You’ve got grit, you don’t have grit [00:39:58],” educators and parents and legislators and everybody else should think about the environments that they’re creating around kids.
That’s our responsibility—the adults, not the kids—and think about what kind of environments are most likely to help when it comes to those non-cognitive skills.
DERAY: Now take us to college. Why was college a part of the education experience that you wanted to explore in the new book?
PAUL: Because I think it has this huge role, bigger than it used to, in social mobility. And social mobility—this idea of, you know, young people to change their lives, reach another class, reach another kind of life as adults—has been something that has run through everything I’ve written.
It was what drew me to the Harlem Children’s Zone [00:40:40]; it was what drew me to a lot of the research on how children succeed. And what became clear to me in that reporting was that these years after high school were incredibly important in determining the trajectory that kids would have, especially kids who were growing up without a lot of money. And I just wanted to try [00:41:00] to figure out how to report on that.
I was also drawn to that particular time just, like, as a journalist because everyone I talked to who was going through this process, especially kids from low-income homes, whatever was happening, whether it was working or not working, their stories were fascinating. Like, they were trying to come to terms with themselves, and their past, and their future, and the systems that they were embedded in. So, the opportunity to just talk to a lot of young people in that situation was really appealing.
DERAY: Because you followed kids around, like, how did you understand school differently? Because it is a different world than when you were a student; it was a different world when I was a student, when I was a teacher. You know what I mean? Like, what was, what was that like?
PAUL: I mean, it’s just so much more intense. There’s just so much more pressure. I mean, the high income students who I wrote about—especially the ones who are the students of this $400 an hour SAT tutor in Washington, D.C., who I reported on—I mean, they had all kinds of advantages, right?
It was hard to feel too sorry for them. But in fact, like, their lives were super stressful, their adolescences just seemed really, like, cramped and constrained; all they were thinking about was this one number and [00:42:00] this one question: where they were going to go to college?
But for low income students as well, there was just this amazing pressure of, like, “figure it out, do the right thing,” but so little support and so little information about what they should actually do. I don’t think that was true for me.
DERAY: You write about the difference between the experiences of kids and families who, like, they always thought they were going to college, they da-da-da-da-da [00:42:18], and the kids who didn’t necessarily want to go to college, but realize that they might have limited options with regard to social mobility if they didn’t go to college, and kids with those experiences might end up at community colleges. What did you find about the difference between the way either the world treated them or the structures were set up to help them succeed?
PAUL: Well, I mean, I feel like low-income students in both of those situations, we’ve created a lot of obstacles for them, but they’re different obstacles, and I think it’s useful to think about them separately. So, you know those like super high achieving kids who are applying to the most selective institutions? There are all kinds of [00:43:00] obstacles for them. It’s just a whole lot harder to get into those schools if you don’t have a lot of money than if you do. It’s harder to afford tuition. It’s harder to afford, you know, the SAT tutoring that helps rich kids raise their scores. But everything, like the sports that you play, everything that admissions officers of those schools look for correlates with family income and family wealth.
So that’s one set of obstacles. But then there’s this other group of students, who I think we pay less attention to in part because their narratives are sort of less clear and neat but whose experiences from a policy point of view are much more important partly because there are so many more of them. And these are kids that, yeah, who don’t particularly like high school, right? And in the past, a few decades ago, it was clear that if you don’t like high school, when you finish high school, you should stop going to school, right? You should get a job where you work with your hands and support a family. And then the economy changed, and it is extremely hard to do that now.
And I feel like this is sort of one of the big changes over the last few decades that we have not wrestled with, you know? It’s behind all sorts of political movements that we want to [00:44:00] tell folks from that background like, “oh, there’s still lots of good jobs out there, there’s still lots of options for you,” and not say things have changed. And when we do say things have changed we put all the pressure and all the responsibility on the students, on the young people and say like, “okay, you need some kind of college degree; you figure it out, you pay for it, you get it.” Whereas in fact, you know, the idea of, like, public high school—when it was invented a century ago in this country—was we, as the public, are going to, for free, provide you with the education that you need in order to have a middle-class life, and then if you want to go beyond that, it’s up to you.
We should be doing the same thing now, but it doesn’t stop at high school if we want to do that.
DERAY: I do want to ask you about community college because you talk about—and we know that, not high graduation rates, not a lot of resources. Did you come out of this experience thinking do we abandon community colleges and try something else?
Like is it, you know, I say this because especially in the left right now, it’s like “free college,” but it’s like if we give you free access to something that just doesn’t work, is that even like a [00:45:00] good. Do you know what I mean?
PAUL: Yeah. There’s this really interesting paper by this economist David Deming who’s trying to figure out, like, where we should put money: if we’re going to spend more money on higher education, what would be most effective in terms of helping more people get degrees and graduate? And I think about it a lot because of this talk about, like, making college free, and basically his argument—uses, you know, the complicated tools of an economist, so I can’t tell you if it’s true or not—is that every dollar spent on just making a college better is a better investment in those students than giving the money to students for tuition.
What’s striking is that we’ve done the opposite, right? So, especially with community colleges, but with all public universities, we have cut per student funding adjusted for inflation since about 2001 by 16 percent, right? So at this moment when all of the signs in the economy are that young people need more education, we are cutting significantly the amount that we spend on public education.
And so, on one level, like, of course our community colleges are not graduating students, right? Like I mean, there’s all the problems that the students are bringing to community college, but mostly it’s like, well, you know, we spend [00:46:00] fifteen thousand, twenty thousand dollars a year on a high school student, public high school student, and then they get to community college and we’re spending like four or five thousand dollars a year on them.
So, it’s not as good an education. You know, I hate to just say, like, “throw money at the problem,” but, like, we should throw some money at the problem, right? That really is just a question of resources and I feel like both on the left and the right there has been this sense that the graduation rates are terrible, right?
So there’s this sense that, like, community college is just a disaster and we should just get as many kids as possible out of community college in into something else. But to me, the answer is just to make community colleges better. They are a great solution. Like, to me, they are the best solution that I can think of for what ails our higher education system because so much of the problem is young people getting out of high school not quite knowing what they want to do and knowing that they need some more education and then trying to figure it out while spending a ton of money and borrowing a ton of money and going into debt, and community college, if they were well run, would be what it was intended to do, which is have [00:47:00] options for people who want training and like skilled labor, but also have options for kids who want to do a couple of years of basic liberal arts education and then take that to, you know, Bowden or somewhere else and get a great degree for basically half the price. That is exactly what it should do. And if it takes like three or four years instead of two, it’s not the end of the world because you’re gaining skills and self-knowledge and you’re not going into a ton of debt.
DERAY: Now someone could read this book and say that we probably need to fix admissions, that the admissions process might be broken. Do you think it’s broken in a way we can fix? And do you think it has to be as wild as it is? And I ask that because I was a tour guide and did all this stuff, and I saw up close and personal what it means that so many people apply to one place that only has a fixed number of seeds. How do you vote down 10,000 applications to 400 seats, right? Even the best version felt like an impossible task.
PAUL: I think it can change. I think it can get better. I think it partly has to do with the [00:48:00] will on the part of some institutions, especially the most selective and the wealthiest.
But you know, like, one tier down at private nonprofit institutions that are doing pretty well, but don’t have like a huge endowment. You know, well, I spend a lot of time reporting at Trinity College, but I think any sort of, like, Northeast liberal arts college, a lot of those are in some significant financial trouble now. They are not making money hand over fist. They don’t have endowments like Ivy League institutions. A quarter of four year nonprofits are losing money now each year.
DERAY: A quarter?
PAUL: A quarter.
PAUL: I know! it’s kind of scary. It’s certainly scary for them. And I think they don’t want to publicize this because they want to seem, you know, you want to seem strong if you’re if you’re getting students to go to you.
There’s a chapter in the book where I hung out with admissions people and it really changed my perspective. I had spent the first part of my reporting talking mostly to students who are applying to college and most of the pressure has to do with money. Even that question—like, “how do we choose the best students from this incredible group?”—like, that is a hard enough question, but that is not the only question that they’re asking at [00:49:00] many of these colleges. They are really asking, “how do we get enough tuition money?” They need to, you know? These institutions, most of their income comes from tuition. And so, of course they have to take students who can pay, and a lot of the pressure to keep their colleges afloat comes from tuition.
And the way that tuition is sad, and the tuition discounts are sad, has become unbelievably complicated. There are these predictive algorithms. It’s called “financial aid optimization” There are these outside firms that almost every college contracts with who tell the admissions people, “for this particular student, here’s how much of a discount you have to offer him or her in order to get them to come to your school.” And so, they have these enormous spreadsheets where they’re trying to figure out, “who do we have to admit in order to get the class that we want, but also get the income that we want.”
DERAY: That’s wild.
PAUL: It is wild; it is crazy. And I feel like nobody knows this, right? students who are applying, families who are applying, really don’t understand it. And I feel like colleges are invested, both on a personal level but also on an institutional level, on this idea that it’s, like, [00:50:00] it’s meritocratic, right? That they’re really choosing just the best students.
And again, that’s hard enough, right? But the reality is really different. And so, if we want to change admissions, it is possible, but it is hard because there is this, are these real financial pressures.
DERAY: Now let’s talk about standardized testing. So, someone can read your book and also come out with, like, “probably SAT, ACT—not the best thing when we think about equity,” even though the College Board has been pretty insistent that the SAT is, like, you know tool that helps equalize and level the playing field. What was your experience in writing the book?
PAUL: I reported for six years and then, and that gave me this opportunity to watch certain things develop over time.
And one of them was this whole campaign by the College Board to change—I would say, their perception, they would say their actual role—in the process of college admissions. And it started, yeah, back in 2013 with this new president, David Coleman, who I think genuinely was concerned about the fact—that has been true, basically forever—that the SAT [00:51:00] gives an advantage to students who already have a lot of advantages. I mean, when you look at the data, it’s pretty clear SAT scores correlate really strongly with family income, and that’s more true than is true for grades. And so, choosing a class based on who does best in their high school in terms of their grades will get you a more socioeconomically diverse class then choosing students based on their SAT scores.
So what happened during these years, it’s like, it’s not like they SAT became less of a tool for equity than it was a few years ago, but I felt there was this real disconnect between what I was hearing in terms of the public statements of the College Board about a variety of different interventions, and then when I looked sort of under the hood that the data that they were citing or not citing, a lot of these interventions didn’t really seem to be making things different.
My complaint, you know, is not so much about what’s changed about the SAT because basically not much has changed in terms of its role of admissions. My complaint is about the rhetoric and how the rhetoric has changed. And I think the rhetoric is important because [00:52:00] if the message is getting out there that the SAT is not really a tool for inequity but as a tool for equity, I think that misleads people in a way that is really important, and I think that if an admissions person is trying to have a realistic sense of what advantages different students have, they need to know the reality of the SAT.
DERAY: Has your reporting change the way you are a parent? Because your ten-year-old was born right around the time the first book came out.
PAUL: Yeah, exactly. So, yeah, it totally did! So, I, in How Children Succeed, in the very first chapter, I read about this experience of going to an Early Childhood Program like a few days after my son was born and this experience of sort of watching these kids and thinking about him.
So it’s a little bit different now in that I—I mean, I do have, like, 529 savings programs for both of them, which like, every time I would come back for one of these financial aid meetings, I would be like, “maybe let’s just make it, like, ten more dollars into this, into those 529s.”
DERAY: Are you looking for, like, growth mindsets in classroom? I don’t know, like?
PAUL: I know. [00:53:00] Sometimes, I mean, I feel like I would not want to be my kid’s teacher because I’m just, like, know too much of the lingo. I mean, I think actually the reality—and I feel like other education people I’ve talked to have said this—like, when it comes to your own kid, you’re just getting to, like, “parent mode,” and so you’re not really able to judge what’s working and what’s not working, at least that’s true for me.
But in terms of college, I mean, I feel like I go back and forth in terms of what I want for them and college, and I feel like what I want is probably going to be irrelevant anyway, and they’ll do whatever they want. You know, there’s research in the book that’s pretty clear that going to one of these most exclusive and selective institutions really pays off; it really does matter. And so there are moments when I’m reading that research and I’m like, “okay they got to just start the SAT prep now.” But then there are other moments that, like, especially the time that I spent at the University of Texas, which is a very selective institution, but less selective and differently selective than Ivy League schools.
And it just feels better. It’s like more like the kind of experience that I would hope that they would have in college, where the really are like people from a lot of different [00:54:00] experiences. There really is a lot of different things going on campus. It does feel, like, integrated into at least the state and society more than some other institutions.
So, you know, I got eight more years to change my mind, but right now that’s sort of where I come out when I think about their experience.
DERAY: one of the final things I want to talk about is you Mr. T, the calculus teacher.
PAUL: Ah, Ory Transman [00:54:13]. Yeah.
DERAY: Yes. I asked about Professor T because it seems to me again, this story about the power of teaching to change the, like, to change opportunity, that like we can do all this stuff at the institution level, but like good teachers actually matter.
It was sort of my (probably biased as a former teacher) take away. I’ll just leave it at that, open ended. Is that, like, the take away from the story about you shadowing the calculus class—that, like, good teachers actually can change the field?
PAUL: So Ory Transman [00:54:41], he’s this really remarkable guy. So, he, he’s in his early 70s, been teaching calculus forever, he’s very good at it. But he is also has this other role: he runs this thing called The Dana Center at UT that is involved in math education [00:55:00] policy at all different levels, you know, community college and K-12 nationwide. And so, I feel like Ory [00:54:55] actually has strong feelings about that question, and he doesn’t want his story to be about him being a great teacher, right?
He really wants it to be about “there are these systems you can put in place; anybody can do this.” However, when you watch him teach, that’s not the way it feels, right? It does feel like he’s an amazing teacher, and there is something about watching a great teacher teach that is just remarkable. And I don’t think it is, like, he’s one of a kind. I don’t think he’s irreproducible. And in fact, he spends a lot of time training other TAs and other professors and sending them out into the world. But I think he wrestles with it all the time. Like, obviously a system that depends on superstar teachers is not going to be a system that can really create big broad social change.
And so, he’s concerned about that, and he should be. But to my mind there is also something about watching somebody teach—and teach the way he does, so caring about the math, but also caring about the psychology, the emotional state of his students, their sense of belonging, their sense of themselves—[00:56:00] that is inspiring on a lot of different levels. And you know, so I’m not a teacher, so you might have a different experience, you know, like this is how I could teach differently. But for me, it just more gives an image of, like, this is what college could be, this is how we could think differently about who can succeed and what it would take for institutions to help those students succeed.
DERAY: What do you want people to take away from the book?
PAUL: Well, I think what I want them to take away is something to do with that— something to do with that idea of like what higher education is and what it’s for.
I feel like some of the book, after spending a lot of time talking to 18 year olds and up talking to a 95 year old—this veteran of World War II named Patrick Faye who fought in the Battle of the Bulge and then went to college on the GI Bill. And, you know, the GI Bill era was complicated and all sorts of ways; it wasn’t a completely equitable system. However, it represented this moment—and he I think sort of lived this out—where as a nation, we were more invested in our collective public education, and at that time, especially for the first time, our collective [00:57:00] higher public education, and we’ve just retreated from that in all kinds of ways, and there are political reasons for that and economic reasons for that.
But just the idea that, like, higher education should be something that we are in together—that you know, your kid’s education benefits me the same way that my kid’s education benefits you—and that used to be, I think, a widely held belief, and it is less so, and I don’t know if we’ve created it or someone’s created it for us. But it’s a system now where we think about higher education as being completely about competition, you know? That my job is just to look after my kids and I’m going to elbow your kids out of the way in order to get there.
It’s not fair. It’s not good. It’s not Democratic, but it’s also not accurate. There’s just no question that if we want the country to thrive we need more young people getting more and better higher education. I think the change has to exist on that level. I mean, I think there are lots of good policies that we could pass that would make things better, but I think it really is a change of mindset that got us into this problem and it would be a change of mindset that we get us out.
DERAY: So last few questions are questions we ask [00:58:00] everybody. One is: what’s a piece of advice that you gotten over the years that’s stuck with you?
PAUL: Uh, so this is advice that I got as a journalist from Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, where I used to work for, and when I was starting reporting I was, like, it’s kind of embarrassing to say it now, but I was often scared to talk to people, like to go.
It just seems incredibly rude to just walk up to someone and start asking them all sorts of questions. And I was telling him that at one point, and he was like, “you got to be kidding me,” you know, “if you’re gonna be a journalist, you just have to go up and not be embarrassed and ask the questions.” And I thought about it a lot with this book, with this reporting, in part because, you know, I was asking some intense questions.
I was asking people about their families, about their pastors. I was talking to a lot of students who were different than me and all kinds of demographic ways: racially, in age, in class. And so, I feel like there’s a way that we, or at least I, tend to pull back in those moments and be like, “I don’t want to ask the difficult questions.” But I really tried to push myself with Ira’s advice ringing in my ears to ask [00:59:00] those questions and, you know, obviously ask them, like, respectfully and fairly and honestly and listen carefully to the answers. But I feel like that is what made the book that I’m proud of is being able to ask those questions and listen to those answers.
DERAY: And final question is: There a lot of people in this moment who have done everything they were asked to do: they emailed, they called, they went to the rally, they testified, and the world has not gotten better to them. What do you say to those people?
PAUL: Yeah, it’s a hard time. I mean I wrestled with that a lot.
I mean, there were a lot of moments where I would sort of lose heart when I was doing this reporting, where things just seemed like they were not going to change. I don’t know if this is relevant to everyone in that circumstance, but like, asking for help really makes a difference. Maybe both my answers are the same thing: like, just be honest and talk to people and say what you how you feel and listen to them.
Maybe that’s my theme in life. But I feel like, for everybody, like, being able to just ask for help and not feel like—I mean, you know, get ready to have people say “no,” that’s okay—but like, asking for help it just it makes [01:00:00] you feel better, it makes things better, it makes their lives better sometimes too, and it’s a hard thing to do, but it’s an important one.
DERAY: Boom. Thanks for coming to Pod Saves the People.
PAUL: Thank you very much.
DERAY: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning in to Pod Save the People this week. Tell your friends to check it out. Make sure to rate it wherever you get your podcast, whether it’s Apple podcasts or somewhere else, and we’ll see you next week.