Poverty Solutions student tackles ‘flawed’ American narrative of poverty

December 19, 2019

Above: Poverty Solutions Research Assistant Kalena Thomhave (left) interviews Stephanie Land, author of “Maid,” on Oct. 28, 2019, at Rackham Amphitheater as part of Poverty Solutions’ 2019 speaker series. (Lauren Slagter)

By Lauren Slagter, Poverty Solutions, lslag@umich.edu

ANN ARBOR – Kalena Thomhave wants to challenge your assumptions about poverty. 

In her article for a new “Poverty Next Door” series, Thomhave — a master’s student at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School — combines academic research, data, and people’s personal stories to push back on some of the inaccurate stereotypes associated with people who live in poverty. 

The series, which was co-published in December by Microsoft News and Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity, explores the “perceptions and realities of poverty in America today” by highlighting the experiences of veterans, people who identify as LGBTQ, people who are disabled, college students, and minimum-wage workers struggling to achieve financial security. 

Read the Poverty Next Door series

Screenshot of Kalena Thomhave’s article for the “Poverty Next Door” series from Microsoft News and Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity.

Simply put, the narrative that Americans tell themselves about poverty is badly flawed,” Thomhave writes in the article, which she hopes will prompt people to reconsider their assumptions about poverty. 

Thomhave, a 27-year-old Florida native, finds that writing allows her to translate an academic understanding of poverty issues into stories for the general public.

She completed undergraduate degrees in political science and English at Louisiana State University five years ago and went on to work as an Emerson National Hunger Program fellow and a writing fellow at The American Prospect.

This fall, she enrolled in the Ford School’s Master’s of Public Policy program and also works as a research assistant at Poverty Solutions, a university-wide presidential initiative that aims to prevent and alleviate poverty through action-based research. Thomhave is contributing to Poverty Solutions’ research on what Detroit residents say would promote economic mobility in their neighborhoods. 

In this Q&A with Poverty Solutions, Thomhave shares why she started writing about poverty issues, what drew her to U-M’s public policy program, and how the idea of the American Dream influences our society’s understanding of poverty. 

How did you get started writing about poverty issues?

KT: I’ve always been interested in economic justice, poverty, and inequality. Throughout school, I was working on those topics in academic research and community work. When I graduated, I was thinking I was going to go into policy research. Then I started writing for popular publications about some of the research I was doing.

I think it was then that I realized there is power in being able to translate the issues that are really only talked about in the Ivory Tower to the public who maybe doesn’t have time to think about these things all day, like I do, and are socialized to think about people in poverty in a certain way. That’s especially true if it’s writing that focuses more on the lived experiences of people who have actually experienced poverty and economic instability.

Why did you want to study at the Ford School?

KT: The focus on poverty and social policy was a major draw. Poverty Solutions was a draw. I also think it’s important to support our public institutions, and I like that it’s a public school. I think public policy offers the best way to find solutions to our social problems, and I wanted more of a practitioner’s degree outside of an academic degree. 

Your piece for the Poverty Next Door series explores the origins of some stereotypes related to people living in poverty. What do you think are some of the main misconceptions about poverty? 

KT: I hear it so much it feels almost cliché to bring it up, but there’s the idea that poor people are lazy and none of them are working. Or that people are poor because of the bad choices that they make. Those are the problems on the surface, but we can really look back at the root causes. And I think a big part of that is the narrative that we tell ourselves as Americans — that this is the land of opportunity. … The American Dream is a real thing that people still believe in, even though the experiences of most people, as well as the statistics, show that it’s not really something that’s achievable for a lot of people. 

The other side of it is that when we do see these statistics, people try to explain them away. That’s where you see the welfare queen stereotype and the stereotype that people are poor because they’re lazy. Because if you don’t have these explanations, then you just have the broken American Dream. 

What do you hope people will take away from this series?

KT: I just hope people who haven’t really thought about this issue will think about it more with things that they read and things that they see on TV and people that they meet. 

I’ve gotten more feedback for this story than for any other story. I think it’s because it’s more of a mainstream audience, and a lot of the work that I’ve done in the past is specifically for people who are looking to read about policy and politics and probably agree with me. The response has mostly been positive. Some people have gotten very defensive. Obviously they would, because if you imply that people can work really hard and still not be able to find stability, you’re also implying that some people don’t have to work to succeed. I think a lot of people might get defensive about that. Obviously we don’t have equality of opportunity in this country, but that also means you’re saying something about the people at the top. 

You have experience in academic research, you’re studying public policy now, and you have journalism experience. How do you see those areas of expertise working together to shape the public’s understanding of poverty? 

KT: You need the research and the data and statistics alongside stories. It’s sad, in a way, that people won’t be moved by seeing the hard numbers of how many people are in poverty and how many people are struggling. But they need to feel connected to a story. … At the same time, people deserve to be able to tell their stories. That is, I think, a real power of journalism.