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UC-AFT Member Spotlight--Sasha Abramsky: The American Way of Poverty

Author of The American Way of Poverty, Nation Books September 2013

In your book you talk about affordable higher education as a solution to income inequality and poverty. How do you envision us achieving affordable higher education when the trend is the opposite?

Well, the first part of my book paints a portrait of poverty in modern day America. The second part of my book is about solutions. And one of the core aspects of this is in higher education.  Amongst my proposals is a new line in the tax code that would pre-fund college through an educational opportunity fund.  This would, initially, be funded through a .25% payroll tax deduction on employees and employers, which over the course of about a decade would scale up to 1%.  By allocating, at birth, each American child $5,000 to be invested in education accounts for use eighteen years later, we could generate about 20K for each student. At 1%, I estimate that a system such as this could ultimately pay the vast majority of most Americans' college expenses.  In using the principles of social insurance, we would make higher education far more affordable for Americans, in the same way as social security makes old age far less financially precarious.  

Another benefit of this plan is that if an individual doesn't go to college, the money that gets deducted would be added to their social security earnings, thus bolstering the retirement income of many of America's most vulnerable seniors.

How does your writing career influence your teaching, and vice versa?

I teach in the Writing Program at Davis.  My professional writing really helps keep me fresh, it helps in working out methods to impart to students, what it takes to write well and, eventually, to write good books. I get to share all of this with my students. And vice versa, working with students has a similar affect on my writing, helping me hone my own writing instincts as I explain narrative methods to my classes.  I also teach freshman seminars on poverty.  In those seminars, I have a lot of working class and immigrant students, students whose own families are directly impacted by many of the issues we discuss.  My classes are packed, and a lot of these students are actively working on poverty issues.  There's very good feedback loops there.  I learn from them, and they learn, I hope, from me.

You've written books on our culture of incarceration and some of the societal costs of locking up all these people. Do you see a correlation in the rising costs of our prisons and the declining funding for education?

Yes.  California is the epicenter of this.  If you look at the graphs of spending obligations over the last 25-30 years you see two lines going in opposite directions. Prison spending has gone way up, and over the same time period higher education spending has gone way down.  If you look around out there, there are some really creative anit-crime initiatives that would be cheaper and more affective.  People like Kamala Harris, California's Attorney General, and David Onek, who recently ran for San Fransisco D.A., have ideas about this.  The policies that got us here, they haven't worked.  It's not a question of whether we're going to be tough on crime or soft; rather, it's a question of whether we're gonna be smart on crime, or stupid.  Stupid is way more expensive. Stupid, as in trying to incarcerate our way out of societal problems, is a terrible anti-crimes strategy; it costs a fortune, saps money from higher education, and all-but-guarantees that more people end up trapped in poverty.

As a member of our union, UC-AFT, what do you think about the role and importance of unions today?

In an era of uncertainty, about pensions, about healthcare benefits, about wages, and about social opportunity, having a union protect one's interests is something very valuable.  As the interviews in my book show, those without union representation are particularly vulnerable to having risk shifted onto them from their employers.  Historically, unions have helped millions of workers weather economic storms.  Their role today ought to be as important as it was in decades past.

The American Way of Poverty will be published by Nation Books on September 10.