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Weekly Q&A: UNLV’s Ranita Ray says the socioeconomic ladder is getting harder to climb

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A question of class: UNLV sociology professor Ranita Ray is an expert on poverty and its effects.
Photo: L.E. Baskow

Las Vegas is a long way from the Himalayas, where Ranita Ray grew up in a boarding school close to the Nepalese border. But poverty is universal, and studying it is Ray’s specialty.

The UNLV assistant professor of sociology, who is originally from Calcutta, India, landed in Las Vegas in August after more than two years immersed in a Connecticut inner-city community learning about youth poverty.

We talked with Ray about her work as an ethnographer, upward mobility, the working poor and why school isn’t always the great equalizer.

What will you be researching in Las Vegas? Right now I’m writing a book. The path that my research will take will depend on the kind of access I get. I was drawn to the idea of studying homelessness—homeless youth, the social construction of homelessness. I might spend some time in schools.

Why schools? Social conditions, economic and global forces change every day, so we’re constantly in need of identifying these mechanisms that are at work at school—school being this institution portrayed as something that levels out the playing field.

School is the equalizer? It is one of the places where they can really attack class inequality and give students opportunity for mobility. But, on the other hand, scholars argue that school is actually the place where class structure is reproduced, a place that actually reproduces class inequality. It’s a very interesting debate that’s very close to my heart. We have a lot of quantitative work saying that even your third grade math and science scores are linked to your parents’ income.

The American idea is that anyone can break out of his or her class. The possibility of actually making it is disappearing in the U.S. The bootstrap is a myth. It’s becoming increasingly impossible to break out of your class.

Why? Disappearing public assistance, terrible health care, the rate of representation of the poor and lower class in college is very, very low. We all know schools differ from neighborhood to neighborhood. If you grow up in a middle-class family, you end up going to better schools. You have better schools, better books and better teachers. On top of that, you’re also getting a lot of lessons at home. You’re not having to fight hunger or bad schools or bad neighborhoods, so you already have so many advantages.

Critics argue that the poor are lazy. A lot of us like to stick to the mobility myth, including those who are actually disadvantaged by it, just because of the way that we understand things historically. Recent research in Europe showed that 85 percent of people believe that poverty was a result of social conditions. But most of us in the U.S. believe it’s because of individual conditions. Does upward mobility not happen? Of course it does. There are people who overcome the odds and the obstacles. In my dissertation, part of what I’m trying to understand is: How does someone overcome the obstacles? It does happen. But the people who overcome the obstacles are not the norm.

What are some of the obstacles? There is a book by Annette Lareau called Unequal Childhoods. It really shows these interactions at home that we think do not matter and how they actually cumulatively end up influencing your social mobility. It’s not just about how much money your parents have. Other things come with money, like cultural capital, the people you know because your parents know them, the kind of language your parents use and the kind of tuition they can give you.

Have you studied middle-class attitudes toward poverty? There are a lot of studies. It’s a very complicated but very interesting phenomena. It’s race, class and gender. For example, back in the day, the Jewish folks and the Italians folks lived in similar kind of ghettos that Latino and black folks live in now. They were then used as scapegoats to tell people that they’re the reason why we have various social problems like crime and poverty.

Same situation, different communities? People are made into scapegoats. It’s being said now that poverty is black and Latino. Back in the day, the Jewish and Italians were the people taking the harder, menial jobs that were the dangerous and the factory jobs, yet you have this myth that they’re the lazy ones.

How do you argue against that? These things are socially constructed. Most poor are working poor, who work more hours and still can’t make ends meet. There are people working 80 hours, but minimum wage is not enough. There’s always a line between race, class and gender. You also have sexism. You have women paid less for the same jobs than men. The corporations benefit by paying women less than men for the same job.

Other ideas to consider? We’re all growing up in the same system around the same values because most of our value comes from media. So what seems very individual is actually very structural. Miseducation about poverty is also a product of our structure.

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Kristen Peterson

Kristen Peterson joined the Las Vegas Sun in 1998 as a general assignment reporter. In 2003, she turned her focus ...

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