What spending five years on Skid Row taught this sociologist about the American Dream

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Forrest Stuart, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, spent five years on Skid Row, a neighborhood in Los Angeles known to house one of the highest populations of homeless people in the country, researching for a book that sought to test the "American bootstraps story."


"I had this idea," Stuart said. "Let's go see if Americans really can live up to this ideal narrative that we like to tell our third graders and our kindergartners and our high-achieving and even low-achieving high school kids: 'If you try hard enough you can do anything you want!' And I was like, 'Well, let's go see if somebody who's fresh out of prison, let's go see somebody who's just been evicted, let's go see somebody who's maybe just recovered from a cocaine addiction. Let's go see if some of these people actually can pull themselves up by their bootstraps.'"

Stuart, 34, spoke with Fusion about his experience writing his book, Down, Out and Under Arrest: Policing and Everyday Life in Skid Row (you can read an excerpt here, courtesy of Mother Jones), and the ways police and policymakers can work to eliminate the criminalization of poverty.


The following interview has been edited and condensed.

What were your primary takeaways from your time on Skid Row?

I'm trying to take a stab at figuring out three things about the current, massive expansive of policing, prisons, and criminal justice: trying to explain the historical causes, what are the real-time contours for the people that are doing them and those who are experience them, and then, the kinds of future implications and suggestive kinds of consequences. So how does this stuff change peoples lives? I focus a lot on the policing side.

Since the '90s, we've seen this massive, massive historical expansion. One, of police forces and two, of police intensity and aggression. We've switched from this reactive model of policing to a proactive model of policing, where cities are literally sending out cops to drag a big net across poor communities, usually poor black and brown communities, to put people up against the wall.

To either catch them in the act, or catch them right about to do the act, or, as I've shown in my book, to try and change their behavior, to try and harass them so much that folks will maybe eventually not want to be poor anymore. As if being poor was a choice.


If this type of hyper-aggressive policing has been going on since the 1980s and it's systematically shown to play a major role in sustaining high levels poverty, then why are these tactics still implemented by police?

There are two big reasons why this is still the case: The first big reason, and it's wild because it's based on an erroneous finding or assumption, is that when William Bratton brought this technique to New York, crime went down. Everyone looked around and called it the New York miracle. They looked around and said, 'Oh wow! This thing that Bratton is doing, cracking down on homeless people and people selling loose cigarettes, this must work and bring down crime.' There's this theory out there called "broken windows" that argues that you could do this. If you crack down on all kinds of disorder and infractions then people will get the message and stop committing crimes. If you focus on the small crimes, it will bring down the big crimes.


It turned out that in employing this theory during Bratton's tenture, New York's homicide rate dropped precipitously after a couple decades of continuing decline. He looked around and touted this as successful evidence for his tactic. The problem was that crime went down all over the country, sometimes at the same rate. But crime rates dropped across the country even in places where this wasn't being implemented. And now in hindsight we've had a slew of criminological studies show that now, in fact, Bratton and this policy were not actually responsible for driving that down. In fact, it's been one of the biggest mysteries in the social sciences and certainly in criminology of trying to explain why the hell crime went down.

There are all kinds of crazy theories out there, but the more sensible ones have to do with the decline and disruption of the crack market. The drug economy was really driving a lot of these homicides and a lot of the crime. Well, crack loses its hold on the market and we see a lot of other drugs come up that have a lot of the same selling practices and violent social orders that come around them. It's really hard to tell what brought it down. But the first reason why we're still doing this stuff is because people still genuinely think that this stuff reduces crime despite the academic evidence that just keeps showing up over and over.


The second one, I think it's just that people have—I think it's really easy to maintain our pervasive notion that the poor are lazy, immoral, criminal, that they don't want to do good, that they don't want jobs or to live in nice housing. It's the 'welfare queen' logic, that they just want to sap off the system, have lots of babies, and sit around in their house shoes.

There's just a really pervasive notion in America that poor folks who are predominantly black and brown are lesser human beings. So I think that when people are faced with a choice—do you either send the police after them with their guns and batons, or do you make it easier for them to get jobs and get social supports and affordable housing?—I think that Americans choose the former. They choose the police.


From your perspective, what do you see as a more humane and effective alternative?

The sad truth that I know a lot of people don't want to hear, and I have to say as a sociologist, is that we have to revive the social safety net. I think we have to take lessons from key moments in the past. In both of our post-war periods, the American people and American leadership said, 'Hey, let's create serious job programs. Let's create better housing subsidies, let's protect people from the market. Let's protect people from the ebbs and flows of the free market.'


We adopted the Keynesian, social protectionist policy where we looked at the worst off folks and said, 'Oh, maybe you're in your social and economic position not because you're immoral but because this market is a hard thing. It's a beast, and only some people can live. But we still that it's not right that you have to suffer.' I think we have to go back to those days.

Unfortunately, that's a big ask right now. If anything, with every year we move further and further into the realm of, 'Hey, let the market decide, let the market sort it out. Privatize everything.' As long as we do that, as long as we rollback the role of social workers and affordable housing and jobs programs, we'll have nothing left but the police in this shortsighted manner to solve poverty.


Are you optimistic that we'll be able to return to that place?

This is where the pessimist in me comes from. I think the latter doesn't even quite do it. These piecemeal policy solutions aren't going to get us there whatsoever. It's going to take a fundamental, ideological shift in the way that we do things. And it looks like we are not headed that way.


I mean, I think it's an American Dream for a reason. I think that it's a nice narrative for a reason. But I think that, picture a generation and go talk to a poor black and brown folk and they'll also be pretty skeptical of that. Of the American Dream.

I agree, but it's not a fun perspective to take.

It's not, man! It's not, it's not. It makes us so angry, right?

Michael Rosen is a reporter for Fusion based out of Oakland.

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