Janie‘s Janie. Directed by Geri Ashur, Peter Barton, Marilyn Mulford, and Stephanie Palewski. New York: Third World Newsreel, 1971. 25 minutes.
Primetime: Fighting Back against Foreclosure. Directed by Jennifer Fasulo and Manauvaskar Kublall. New York: Third World Newsreel, 2009. 23 minutes.
The Homestretch. Directed by Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films, 2014. 89 and 53 minutes.
Relational Poverty in the United States: Intersectional Explorations of the Intimate and Structural Articulations of Poverty
Exploring poverty through an intersectional lens, each of these three films reviewed here follows subjects whose lives are shaped by structural forces producing impoverishment and who act and resist their own marginalization within such processes.
Primetime features the stories of Martha and Karen, who each give voice to the human side of the “subprime mortgage crisis” and share their struggles against exploitative lending practices and attempts to foreclose on their homes. The film moves between these two women’s homes and stories, and intersperses explanations of subprime mortgages, redlining, and secondary mortgage markets, which are provided by nonprofit based experts and legal advocates working with homeowners. The explanatory segments demystify subprime loans and foreclosure crisis, while simultaneously drawing out the predatory practices of an under-regulated real estate industry, which largely target women and people of color. The homeowner advocates lay out the ways in which subprime mortgages serve as a “workaround” to bypass laws that eliminate redlining, thereby maintaining the marginalization of people of color, and particularly women of color, both geographically and socio-economically.1 At the same time, Martha and Karen’s experiences humanize the story and showcase the resistance and agency of women exploited within the systemic production of (racialized and gendered) poverty.
Taking us back a few decades to the early 1970s, Janie’s Janie explores the intersections of class and gender through an intimate portrait of one woman’s struggle to reclaim her self-worth and to extend her consciousness into building the collective resistance of working-class women. Janie’s story reveals the ways in which welfare systems demonize and demoralize the poor. Yet, her realization of self and of community insists upon the value and the humanity of poor people. We see this depicted in the film’s accounting of emergent alliance building in social justice organizing—as Janie reflects on her own internalized racial prejudices and works to unite a community of women based upon shared economic hardship and struggle. This depiction of Janie’s words and life avoids romanticizing motherhood, poverty, or struggle. Moreover, the film reveals the staying power of narratives of “welfare mothers” and “entitled” poor people, as Janie describes how these ideas circulated in the 1970s and how they become internalized by working class women devalued through patriarchal and capitalist logics. As a result, the film offers an excellent example of the significance of “the everyday” in feminist theorizations of power and inequality, which effectively showcases why exactly the axiom “the personal is political” gained traction during this period.
While both Primetime and Janie’s Janie provide relatively short introductions to their topics (about 25 minutes each), The Homestretch offers a more extended exploration of the lives of homeless youth, adding depth to the film’s broader interrogation of homelessness.2 The three youth featured in the film—Roque, Kasey, and Anthony—as well as the many other homeless youth who speak from sites such as a temporary housing units and an emergency shelter, offer embodied examples of multidimensional subjects of poverty whose lives are constrained, but not entirely contained, by structural forces. The film also features several people who work to serve and support homeless youth in schools, nonprofit settings, and even their own homes in the case of Roque’s teacher, who herself was homeless as a teen and welcomed him into her family. The care and respect these adults show and voice for the youth work to centralize the humanity and value of these people, who have been criminalized and discarded within socio-economic systems that largely blame them for their own exploitation. Adding another dimension of analysis, The Homestretch provides statistics on youth homelessness and depicts the ways in which poverty intersects with racism, homophobia, and gender for the three main subjects.
Through the juxtaposition of personal stories and the structural factors that make youth, and especially youth of color, more vulnerable to homelessness, the filmmakers effectively blur the ideological line between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor—featuring fully developed (and thus imperfect) individuals who make mistakes and make due, but are care-fully represented as valuable regardless of their imperfections. This evokes compassion and empathy while also rejecting the narratives that either depict homeless youth as helpless victims or dehumanize them as deviant threats to social order. This documentary is at once heart-wrenching, enraging, and inspiring.
These films each offer a complex perspective on poverty, particularly highlighting gender and race as hierarchies and systems of power that make people more vulnerable to impoverishment and are simultaneously reproduced through economic exploitation. All three explore both intimate lives and structural factors, and work to humanize poor people as agential subjects despite being depicted often as deviant, dependent, or criminal in mainstream US society. Effectively teaching about poverty intersectionally requires historicizing the issues at hand and showcasing the ways in which poverty and wealth are relationally produced.3 The work of scholars and activists in the Relational Poverty Network offers several avenues for such explorations of contemporary US and global inequalities. Coupling one or more of these films with relational poverty scholarship and with additional popular press readings—such as Paul Krugman’s New York Times column, “Why Inequality Matters,” or Ta Nehisi Coates’s article in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations”—will provide students with a critical take on the production and maintenance of intersecting inequalities in the United States, one that debunks discourses that blame the poor for “their” poverty and that explores the dynamic tension between the operation of structural forces and human agency.4
1 Redlining—a term coined in the 1960s by sociologist and community activist John McKnight—refers to the process and practices of denying services (such as loans, insurance, or health care) to residents of certain areas. The justification for these actions, both direct and indirect (through selective price raising), typically relies on the idea that there is a higher “risk” in providing services in poorer areas. However, redlining targets people based on racial and ethnic makeup and is a form of institutionalized racism that further marginalizes poor communities of color in the United States.
2 The Homestretch is distributed by Bullfrog Films.
3 See, for example, Ananya Roy and Emma Shaw Crane, eds., Territories of Poverty: Rethinking North and South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015).
4 Paul Krugman, “Why Inequality Matters,” New York Times, December 15, 2013, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” Atlantic, June 2014.