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Illah Nourbakhsh: How our Structural Barriers Reinforce Inequity

I am sitting in the stimulating p4 conference, co-sponsored by the City of Pittsburgh and The Heinz Endowments, and appreciating the way in which, for instance, the national equity advocacy organization PolicyLink talks about defining equitable development in terms of positives — in terms of opportunity richness, health, anti-displacement, arts and culture. I agree 100 percent. But my experience on the ground is different. What I see through our work creating a small company in South Oakland that hires only local labor is something else entirely. I see all manner of structural barriers that reinforce inequity. This is what I am most frustrated with day to day, and what I fear will be the thousand cuts that distracts from the aspirational stance we often like to take.

So, just from personal experience, what are these structures that are enforcing inequity? They are each somewhat small, but each insurmountable today. They aren’t glamorous to solve, but I think they need to be so much more part of the conversation than I have witnessed here because they tear at the chances every resident has to move toward a better place. A thousand prosaic cuts — but these are what have really rocked us in South Oakland daily, and these sorts of details have to make it into the conversation, somehow.

A few examples:

Work legality – No social services employee can explain to a resident just how many hours the resident can work, part time, without losing their benefits, their child services, their food stamps. Our only solution was for us to hire counsel who could suss out the incredibly complex rules so we can hire people in a way that doesn’t destroy their livelihood with a letter from Uncle Sam in the mail.

Vision – So many folks want to work but simply have no correction for their vision problems seeing close. We tried using local optometrists, and it was a disaster. They overcharge, and they think they own the prescription, locking you into insanely expensive glasses. Our only solution was to buy a $200 vision testing kit ourselves, find the right correctives ourselves, then help residents order bespoke $39 glasses over the Internet, from sites that don’t require official prescriptions. What a game-changer, to see rather than argue with One Hour LensCrafters.

Banking – We have never found a solution to having folks get paychecks from us, deposit them, and safely get the money back out without crazy amounts of losses. There are so many forms of economic Jim Crow around banking, from liens for prior debts to payday cashing disaster schemes. The only way to solve this is to be a cash house: provide paychecks, then cash them immediately and provide bills. We have to provide local credit unions now.

Water reconnections – A resident cannot pay their water bill one month. The water company cuts off water and, to make it far worse, when the resident wants to reconnect after saving up and paying the debt, the water company charges a $300 reconnect fee that no one can afford. That’s easily six months of water loss. This structurally and regressively taxes exactly the folks who are on the margin of being able to pay. We have to solve this. Today, we deal with this by providing a loan that everyone is ashamed of.

Health and nutrition mentorship – Cooking and nutrition habits are not small but huge issues. I see weekly how balanced food can be part of a nutritional mentorship that changes how people feel. All day.

Transportation – In a low-income community, when there are disasters (Grandma needs to get to UPMC Monroeville, etc., etc.) there is a massive lack of transportation solutions. Today, we end up providing emergency transportation services because these are no other options. The utter lack of critical-time transportation services has a massive impact on quality of life all the time. It’s yet another regressive structural barrier.

Just a few examples.

Illah Nourbakhsh
Professor of Robotics
Director, CREATE Lab
Carnegie Mellon University