Ranita Ray

Changing the Script on Poverty

Assistant sociology professor Ranita Ray says black and brown youth are not social problems and their futures are worthy of investment.

Editor's Note

: Ranita Ray will be speaking at TEDxUNLV, a day-long conference June 22 drawing speakers on myriad topics from campus and beyond. 

For many, the mention of urban poverty brings to mind images of young people of color at risk of drug use, gang activity, gun violence, and teen pregnancies — images often bolstered by pop culture, policymakers, and some scholars.

Yet economically marginalized black and brown teens are no more likely to engage in these risky behaviors than their wealthier peers, according to Ranita Ray. The UNLV sociology professor says the millions invested in drug, gang, and pregnancy prevention programs could be better spent on educational enrichment and practical support services.

Ray published her research last year in the book, The Making of a Teenage Service Class: Poverty and Mobility in an American City, and plans to make her case in a TEDxUNLV presentation on June 22.

“Nonprofits and schools were investing so much time in solving social problems that they were taking away resources from what the kids needed to do well in high school and college,” she said.

“Instead of enrichment programs and support addressing real-life challenges, they got nonviolence and ‘say no to drugs’ training and teen pregnancy prevention.”

Ray spent three years conducting an in-depth ethnography of impoverished youth in a Northeastern American city. She found that despite working multiple jobs, going to class, caring for younger siblings, and delaying parenthood, many of the youth still found themselves in low-wage, dead-end jobs.

Government programs, community organizations, and even schools focused squarely on risk prevention failed to address practical needs, including transportation, housing, and access to healthy food and health care.

When policies, intended to challenge poverty, start with a premise that black and brown kids are social problems that need solving, they actually end up perpetuating race and class inequalities, she says. “When you’re coming from that place, you’re not working to change the structure or to create a system where the youth are really allowed to climb up.”

Ray believes grassroots activism can make a difference. In 2012 she co-founded a youth-led organization in Connecticut dedicated to changing educational and social policies that negatively affect young people of color.

Ray hopes to show the TEDxUNLV audience why the narrative about urban poverty needs to change. “I’d like to be able to change a few minds beyond this ‘at risk’ discourse, to be able to think of black and brown kids as kids with hopes and dreams like anyone else.”


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