Let him tell it, Chris Busbee is sure he could’ve gone pro in football or basketball, maybe both.
Instead, Busbee was staring down the barrel of real life before he even graduated from Ben Davis High School. Some told him college was out of the question with three children, and he believed them. That’s one of his only regrets.
Now a father of five, Busbee, 25, makes $13.50 an hour as a chef at Chili’s and pays about $900 a month in child support. It was closer to $450, but he’s behind. He had a better job at a warehouse before but was laid off because of the pandemic.
“It’s hectic,” Busbee said, and the pandemic has only made things worse. “Every day you have to wonder what’s about to happen. Head gotta be on the swivel.”
Busbee loves his children — no regrets there — and gets them during the summer. No excuses either, he said, because that won’t help anyone.
Rent is $625 a month at his two-bedroom, one-bath duplex by Riverside Park, though some months Busbee’s faced with the choice of paying rent or keeping the utilities from getting shut off. His landlord is lenient enough, so utility payments it is.
“It takes a toll on you,” he said. “It’s a lot of days, sometimes you don’t want to leave the house.”
In parts of Indianapolis where African Americans make up most of the population — Riverside, Martindale-Brightwood, Arlington Woods, etc. — the poverty rate reaches as high as 40%, according to data from Indy Vitals. Nationally, the poverty rate for Black Americans has declined steadily to just under 19%, though that’s still twice that of Asian and white people.
Where poverty is prevalent, so are other problems.
A faulty system
Poverty and crime often go hand-in-hand. According to Esri, a software that collects crime data internationally, people living in poverty in the United States are more than twice as likely to be the victim of a violent crime. Further, someone living in poverty is more likely to commit certain crimes, such as burglary, because their basic needs are not being met.
Even for crimes, such as marijuana possession, with less disparities between high- and low-income individuals, however, living in poverty increases one’s risk of getting wrapped up in the criminal justice system.
Researcher John Rowling found lower-income neighborhoods, particularly predominately Black low-income areas, are more policed than wealthier communities. In some cases, police stops in low-income neighborhoods occur 10 times the rate than in upper- or middle-class neighborhoods.
Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears said income also impacts representation in court — including if they’re able to afford a quality legal team — and can often determine whether a person is prosecuted or not.
“A lot of prosecutors are using a faulty system,” Mears said. “A case-by-case approach is best when you’re deciding who should be eligible for bail and who needs to remain in jail.”
And in Indiana, prison is big business.
As of 2019, 15% of Indiana prisons are private, meaning the facilities are operated by a third-party company and receive a stipend from the government based on the number of inmates it houses. According to prisonpolicy.org, Indiana’s incarceration rate is greater than the national average, and more than five times higher than the United Kingdom. Of the 25,876 people in state prison, 37.5% are people of color, with Black Hoosiers being incarcerated at almost five times the rate of white residents.
‘I want to get out of this environment’
Look at a map that shows where the poorest neighborhoods of a city are, and it’s a good bet you can also figure out which neighborhoods face higher crime rates, worse health outcomes, lower educational attainment and so on.
Verdell Berry is familiar with the cycle.
She lives near 16th Street and Sherman Drive in a neighborhood where more than a third of homes are housing-cost burdened and the poverty rate is 34%, according to Indy Vitals. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, housing-cost burden means at least 30% of household income goes toward the cost of housing.
Exacerbating issues related to poverty is the fact that poverty has become more concentrated recently, according to analyses from the Brookings Institution, which found the number of census tracts with a poverty rate of at least 40% climbed nearly 75% in the first 12 years of this century.
Berry, 42, rents a duplex, has two children and goes to Edna Martin Christian Center, where she’s working toward her high school diploma.
“I want to be able to get out of this environment and try to get into better housing,” she said.
Berry still sees hope, though. She’s four months into getting her diploma and wants to train people in customer service skills. The key to succeeding in an environment that makes it difficult, she said, is for people and organizations to rely on each other.
Upholding the pipeline
We often think of poverty as an adult situation — paying bills, working enough hours to make ends meet. However, children aren’t immune to the effects of poverty. A lack of access to food and resources not only impact a child’s grades, but their futures as well.
Studies conducted by FutureEd, a think tank based at Georgetown University, found economically disadvantaged students have lower levels of academic achievement than their peers, as well as fewer opportunities.
Students in low-income schools have less access to accelerated programs and are significantly less likely to be offered courses such as calculus and physics compared to students in wealthier schools, according to the Indiana Department of Education.
Further, schools in neighborhoods with a high concentration of low-income households are less likely to get the resources they need to help students achieve. These neighborhoods typically have less local tax revenue to funnel into education.
A lack of academic success can lead to cyclical poverty — a lower level of education can limit jobs and opportunity to garner economic security. However, the level of education one receives can also impact experiences with the criminal justice system.
A 2018 study from the Bureau of Justice found 80% of men in state or federal prisons around the country do not have a high school diploma.
Breanca Merritt, chief health equity officer for the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, said having “realistic discussions” with students about their post-academic life can help decrease the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Essentially, if children and teenagers feel they have opportunities to succeed, they are more likely to stay in school. Career centers, where students can be trained in programs such as cosmetology and culinary arts, offer certification so students can be ready to work upon graduation.
However, a proposed state budget approved in February by the Indiana House of Representatives would cut funding for many career centers, potentially leaving thousands of Hoosier students without programs that could keep them in school.
‘A child not having access to clean air and water is violence’
Beyond lack of food access and shelter, people living in poverty are also less likely to have access to clean air and water. In Indianapolis, environmental issues are worsened by practices such as coal ash contamination and factory farms throughout the state. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ranked Indianapolis as the fifth worst city in the United States for air quality.
On March 15, members of the Poor People’s Campaign — a nonpartisan group advocating for the rights of poor people in Indiana — gathered at the Statehouse to bring attention to issues Indiana residents living in poverty face, including environmental injustice.
Rev. Fatima Yakabu-Madus of Christ Church Cathedral, a member of the Poor People’s Campaign, said poor Hoosiers have been “subjected to ecological devastation” for far too long. Yakabu-Madus called on Gov. Eric Holcomb and the Indiana General Assembly to follow guidance from the Hoosier Environmental Council and work to get the state’s air and water quality up to the EPA’s recommendations. Currently, Marion County’s air pollution levels are 19.3% above the EPA standard.
A 2018 study from the Urban Environment and Social Inclusion Index found that low-income neighborhoods around the country are more likely to “bear a disproportionate share of environmental burdens,” including unsanitary water supplies and living conditions.
In Indianapolis, an outdated sewage system and heavy rainfall often lead to sewage being released into neighborhoods before it reaches a sewage treatment facility. While Citizens Energy Group is working on a solution in the form of a $2 billion underground tunnel project, neighborhoods most affected by this sewage overflow are predominately Black and lower income. The current sewer system can overflow over 60 times a year, leaving residents susceptible to E. Coli and salmonella.
“A child not having access to clean air and water is violence,” Yakabu-Madus said.
‘Within capitalism, there’s a lot that’s possible’
A goal as expansive as eliminating poverty — or at least making it so no one stays in poverty — predictably comes with a plethora of ideas. Raise wages, nationalize health care, provide a basic income, increase funding for neighborhood centers, implement a job guarantee, cancel student loan and medical debt, and the list goes on.
The bad news: Capitalism requires a class of have-nots, and economic inequality — whether measured by income or wealth — continues to widen in America.
The better news: America doesn’t lack the resources to help people.
“Within capitalism, there’s a lot that’s possible,” said Derek Ford, a member of the local Party for Socialism and Liberation.
What most seem to agree on is the country’s current approach to poverty — limited direct involvement from government with an emphasis instead on philanthropy — is inadequate.
“Philanthropy has a place,” said La’Toya Pitts, CEO of Christamore House, a neighborhood center on the west side, “but … our state and city hasn’t done a great job of using resources to make sure people’s basic needs are met.”
The solutions may not have to be as complicated as it seems. ODI, a global think tank, analyzed data from 30 countries that have adopted a cash transfer program — giving people money — and concluded such programs not only reduce poverty, but also raise education attendance and create more economic independence.
“One of the clearest results to emerge from this review,” the authors wrote, “is just how powerful a policy instrument cash transfers can be.”
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick. Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848 . Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.