Austin conjures two parallel images in America’s popular imagination: Glowing descriptions of a “cool,” fast-growing city for the “young and creative” known for internationally famous musical events and Formula 1 racing compete with portrayals of increasing socioeconomic inequality and residential class, racial and ethnic segregation.
But like many U.S. cities and metropolitan areas, wealth and poverty are booming alongside each other — a thriving, highly unequal technopolis — magnifying the effects of social insecurity and reconfiguring the cityscape. Austin now enjoys the worrisome privilege of having the highest level of economic segregation of any large city in America.
New exclusive areas of prosperity emerge, while deprivation forces others to the urban margins where environmental risks and poor-quality housing, schools and public services prevail. In times such as these, socially produced forms of suffering take on exceptionally alarming features.
Sight — what we see and we don’t see about a city and its residents — has a politics, It is part of a power struggle. If civil society is going to have a serious debate about inequalities and their effects on livability, we should start by seeing this city in a different light. We must begin to recognize socially and politically those who remain invisible in public view and thus marginalized in policy debates.
As social researchers, we set out to make the other side of Austin visible and to examine the subjective experience of socially and politically produced suffering. We try to call attention to the ways in which individuals, alone or in groups, make sense of and cope with these inequalities — sometimes in ways that contribute to the perpetuation of these inequalities, as when folks blame themselves for a predicament that has unequivocal structural origins, and other times in ways that challenge extant arrangements, as when they insightfully describe the political and economic origins of their precarious conditions.
The study of social suffering takes a particular relevance in the context of neoliberal governance in the U.S., under which most previous forms of protection are being swiftly dismantled (i.e. welfare benefits, employer-provided health care coverage, traditionally defined retirement pensions, etc.).
The record shows, time and again, that left to their own devices, market forces will exacerbate extant disparities and that decisive state intervention is needed to address the causes and manifestations of increasing social, economic and spatial divides and inequalities.
Structural inequalities that spur individual suffering can be ameliorated through policy changes. For example, Seattle is raising its minimum wage to $15 over the next several years. California legislators rolled out a sweeping package of enhanced protections for undocumented immigrants, bolstering California’s reputation as a national leader on immigration policy.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered emergency measures to investigate the health hazards and wage thefts endured by thousands of nail salon workers uncovered in a recent New York Times investigation. And here in our backyard, plans are underway for a 27-acre, master-planned community to provide affordable, sustainable housing for people in Austin who are chronically homeless.
This is a matter of deepest urgency. If we want Austin to be a livable city for all, nothing should be left off the table in a frank conversation about potent and determined state policies — from the kind of protections and “best practices” that organizations such as Workers Defense Project have long been advocating (protection of workers’ rights, sanctions against wage theft, etc.) to massive affordable housing programs and policies that challenge glaring inequities in public school funding, neighborhood infrastructure and safety, and access to adequate health care and living-wage jobs.
In order to foster the political will necessary to enact these sea changes in policy, Austinites must first learn to acknowledge the suffering they usually do not see in their midst — and acknowledge that this individual suffering has structural causes that can be changed.
Javier Auyero is a professor of sociology at The University of Texas at Austin. Caitlyn Collins and Katherine Jensen are Ph.D. candidates in sociology at The University of Texas at Austin. They are authors of the upcoming book “Invisible in Austin: Life and Labor in an American City.”
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin Amercian Statesman.
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