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A portrait illustration of Jamila Michener. Rebecca Clarke for Vox

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Jamila Michener knows that fighting poverty means fighting for democracy

The Cornell political scientist is doing groundbreaking research on why marginalized people’s demands are often ignored.

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Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

The fights for racial and economic equality in the US have always been deeply interlinked. For decades, one of the nation’s leading civil rights leaders was A. Philip Randolph, the founder and leader of the country’s first major Black-led labor union. The March on Washington in 1963, where Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, was formally titled the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. After the passage of the Civil and Voting Rights Act, Randolph, King, and their comrade Bayard Rustin pushed for a “Freedom Budget,” an expansive spending program to reduce poverty and secure economic gains for workers of all races.

Political scientist and Cornell professor Jamila Michener is one of the most brilliant heirs to this legacy currently working. I met Michener at a conference three years ago, and spent much of the flight home reading every article of hers I could find. What unifies her work is a desire to examine social programs like Medicaid or food stamps from the bottom up: as they’re used and experienced by citizens, and as they shape how those citizens view their role in American democracy.

Her book on Medicaid showed how the sharp inequities in that program’s benefits from state to state place huge burdens on participants, particularly Black and Latino participants, and deter them from voting or participating in politics. Her main data set? Interviews with dozens of beneficiaries speaking for themselves about their experience with the program. Other work of hers takes a similar lens to the “motor voter” law requiring states to offer voter registration to people using government services. Some states comply more than others, and she finds that this has big implications for democratic participation.

But Michener is wise enough to know that her findings are not just details about Medicaid or Section 7 of the National Voter Registration Act. Her work indicts the broader structure of American federalism, and draws into question common theories about American politics. Political scientists have long viewed “policy feedback” as a key force: If seniors get Medicare for years, they become invested in the program and fight for its preservation and against cuts. But policy feedback, as Michener notes in another paper, varies by race and income: Not only do people on the margins generally have less voice, but the burdens of oppressively complex safety net programs reduce their voice still further.

Among other things, this observation helps explain the death of the expanded child tax credit in 2021. Policy feedback from the low-income, mostly nonwhite people who benefited most wasn’t enough to save it.

And if I may be so bold, I’d argue Michener’s work has international implications, too. Yes, her work is rooted deeply in peculiar American institutions. But it speaks broadly to the task of developing equitable policies in multiracial societies characterized by institutionalized prejudice. That’s America — but it’s also Western Europe, and much of Latin America, and beyond.

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