Jamila Michener is an Assistant professor in the department of Government at Cornell University. Her research focuses on poverty and racial inequality in American politics. More specifically, her work explores two overarching themes: the conditions under which economically and racially disadvantaged groups engage in the political process, and the role of the state in shaping the political and economic trajectories of marginalized communities. Centering on these concerns, her research has been supported by the Ford Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
What was the initial spark that made your write Fragmented Democracy: Medicaid, Federalism and Political Inequality (forthcoming, Cambridge University Press)?
Initially, I did not know much about Medicaid. But a few things fortuitously converged during the tail end of graduate school to spark my interest. First, I had great advisors who encouraged me to remain open to pursuing leads that emerged during my dissertation research. So, when the people I was interviewing for my dissertation mentioned Medicaid without prompting from me, I took notice. I ended up including one chapter about Medicaid in my dissertation and I wanted to do more. But I recognized that my limited knowledge of the program would prevent me from studying it more thoroughly, so I resigned to putting off further research until I was better equipped. Luckily, I had the chance to make that happen when I did a health policy post doc with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The post doc gave me the time to invest in a realm that I knew little about and the resources to begin interviewing Medicaid beneficiaries across the country about their experiences. My ideas were quite nascent, but the book began to take shape during the post doc and slowly developed from there.
As a Black woman researching and writing on disadvantaged groups does your identity inform how you present and talk about your work?
Absolutely. To begin with, I would not study what I study were it not for my own experiences growing up in low-income neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens (NYC) as the child of working class Afro-Caribbean immigrants. Some of my most formative political moments involved personal encounters with racial discrimination, poverty and inequality. Those experiences left an indelible mark and fueled an enduring interest in understanding how marginalized groups can exercise power in the context of formidable systemic constraints. Honestly, I have been passionate about such issues since childhood. I brought that passion into my undergraduate education and it is (in part) what motivated me to pursue a PhD. In graduate school, I was fortunate to have the support and example of Cathy Cohen, one of the most inspiring women in academia. Cathy pushed me to think broadly and theoretically and to embrace multiple methodological approaches. Perhaps most valuably, she inspired me to hold on to the deeper commitments that led me to graduate school in the first place. Now, as an assistant professor, I continue to do just that. Everything from the research questions I select, to the theoretical lenses I bring to bear on those inquiries is compelled by my resolve to center the political lives and concerns of economically and racially disadvantaged denizens. The issues and people I study matter deeply to me. They reflect the lives, concerns and experiences of my friends and family, the people I grew up with and the folks who live in communities like those that I lived in for much of my life. This is why I often frame my work in terms of what is at stake for real people’s lives—that’s what makes me tick.
You’ve been very active on social media – which you have used as a platform to discuss issues of concern to faculty, people of color in the discipline of political science, and minority women – how has new technologies proved useful in expanding the “ivy tower”, exposing implicit bias, and expanding who gets included in the conversation?
This is a great question, but a tough one. I was reluctant to delve into the world of Twitter for quite some time. I started an account and barely touched it for over a year. I was intimidated, skeptical, scared and everything else that most people probably feel. Ultimately, I decided to enter the fray out of a desire to reach a wider audience, to expand my sphere of influence, to learn from others and to connect with communities beyond those that are immediately proximate to me. All of this has happened. In fact, I have been pleasantly surprised by how many people have been brought into my orbit because of Twitter and how much I have learned from engaging on that platform. Social media and the new technology that has enabled it is no panacea, it comes with a host of serious limits and problems. But my own experience leads me to believe that it also presents important opportunities to have conversations, forge connections and amplify voices that would not be included in national conversations otherwise. Twitter is also useful in helping me hone my craft as an academic. I have learned a ton by observing how scholars translate their work into terms that are legible on a platform that restricts you to 140 characters. Such translation is not always successful (or even beneficial) but it is important nonetheless. Pushing myself to tweet about my research and connect it to ongoing policy discussions has been generative and productive as far as my scholarly development is concerned.
What projects are you working on next?
A bunch of stuff! Fun stuff too (if you are a nerd like I am). One of my smaller scale projects includes research on the political determinants of racial poverty disparities in the American states. A medium sized project (that I am working on with Jake Haselswerdt from the University of Missouri) involves a study of the effects of instituting “personal responsibility” requirements as a condition of Medicaid enrollment. Looming most largely is my next book project, which I am very excited about. This work will examine the political causes and consequences of civil legal representation (or lack thereof) in the United States. Women, especially women of color, are disproportionately reliant on civil law to protect themselves from things like illegal evictions, domestic violence, illegitimate withholding of public assistance benefits, unscrupulous lenders and so much more. Civil law shapes domains that are crucial to economic stability and equality. Civil legal representation is thus an important marker of political status and a potentially powerful purveyor of inequality (economic and political). Political scientists have devoted limited attention to this topic. My next book will do just that. With the Legal Services Corporation on the chopping block as per the latest federal budget proposal, this topic is more important than ever. I should note—going back to a question you asked earlier—that I first became aware of the importance of legal services when I did an internship (in my home town of NYC) at Queens Legal Services during the summer after my junior year in college. That internship brought me into contact with many people from my own community who had deep needs. Legal representation could not meet the most profound of those needs, but it curbed the excesses of inequality and injustice that low-income people of color in NYC experienced daily. And it was literally a lifesaver at times. I never forgot that. Now I get to study it. I am happy to have that chance.