Stacia Martin-West is fighting poverty in her own way.
Having grown up just outside of Knoxville in Oneida, TN, Martin-West got her Bachelor’s degree in women’s studies and philosophy from UTK. After getting her Master’s degree from the College of Social Work, Martin-West practiced social work through “community-based research around homelessness and housing availability in the area.”
Through this research, Martin-West found that she wanted to focus her efforts on poverty alleviation and how altering structures of the market economy can help.
“I realized that the key issue was around finances and poverty for most people,” Martin-West said. “A person experiences homelessness typically because they don’t have friends and family for support.”
“Because there are structural inequalities in place in our market economy, when certain people suffer from mental illness or substance abuse or something like that, then they are going to move into homelessness because of those structural issues.”
Martin-West’s interest began way before she started practicing as a social worker. Towards the end of her undergraduate years, she read Sharon Hays’s “Flat Broke with Children,” which follows the stories of single women transitioning to a new version of welfare after the reform in 1996.
“What (reading the book) did for me was sort of help me confront a lot of the internalized biases that I had about people in poverty. There are a lot of narratives that they are taking advantage of the system and that sort of stuff,” Martin-West said. “Reading that book pretty early on in my life made me think really critically, that these women are fighting really hard and are really smart with their money and those sorts of things, so that confrontation internally kind of led me into thinking about social work and what I wanted to do.”
Now as an assistant professor in the College of Social Work in Nashville, TN, Martin-West conducts several studies aimed to look at poverty levels in different settings.
In the past, she looked into cash transfers from the Dolly Parton My People Fund after the 2016 Gatlinburg fires to analyze the role of cash transfers in poverty alleviation.
Currently, Martin-West is working on a study in Stockton, CA, where 130 families are being given $500 per month to see if this cash transfer is disrupting income volatility, affecting health outcomes and impacting their free time. The project is a collaboration between Mayor of Stockton Michael Tubbs and the Economic Security Project, and has garnered the attention of significant figures like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg.
“Too many families and Americans are trying to piece together multiple jobs and incomes and aren’t able to make ends meet,” Martin-West told CNN last week.
Along with the Stockton Project, Martin-West is also conducting studies looking into wealth and equality for women of color and older adults’ access to legal services.
However, Martin-West’s passion for poverty alleviation doesn’t stop with her work.
Recently, Martin-West launched a campaign for JJ, her formerly homeless neighbor.
Angie Stackhouse, Martin-West’s neighbor, met Martin-West when they were getting ready to approach JJ and described her as “so accommodating, smart, generous and motivated to help in any way possible.”
“(Martin-West) has done the majority of the work, taking time to build a friendship with the man, and advocating for him as if he were family,” Stackhouse said. “She has sacrificed so much of her personal time to help others, and it has deeply touched me.”
Martin-West and some neighbors approached JJ after seeing him sitting outside in the rain and soon found out that JJ was in need for not only a home, but also a medical attention for diabetes. Just after a day, the GoFundMe page Martin-West and her neighbors had set up raised more than $1,800.
“Whenever I think about homelessness, I think about how there are so many people in this world who are one paycheck away from that situation, because they don’t have friends’ or family support,” Martin-West said. “My personal view when I see a person who’s out in the street clearly experiencing homelessness is that in whatever place they are, they are our neighbor, and my approach to building a friendship with him was very similar to that I would build with someone who lives across the street from me.”
Shortly after the campaign started, JJ was successfully moved to a hospital, a short-term facility and then eventually to an assisted living facility.
“From that foundation of 'we should regard those people as our neighbors, not if they live in a house or outside,' we decided to turn to our community, our UT community as well as our neighbors in East Nashville and we were able to very quickly get him into a facility,” Martin-West said. “I’m really lucky to live in a tight-knit community.”