“Attack my data, attack my analysis, but attack me? You don’t know me,” said Frank Gunter, professor of Economics, regarding responses to his video, titled Kitchen Table Talks 3.
Every quarter, Gunter writes a 700 to 900 word op-ed. Lehigh University’s College of Business asked him to turn his most recent op-ed,“Three Myths About Poverty,” into a short video, prompting the third “table talk” of Gunter’s video series.
The video, which was posted on YouTube by Lehigh University College of Business on Jan. 29, has since been taken down from the school’s channel due to significant backlash.
Lehigh’s media relations director Lori Friedman said the video was taken down to allow time for the concerns to be reviewed and to invite those in the Lehigh academic community to participate in the conversation.
“As an academic institution, we welcome public discourse and discussion. We affirm the right of the faculty, as well as other members of the community, to express their viewpoints and engage in a respectful and open exchange of ideas,” Friedman said.
Since the video was posted, both Gunter’s op-ed and his character have received hundreds of critical comments, most of which have been posted in comment sections on student-run Instagram accounts such as @dearpwi, @lehighstudentsforblm, and @dearlehigh.
In his op-ed and the video, Gunter attempted to debunk three myths concerning poverty—that poverty is mostly a matter of race, poverty is a generational curse, and the poor have no agency.
“The general belief is that if you’re born into a poor family, ‘God help you, there is nothing that can be done.’ But it turns out the reality is different,” Gunter said in an interview with The Brown and White. “What I was hoping the average reader would read and say is ‘that can’t be right,’ look into it, then discover that the facts are true and the analysis I provided is plausible. Maybe it would change their thinking about these important issues.”
Gunter’s first conclusion of the video was that poverty is not mostly a product of race.
“In 1940, it was estimated that 87 percent of black families lived in poverty. In 2019 most Blacks were not poor. Only 18.8 percent of Blacks were below the poverty line. In other words, four-fifths, over 80 percent of African Americans were not poor. Secondly, most poor were not Black in 2019, only 24 percent. The reality is most Blacks are not poor and most poor are not Black,” Gunter said in the video.
Sara Boyd, ‘22, took issue with his conclusion.
Boyd said the data Gutner provided said most poor people are not Black and most Black people are not poor, but that this does not imply that poverty and race are unrelated.
“It’s lazy economics. It’s incomplete research,” Boyd said.
Lehigh Students for BLM, @lehighstudentsforBLM on Instagram, posted an infographic to contextualize Gunter’s claims.
The post laid out a more in depth statistical analysis of the US population by race in attempts to better debunk Gunter’s claims.
In response, Gunter said he stands by his statement that poverty is not mostly a matter of race.
“Are (Black people) disproportionately represented? Absolutely, but what if we looked at the 2019 data and the numbers were reversed? What if we found that 80 percent of Blacks were below the poverty line and three-fourths of the poor in America were African American,” Gunter asked. “What would be the policy implication? If that was what the data found, I would say we have a severe racial problem in this country that is as bad as it was during Jim Crow in the 1930s and 1940s, but what conclusions can be made with the information we have, that 18.8 percent of Blacks are poor and 24 percent of the poor are Black? There is probably a racial element there, but race can’t be the whole answer because the majority of the poor are white.”
Gunter’s next conclusion of the video was that poverty is not a generational curse. To dispel this “myth”, Gunter explained a study that divided America into quintiles of income and explained trends in their quintile mobility.
“Even in a period of time as short as three years, 31 percent of the persons who were in the lowest quintile are in a higher quintile now. Escaped from poverty. Over 10 years…58 percent have escaped from poverty…,” Gunter said in the video. “84 percent of Americans have a higher income than their parents…the myth is not true. Poverty is not a generational trap.”
The @lehighstudentsforblm post said “The rate of absolute mobility for people born in 1940 was 90 percent. For people born in 1984, this figure has dropped to 50 percent,” indicating absolute mobility in America is not what it used to be.
In response, Gunter said he thinks that is true, however he believes the degree of remaining mobility is still substantial and has policy implications.
In the video, Gunter explained that even if someone is born impoverished, there are three steps one can take to nearly eliminate their chances of being impoverished as an adult: graduate from high school, work full time even if you are earning minimum wage, and do not get married until 21 while also not having children until you are married.
“If you follow these three rules, according to the Brookings institute, you only have a 2 percent chance of being poor as an adult,” Gunter said in the video.
Kate Luther, ‘22, is concerned with Gunter’s points about poverty being escapable and the “three choices” because she said it makes being poor sound like a simple choice.
Luther said Gunter’s points do not consider the obstacles one can face in life.
“You never know,” Luther said. “Sometimes kids have to drop out of high school because something happened to their family and then they have to work to take care of them.”
However, Gunter explained that he meant this to be motivational.
“I think a lot of kids growing up in poor families might say ‘Really, all I have to do is struggle through graduation, even though school stinks, and start working at a job, even though it starts out minimum wage and the boss hates me, and I love the girl, but won’t get married until 21 or have kids until we are married, then I will be able to avoid the poverty that I see around me?” Gunter said. “Some young people might find that an influential force.”
Boyd discovered this video shortly after it was posted and her initial reaction was that the overall data was “cherry picked.”
Boyd said she feels Gunter’s views were responsible for the type of data he used in the video.
“When you have a worldview and look for data that informs it, instead of looking for data to inform your worldview, you’re not actually doing research, you’re not doing critical thinking, you’re cherry picking data…even when it’s not in line with the facts,” Boyd said. “I could not get away with this in any of my classes.”
Luther and Boyd found Gunter’s language throughout the video particularly insensitive.
“His use of the word Blacks as a noun was pretty much in line with the datedness of the data he was citing,” Boyd said. “It was very clear both his views on poverty and race and how to engage in research are stuck in a previous century that have no place here now.”
Meanwhile, Garret Anderson,‘21, secretary of Lehigh College Republicans, said “Everyone was so concerned about his wording and not what he was trying to say, that’s problematic to me.”
Gunter said he has done his research on which terms to use.
“If you search to find out what is the preferred reference to African Americans, it’s almost a tie among the African American community, whether they prefer to be referred to as African Americans or as Blacks…one of the style references I use in my book writing treats the two as alternatives,” Gunter said. I think it is a matter of courtesy —you are to refer to someone in the way they wish to be referred.”
Gunter expected normal criticism to his op-ed, but not criticism of his character.
He said he was surprised that people who didn’t know him accused him of being racist.
“That is an insult now, you only call a person racist if you know 102 percent that they are. You don’t read one op-ed that they wrote and say this person says something I don’t agree with – I’m not going to argue with their data, I’m not going to argue with their analysis. I’m just going to call them a name. That’s surprising,” Gunter said.
@dearpwi on Instagram posted the slides from Gunter’s video with an attached slide at the end that read “While I don’t endorse slavery, economically, it is genius,” suggesting it was said by Gunter.
Gunter said the attached statement associated with him led to a lot of disturbed people, as it should if it were true, but that it was a “hoax.”
“Slavery along with genocide are probably some of the worst actions that can be committed – but it’s also bad economics —slavery has been a dead end in economic development. It has destroyed every society that adopted it,” Gunter said.
Friedman affirmed the inaccuracies of these claims.
Because of controversy, Lehigh College of Business issued a statement to explain the motive behind the video.
Despite this statement, Boyd does not think Lehigh truly cares about an intellectual discourse.
Boyd was specifically bothered by the College of Business’ choice to delete comments that criticized Gunter and highlighted inaccuracies in his statements.
Marietta Sisca, ‘23, vice president of the Lehigh College Republicans, believes the anger toward Gunter in these comment sections is unnecessary and will do harm.
“The outrage and ad hominem attacks against Professor Gunter don’t address the body of his argument specifically talking about poverty,” Sisca said. “We can’t have a civil discussion about this important and interesting issue, including the aspect of race, by silencing an economics professor trying to bring more complex aspects of the topic to light.”
Gunter emphasized that there should be a meaningful dialogue.
“The purpose of a university is to have people look at old things in new ways or things that nobody has ever seen before. Are you going to upset people? Of course you are,” Gunter said. “The whole purpose of the university is to have some really great women and really great men looking at these things and saying the truth as they see it, even if the world is offended by the truth.”