To understand poverty it is important to focus on place.
Urban poverty cannot be addressed successfully by focusing only upon individuals. Unfortunately, too few are taking a broader view.
Urban poverty is much more complicated than understanding the "case stories" of a group of individuals who need food, shelter, work, child care, medical attention or transportation. Poverty in American cities is a systemic reality. That is, poverty is the result of forces--negative and positive--that overwhelm, align, segment, limit and position the poor in life in such ways that movement up and out is almost impossible without larger system or environmental changes.
Take neighborhoods as an example. Paul A. Jargowsky points out (Poverty and Place: Ghettos, Barrios and the American City) that once 40% of a neighborhood's population earns at or below the poverty line, that community is trapped in poverty and cannot change without major systemic interventions.
Something larger than ministry to individuals alone is now required to renew lives and restore hope.
Or, consider this surprising fact: a child raised in a negative home environment, but in a good neighborhood, has a better chance for a life of health and well-being than does a child raised in a positive home environment, but in a poor neighborhood (Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference).
My good friend, John Greenan, directs our Community Development Corporation at Central Dallas Ministries. John cares a lot about people on a one-by-one basis. But, he spends his days thinking in larger terms. John envisions communities and neighborhoods. He is trying to build a few new ones in some surprising places.
Place matters. Paved streets and trash pickup and code enforcement and crime watch efforts all matter. Focus on individuals is essential. Developing a larger vision that includes whole environments and collective actions, will be even more important to really overcoming poverty in our cities.
"Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings." (Isaiah 58:12)
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