Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Concentrated Wealth, Concentrated Poverty

It happened to me again last Sunday.

I spoke to a church in the northwest part of the Dallas side of the Metroplex. It amazed me as I drove through the rapidly developing area. It had been almost a decade since I had driven this particular stretch of Texas highway 114. What had been a country road is now an almost fully built up suburban community.

The obvious wealth and the economic development startled me.

As I drove, I thought about South Dallas and parts of far East Dallas. I thought of my own neighborhood. The contrast is, well, stark is the best way to characterize it.

Unregulated capitalism always results in dense concentrations of wealth and opportunity.

Unregulated capitalism always results in dense concentrations of poverty and economic dead ends.

I realize that I was just driving through.

But, I saw no evidence of any attempt to mix the housing stock. I spotted nothing that would qualify as "affordable housing," even given the very liberal definition used by government officials, planners and funders.

Again, my mind returned to the impoverished neighborhoods that I know so well here in inner city Dallas.

No one, so far as I can tell, is doing anything significant to incentivize new development in our poor neighborhoods. No one can be regarded as really serious about the problem.

Nothing will change without some intentional planning, funding and commitment to see things change.

Right now our larger community--urban, exurban and suburban--is being defined and shaped for at least a generation to come by unbridled market forces that allow for the most, the easiest and the quickest profit in all developments.

People who are attempting to bring new opportunities to low-income parts of the larger community are having to work super hard and are forced to take extraordinary measures and accept tremendous risks to get anything done.

Walter Rauschenbusch, speaking of the "profitableness" of evil wrote, "Ordinary sin is an act of weakness and side-stepping, followed by shame the next day. But when it is the source of prolific income, it is no longer a shame-faced vagabond slinking through the dark, but an army with banners, entrenched and defiant. The bigger the dividends, the stiffer the resistance against anything that would cut them down. When fed with money, sin grows wings and claws. "

Greed is a powerful force in a community like this one.

Impersonal greed--the kind created by an impersonal and thoughtless economic system, the type that provides respectable "cover" for individual participants and beneficiaries--grounded in similar economic theory is down right cruel and results in catastrophic outcomes for the poor people who also live and work here.

We must do better.


Anonymous said...

A lot of Cubans would like to live in our greedy, impersonal and thoughtless economic system. I think they are pretty much equal down there---equally miserable. Come to think of it , a lot of Mexicans would like to also, not to mention Indians, Asians.....

KentF said...

Thanks Larry for these provoking words. It's definitely a conundrum. As I was driving from east Texas to Abilene a few days ago I was amazed again at the number of people moving into brand new homes in the SH 175 corridor in far southeast Dallas county - for so long the forgotten side of outlying Dallas. These new homes provide construction jobs and a growing tax base for some outlying communities. However, It also means more roads are needed and it means more churches are needed. People have proven over and again they prefer to go to church within a reasonable commute to their home. So, the upward mobility and out-migration continues and the expanse of deteriorating inner-city areas, where the upwardly mobile are escaping form, is now widening out to even suburban communities like Mesquite, Garland and Richardson.

Larry James said...

Anonymous, thanks for your post. Sorry to have upset you so badly. I am always amazed at how defensive we become whenever any suggestion is made that possibly we could act and plan proactively for better communities. My suggestions were not meant to take away from any existing community. My concern is that we find ways to incentivize urban development for the sake of low-income families, our public schools and the quality of life in the center city areas of Dallas. It would also be good social policy to have set asides for affordable housing in every sector of the Metroplex.

Regarding my comments on the "impersonal" nature of our greed--we like it that way because none of us have to take responsibility for that sort of greed. Afterall, "it's just the system, don't you see?"

KentF said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
KentF said...

Sorry - should have proof-read better, I'll try again...

What I've found Larry - is many people don't want to hear critical thinking on improving a community - they instead hear "criticism" and they immediately shut down mentally and start throwing out labels such as "negative" or "liberal" or "non-capitalistic".

I do find it interesting that so many will speak saying they want the Church to do more and the evil, bloated government to do less so they can keep more money. But, then they don't want to hear any ideas either on what any entity - let alone the church - might do to actually improve something.

Chris Field said...

The problem Kent is that people would have to get their hands dirty to make that talk a reality. It might mean less weekends out of town and more at the soup kitchen. It might mean living in an area where everyone doesn't look, talk, think, and pray like you do. It might mean being surrounded by people that you have been taught are "dangerous" all your life.

Unfortunately, most of the church is a low risk, low reward kind of place.

Pretty ironic, I think.

KentF said...

Let me note one positive - the Richland Hills church of Christ just opened a health clinic for the Birdville ISD in the Richland Hills area of Tarrant County. RH members and another sponsoring church worked hard to renovate an old building into the clinic and many also donated generously for the building. Any kid in the BISD can receive medical attention there for $5 per visit. That's good news.

Larry James said...

KentF, thanks for the post and the information. You are so right, that is good news! RHCC is a great place with a great vision for engaging the community. They have also adopted a public elementary school completely. There is much for the churches to be doing. It is good to see one like RHCC follow through.

Anonymous said...

As a member of the church in which you are referring, I appreciate your perspective and your comments. I don't take your comments as judgmental but as a sincere commentary.

It's made me think. What does God expect of committed disciples with money? Where should a follower of Jesus live? Is a disciple's ministry to the rich of less value to God than a disciple's ministry to the poor? Am I being a good steward if I invest in projects that don't make money for the benefit of the poor or is it better to make good investments and tithe or give to ministries that directly help the poor (like RHCC clinic)?

As you spoke about Sunday, it's truly the heart and motives that are important. Thanks for bringing this issue to light. I look forward to your future messages.

Larry James said...

Anonymous, 12:09, thanks for the post! Thanks even more for your heart and spirit. You are correct, I was not intending to judge anyone, certainly not your church. I was simply making an observation about what I saw and what I experience. Hope to see you Sunday!

Justin said...


I understand your concerns. Sometimes, its easy to observe judgement where there is none. But, then again, sometimes people do judge you if you don't follow the exact same ministry they do. I know someone who for some time held a grudge against my family because we are well off, while his family struggled because of the career path of his parents. If I were in his shoes, I would probably feel the same way.

But I would agree that ministry to the rich is just as important as ministry to the poor. They are in need of salvation from greed, discontent, and consumerism. Its why I am for my home church (Highland Street in memphis) moving out to the suburbs. I would have prefered that it could have stayed closer to the city, but it didn't work out that way. The suburbs need a church who has made its calling helping the poor. They need to hear the message of salvation, that its not a purely post mortem event, but its here and now, and its manifested in giving and serving. Larry has said multiple times that the church can't/won't take up the cause of the poor. I believe they will. But I believe suburban churches need to be a voice for the inner city. They need to change their ministries from a "soul saving" concept to a "serving the least of these" concept. Forget flashy billboards and programs. Be a voice in the wilderness of wealth to tell the WASPs that God wants them involved in the lives of the poor.

Wow, I just rambled on someone elses blog. Sorry Larry!

Larry James said...

No problem, Justin! My blog is your blog. . .:)

Anonymous said...

Larry, you didn't upset me. I just think it's wrong to label people greedy when you don't know the facts. I'm sure the people work hard for what they have so that they will be able to take care of their own and give to others, for example building the health clinic that was mentioned.

Larry James said...

Anonymous, thanks for the follow up post.

My point was not to judge individuals as greedy, but to point out that our system is simply set up in a way that greed and money rule decisions that slot people in poverty and in areas of high concentrations of poverty. It is systemic. It has to do with how we as a group decide to order our economy. I certainly was not criticizing the people out north, but the fact that there is no community intentionality built into our economic system that provides for the poor and low-income folks among us.

Here is a question: is greed a reality or not? Does it exist anywhere? If so, where?

Just a question your comment raised in my mind.

Henry Paul Drinkard said...

Lou Dobbs has hit upon a great idea: Tax the churches! Check out this link....



Larry James said...

Henry Paul, thanks for the post.

I have asked the question what if churches had to "prove up" their value to the community in order to keep their tax exempt status? Would there be enough evidence for most churches to keep that status.

It is interesting to note that non-profit hospitals must prove their community benefit in order to maintain their exempt status.

Justin said...

No more tax subsidies for country clubs. The only things that should be tax exempt for churches are poverty relief efforts. And not just sending kids to mexico for a week. Real stuff like soup kitchens, money sent to central dallas ministries or hopeworks in memphis. Ministry that benefits the community rather than turns the church into an elite club of WASPs

Anonymous said...

Quote: "They need to change their ministries from a "soul saving" concept to a "serving the least of these" concept."

Are you serious? This is the "social gospel", which is "another gospel". I'm not going to argue the point here, because I know where everybody that reads this stands, but I just wanted to ask if you REALLY meant that statement.

Larry James said...

Anonymous, 10:07, Justin will need to answer for himself. However, I think I understand what he means. I have found here in my work in Dallas that "soul saving" tends to take care of itself when you are engaged person to person and family to family in a struggle against poverty. There is no "bright line" dividing the human condition here. We also find that the vast majority of "the poor" express a deep faith already--it is that that allows them to survive and cling to hope. Sadly, too many churches feel very little responsibility to engage the poor in their poverty especially when they feel their "soul winning" or evaluating work is done.

Maybe Justin can clarify for himself, but I don't think that there is ever really much to debate here, at least not at the street level. Jesus, James and John, to say nothing of the prophets, seem fairly clear about the truth that the two go hand in hand and that folks who dismiss the physical realities of life by calling in the promise of the spiritual, really miss the point.

Anonymous said...

For anyone in need of a more pragmatic reason for closing the ever-widening economic gap and ending the cycle of poverty, here's a provocative article from the 09Oct06 edition of The Times London:
It’s just as you might think: being poor can damage your brain http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,20909-2394956,00.html