Thursday, November 02, 2006

Undeniable Disparities Not About Personal Responsibility, All About Community Responsibility

Often positive personal choices and the impact of good decisions can be swamped by the living environment of the individual who is trying hard to do better, get better and improve the quality of his or her life experiences.

Outsiders find it very easy to focus on "personal responsibility" as the cure-all for most social ills facing inner city communities in the urban centers of our nation.

But, you know what? It is just not that simple.

Recently, I attended the second annual meeting of the J. McDonald Williams Institute here in Dallas. Don Williams, former President and Chair of Trammell Crow Company and founder of the Foundation for Community Empowerment (FCE), has done more than any other one person to help our city understand the reality facing individuals living in our poor, depressed, ghetto neighborhoods.

But, Don and FCE have intentionally gone well beyond a limited focus on individuals. That is because they understand the forces controlling urban reality.

FCE is doing in-depth research census tract by census tract in the neighborhoods of the entire Dallas community. The report issued at this year's annual meeting laid out a "wholeness index" delineated along a 12-factor statistical continuum that graphically displays the glaring disparities that exist in our community between the north and the south.

Pick you indicator--SAT scores, graduation rates, income levels, housing, crime, life span, access to retail shopping, voter turnout, wealth, school holding power, occupancy rates in rental properties--the environmental differences created by the disparities that exist between North Dallas and South Dallas is simply overwhelming.

You can find the full report at: I urge you to read the full report.

We will never be able to even begin to address poverty, and all of the problems associated with it that adversely affect individuals, until we come to grips with the structural evil resident in our communities that insure its continuation.

It's just not primarily about individuals and their choices.

The environment created by dense, generational poverty severely limits possibilities for individuals. The systemic, structural realities facing poor neighborhoods present challenges that often turn out to be insurmountable for the individuals involved. To turn and blame the victims of this environmental reality for their failure to perform is not only shortsighted and uninformed, it is foolish if our goal is to see our communities renewed.

Malcolm Gladwell noted in his best-seller, The Tipping Point, that a child raised in a great family residing in a terrible neighborhood has a much smaller chance of success in life than does a child raised in a terrible family that resides in a good neighborhood.

If our goal is to move individuals out of poverty and into opportunity, it is simply not enough to focus on the individuals involved. We must learn to attack the disparities that exist across the neighborhoods and in large sections of a city like Dallas.

Don remarked at his conference that the Dallas story is actually "a tale of two cities." He had the hard, undeniable data to back up his analysis. Now we must go to work on establishing equity where it is obviously lacking.


Eric Livingston said...

"If our goal is to move individuals out of poverty and into opportunity, it is simply not enough to focus on the individuals involved."

Ah there's the rub. I think that, in fact, is not the goal of most Christians. Somewhere along the way, Christendom has lost its understanding of community. We forget that God used a small community called the Israelites to 'bless all nations'. We forget that Jesus came to save a larger community (the world), and we water down his saving grace into being "a personal Savior". In fact Jesus is not my personal Savior. He came to save the world.

If God seemingly works with and through communities, then we as Christians ought to be about forming healthy communities. That is Kingdom work.

Larry, thanks for being about God's business.

belinda said...

Thank You! I'm so tired - and sad - of hearing people whine about "government handouts" to people and hearing how individuals should be responsible for themselves and not "expect" handouts." When I try to explain how it's not that easy, they continue to explain how THEY do it. Very few people know the depths of such poverty but are quick to point out the notion of "individual responsiblity."

Justin said...

thats right belinda, but on the flip side, the government intervention crowd tends to throw away the personal responsibility aspect and just say "if we just give out more money, people will be able to succeed"

Its not that simple either.

Many many factors cause poverty. Its not just a lack of money or opportunity even. I think that a lot of conservatives react to that because they know that just throwing money at something when lack of money isn't the root of the problem, will only make it worse. One needs to look no further than what was bought with the Katrina relief debit cards to see that.

The answer is not to just start sending out checks for 2 grand a month and its not to never send any checks. What would be best is if Christians moved into these areas, cared for these people, and mirrored the life skills needed to overcome poverty as well as be a helping hand to those that need it.

But what do I know, I'm just a wealthy white kid born with a silver spoon in his mouth

Larry James said...

Justin, thanks for the post.

The assumption behind your comments seems to be that there are is no built in accountability with government funded programs. That is simply not true. For direct benefits, like fund stamps or Medicaid or CHIP, families and individuals must recertify frequently. For programs funded by government agencies at places like Central Dallas Ministries, there are all sorts of built in reporting requirements, etc. that we must abide by.

As to the FEMA disaster, that approach was flawed, but the combination of politics and the pressure of the disaster itself combined to make it a bad deal. Please don't hold that up as standard operating procedure for government agencies, because it is not.

If you insist on doing so, then give equal time to the obvious graft and double dipping done by government military contractors in places like Iraq!

It is not simple, but we must stay at it and my point in today's post was to let people know that lots of really fine people work very hard against long odds to get out of poverty and often they faily not due to a lack of effort but because the system is set up wrong.

Anonymous said...

"if we just give out more money, people will be able to succeed"

Justin, I don't think I've ever heard people say to "throw money at the problem" I've heard people discussing a holistic approach that says, people who work hard need to receive a fair wage that they can live off of. People need access to the same educational opportunities. People need access to healthcare.

This isn't throwing money at people. This is the community taking action to fix the systems that are flawed so that people who want to succeed can have a real chance at it.

Forgive me for being frank and harsh, but you keep bringing up the "I'm just a wealthy kid" comments.

Do you want a cookie? Are we supposed to feel sorry for you're burden of wealth? If you want a dialogue great, but you're giving off the attitude that you want to pick a fight and have someone attack you for being wealthy...

Anonymous said...

Larry, you should considering submitting this to the Dallas Morning News as an editorial.

RC said...


I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out what kills a neighborhood. I was having lunch with a black friend of mine. He is a middle class contractor. HIs discussion suprised me, but I think he is on to something. He said that a number of years ago he moved into the mostly white well to do neighboorhood in Memphis called Whitehaven. To make a long story brief he said that what killed the community was when all of the whites moved out and much poorer blacks moved in. He wanted the whites to stay. I am not sure how to interpret what he said. I do believe that Memphis and other larger cities need mixed communities, but I just don't see it happening here. When a community get too "black" the vast majority of whites move away in droves and depress the housing market and for some reason the whole community goes down economically. I think that somehow "white flight" is a part of the problem. I think I have said it before, but when whites move away as a group it does something bad to the community, not because whites are better, but because of the economic impact. Right now there is a large community in Memphis called Hickory Hill. It was once a strong vibrant majority white community. From the beginning it had a significant black presence, but at some point the vast majority of whites just moved away. I believe the main factor was a changed perception of the quality of the schools. The moment that the schools in a community were perceived as "bad" the exodus began, and it is not just the whites that move. The original black home owners moved too. I wish I knew a way to get people to stay put. I hope I have worded this post where I don't sound like a racist. I have a good friend who is a high ranking black police officer. He told me recently that he is moving because he no longer feels safe in his community. When the financial backbone of a community just leaves how can the community stay strong? In Hickory Hill you would not believe how many businesses are gone. The community is now filled with gangs. It used to be a totally different place. I could name many more communities, but the pattern is the same. At least in Memphis whites as a whole have many deep seeded beliefs which if are not changed will only deepen the problem. You always give me a great deal to think about, but I am not sure how to process it.

Larry James said...

RC, thanks for the post.

The combination of economics, economic reality and racism work against inner city communities. The driver here is economics.

This is why public policy must become innovative and bold to incentivize the stablization of neighborhoods like you describe and to reinvigorate them when they decline. We are attempting to create as many places as possible for low-income persons to remain in rebounding neighborhoods and then, we are attempting to find ways to create new and wonderful places in neighborhoods that have experienced decline. Neither can be done without public policy help, change and intentionality. This is why it drives me crazy when people claim that the compassion of the church alone can solve the problems. It cannot.