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: http://www.thewilliamsinstitute.org/Portals/10/Wholeness%20Index%202006%20-%20Summary%20Report%20-%20Released.pdf. 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.