Friday, May 09, 2008

Poverty, Place and Public Responsibility. . .

At our May edition of the Urban Engagement Book Club, we looked into Paul Jargowsky's very important book, Poverty and Place: Ghettos, Barrios, and the American City (1997). We were very fortunate to have Professor Jargowsky as a guest and he handled our "follow on" session following our book synopsis.

Jargowsky traces the demographic realities of poverty and the affect of poverty when concentrated in inner city neighborhoods. His original research, and his updates since the book first appeared, has been very helpful to urban planners, public policy officials, economists, business leaders and leaders of inner city renewal efforts.

Jargowsky demonstrates that when somewhere between 25% and 40% of a neighborhood's population falls into poverty, that community "tips" in a way that makes it impossible to renew without serious public policy change accompanied by large scale public engagement.

Over the weekend, I had occasion to be driving through far North Dallas and into Collin County, one of the wealthiest areas in the United States. As I drove along immaculately manicured, tree-lined boulevards and as I noted the incredibly upscale housing stock and more retail options than anyone could have imagined just ten years ago, a question hit me hard.

What impact does such a wealthy environment have on the psyche, the choices, the worldview and the behavior of the people who live here?

My little tour of "silk stocking street" reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell's statement in his best-selling book, The Tipping Point. Gladwell sites research that says a child reared in a good home in a bad neighborhood has less chance of "making it" than a child raised in a bad home environment in a good neighborhood.

Wealth and what it can produce, no, what it demands in terms of neighborhood environment and options, acts as a guarantee of sorts for success, stability and wellness. Life, its choices and its outcomes generally works better where resources are adequate.


But, our actions as a community don't warrant such a casual dismissal of a telling and instructive reality.

Development of all kinds--economic, educational, housing, health care, transportation, public infrastructure and services--follows after and serves wealth. On the private sector side, development rushes toward available capital because that is where the profit margins are found. On the public side, development moves naturally where persons with wealth and political power/influence live and act collectively.

Development just doesn't come naturally to low-income areas. The traditional magnets of wealth just don't exist in such neighborhoods. While human capital and social capital, when organized, can and does exert some influence, without a public commitment to compensate for the lack of material wealth, no impoverished community can ever recover.

The neighborhoods where I work are located a world away from the route I drove over the weekend. There is no chance whatsoever that the residents of poor communities will ever experience the environment created by wealth until wealth is channeled in their direction. I'm convinced that the role of public policy makers involves the creative use of community capital to insure that distressed and marginalized neighborhoods have a chance to thrive again. Ironically, wealthy communities often receive the added benefit of such creative public involvement in exchange for certain development activities. What works for the well off will work for the not so well off, but only if the political will exists for such action among the poor.

Unless and until communities make a collective commitment to see renewal jump-started in very poor communities, we can not reasonably expect to see these communities or their populations change much at all.

I have a feeling that Dr. Jargowsky agrees.



Anonymous said...

"What works for the well off will work for the not so well off".

-but at what point do we decide that what works for the well off doesn't really work? Obviously there needs to be a redistribution of resources, but at the same time, some of the most spiritually "renewed" people I know are those who don't have adequate resources. Does that mean that I want them to live without those resources? Of course not, but that's where I struggle to find the perfect balance.

When I think about development, I try to step back and look at the end goal - is the end goal to get impoverished neighborhoods to look like the suburbs? Probably not, but where is that middle ground - that place in between the suburbs and poverty? A place where everyone has what they need, but not more than they need. I don't live in that place, but that's because I have "more than I need." I don't need the government to do anything about that, I need God to convict my heart more and more each day.

I believe followers of Christ can force serious urban renewal, but it starts with ourselves, not with government policies. I guess though, if we've given up on Christians living out this call, the government is next best hope.

Larry James said...

Anon, 9:07, thanks for the post. No one here would disagree with your analysis of where the needle needs to be moved with and for the very poor. As I know you are aware, I was not suggesting that we put everyone in a mansion on a hill, but rather to bring a higher level of community quality to our most distressed neighborhoods.

I don't agree with your assessment of how that happens. I really wish what you say could be possible. But hard, social science, urban-based research reveals that for neighborhoods to change entire regions must change and shifts must be made in a manner that only systemeic, public policy decisions can bring about. In this regard, if you are interested in facing this hard data, read Jargowsky's book or send me your email address and I'll send you notes and quotes from our recent synopsis. This is more than a philosophical debate; this is grounded in solid evidence.

Should Christians change their hearts and their personal lifesytles for the good of the poor and the entire community? That would be great! Would it be a positive, a help? Certainly. Would it be enough to offset the need for larger scale, coordinated planning and investment? No, it would not.

Anonymous said...

You're probably right - I just don't want Christians to fall into the trap of thinking that poverty is created by bad government policies alone (although they can affect the problem greatly). It's too easy to throw the blame on a government institution rather than looking in the mirror.

I'm not arguing against public policy changes, but since we live in a democratic government, those policies don't gain much traction until they reflect the heartfelt desires of the people.

The evidence might suggest that public policies are required to make a significant shift, but I believe that it's the people that drive those policies into effect. We can argue for public policies all day long, but until we have a people that truly have the desire to support those policies, those hard statistics and evidences are just numbers on a piece of paper.

That's one of the reasons that I appreciate this blog so much - you do a great job of taking lifeless research and data and showing us why it is important to the way we live our lives and how it impacts others.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world, indeed it's the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead

PS - I just ordered Paul Jargowsky's book. :)

Larry James said...

Thanks for the conversation. Let me know what you think about Jargowsky.