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.