SOME URBAN THOUGHTS, Page 3 of 5


SLOW ENTRY INTO THE MIDDLE CLASS

These factors have not stopped the assimilation process in the modern ghetto; many families and individuals continue to leave the inner-city, often with interventionist help (e.g., via Community Development Corporations and other government-funded programs), and their children become accepted members of suburban society. The growth of the black and Hispanic middle class has been well noted. But these factors help explain why it has been slower for the modern urban ghetto, as compared with the European, Euro-American and Asian-American ghettos (especially since those ghettos still had significant economic usefulness, and there was not the same degree of social / racial / cultural divide).

It would appear that certain immigrant ghettos today are having more success in the assimilation process, e.g. Korean and Indian immigrants. However, modern immigration rules today prevent anything comparable to the African slave immigration of the 18th and early 19th Centuries or the European / Jewish immigration waves of the later 19th and early 20th Centuries; the numbers are smaller and not as economically desperate. Also, it is possible that certain cultures naturally assimilate easier into the Euro-American heritage due to random historic and social factors.

SOCIAL HETEROGENEITY, MULTIPLE FACTIONS

The modern inner-city ghetto is not a socially homogenous place, even within racially homogenous areas. There are many layers and sub-factions, which often wind up fighting each other for scarce resources (e.g., jobs, police response, media attention, etc.). There are many small churches, block associations, tenant associations, union locals, neighborhood clubs, etc. This would appear to reflect citizen activism, but more often reflects factionization, i.e. competition and struggle for inadequate resources. There are intra-racial distinctions made between "historic" African-Americans and later African/Caribbean immigrants, homeowners versus renters, working poor versus welfare poor, union workers versus non-union, teenagers vs. senior citizens, etc.

There are many self-proclaimed "community leaders" in the inner city, e.g. a long-term resident of a public housing complex or a minister at one of the myriad store-front churches. Sometimes this activism is sincere, but too often it is a way of garnering direct bribes or promises of jobs for family and friends from a major organization in exchange for cooperation (e.g., the City wants to build a new police station or AIDS treatment center nearby, and wants to defuse public opposition). This is often accepted as "the way the game is played in the city". Extreme poverty precludes longer-term viewpoints, and encourages short-term survival behavior. I.e., this is an economic strategy, a rational one given the circumstances.

The inner-city ghetto is thus not "organized", but instead is factionalized. The poor community does not come together to forward political issues; its voting rates are very low, around 25% or less of qualified adults. Elections are won or lost on small blocks of voters, thus allowing dishonest or incompetent political leadership to gain and hold power. Saul Alinsky's techniques were effective in poor working-class neighborhoods, but not so in modern inner city ghettos.

Thus, a "culture" or sub-culture requires the presence of commonalities, and yet there are factions within all cultures. However, severe economic pressures seem to exacerbate the extent and effect of factionization within the inner city culture.

ECONOMIC RE-EMPOWERMENT: WHAT HAS BEEN TRIED

What has been tried to help "re-empower" the inner city? Until the 60s, ghetto assistance efforts focused around social services and public housing; looking back with 20/20 hindsight, we can see that these efforts focused on the symptoms and not the causes of poverty. In the 60s, the civil rights movement tried to open the doors of opportunity; at the time, racial prejudice seemed the primary barrier to economic re-empowerment. In the early 60s, it seemed reasonable to focus on prejudice: racism was clearly the road that led to the urban ghetto, so why shouldn't its elimination be the road that leads out of it? Unfortunately, that logic did not hold up in the increasingly dynamic American economy of the 70s and 80s. The focus then shifted to the economic plane -- how can jobs and community wealth be restored?

At one extreme today is the free enterprise argument (Michael Porter): established businesses should be encouraged to come in and do business in the ghetto. According to this view, the impediments are smaller than most people think, and are mostly artificial, e.g. excessive government regulations. With just a bit of governmental common sense and cooperation, private business would rush in and create a vast number of job opportunities (including resident microenterprise).

Another variant of the current economic approach re-cycles the old Saul Alinsky tradition of neighborhood organizing. Kretzmann and McKnights' book Building Communities From the Inside Out urges poor communities to come together and solve their own problems by focusing upon community strengths. Government and other groups should cooperate, but not lead; they have become professionalized outsiders. The community has hidden strengths, and these should be brought out, with the help of an organizing process that mixes the ideas of Alinsky and Dale Carnegie. Based on these strengths, the community can start new businesses (e.g., home-based microenterprise), revitalize established businesses, and restore economic wealth.

The problem with these ideas is that pervasive poverty has made the inner-city ghetto too divisive for organizing (the "factionization" effect discussed above), and too separated from the modern American economy for free enterprise to take hold (also discussed above). There is little potential for stable political coalitions, and there is little of interest to modern capitalists (e.g., disposable income, skilled workers, good transportation systems, usable real estate, stable social conditions). All the nice talk about community resources and sales potential cannot be turned into economic wealth; if it could have, it already would have.

The most popular manifestation of the current economic approach is for government to subsidize the development of Building & Business projects in the ghetto. One variant of this approach is the "Big Civic Project", where the local and regional government favor the inner city (or downtown areas adjacent to inner cities) when deciding on a site for a new public facility, e.g. a sports arena, an aquarium, an arts center, a college, a hospital, a research center, a parking deck, etc. The theory is that although the Big Civic Project will benefit the overall region, its proximity to the inner city will provide jobs and incentives for servicing businesses to locate in the ghetto. However, most of the employees and users of Big Civic Projects are typically from the suburbs or more affluent areas of the city. Such projects typically help stabilize the middle-class areas of the city (the semi-suburban areas), and help the host city to improve its tax revenues and foster its financial survival. However, they do relatively little to improve the impacted ghetto neighborhoods.

LITTLE PROJECTS

An important variant of the Building & Business approach is for the public to subsidize "Little Community Projects". These projects are predominantly low-income housing, day care centers, small shopping malls, training centers, social service centers, etc. Such projects serve and hire mainly inner-city residents. They are needed to replace a deteriorating inner-city infrastructure which is no longer supported by the neighborhood's own economic strength. They create some new jobs and economic stimulation, but not on the scale that private manufacturing and commercial employers once provided.

The "little building & business" approach spawned (or was spawned by) a new type of entity which evolved within the last third of the 20th Century: the community development corporation, or "CDC".

COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT CORPORATIONS (CDCs)

Community Development Corporations are a mixed-breed animal: partly government-like outside organizations, partly community-based institutions. They have boards of directors who live within the community being served, but they depend upon government and foundation money to support their "little building & business" initiatives (and are thus bound in many ways by outside visions and rules).

Through their real estate and economic development activities (supplemented by incidental human service and workforce development efforts), CDCs pursue a place-based strategy. I.e., they focus on a particular neighborhood or district, with identifiable geographic boundaries.

CDCs serve urban ghetto residents, but often require an external motivating vision (e.g., Grayston's Zen Buddhism, New Community Corporation's Roman Catholicism and Bethel's liberal Protestantism; other CDCs had their origin in federal government initiatives such as OEO, Community Action and Model Cities, or from foundation efforts, e.g. Ford's "Gray Areas" and Mobilization for Youth). They also require suburban technical talent to get by in today's complex world, e.g. the federal housing tax credit system and tax-exempt bond financing.

These factors ultimately inhibit the community-identity of the CDC. Over time, a CDC can become an elite faction which remains within the community but is ultimately self-directed (apart from the ghetto sub-culture). The community eventually loses its sense of ownership, but grudgingly accepts the CDC for the integral part the CDC plays in its day-to-day life (just as it grudgingly accepts public housing). CDCs are thus neither fish nor fowl, but over time evolve into a new type of being, a cousin to the older public housing and social service bureaucracies. I.e., the CDC eventually succumbs to the inner-city trend of "factionization", while continuing to be affected by the sub-culture (e.g., poor employee performance, criminal incidents, vandalism, and in positive ways too, e.g. personal and spiritual values).

CDCs: NOT THE MAGIC BULLET?

Can this new type of being withstand the corrosion of inner city poverty (negative sub-cultural influences)? Can it avoid being affected by the on-going practices of factionization and bribery and nepotism, and the inherent "deadweight" of crime protection costs, property vandalism, low-skill employees with high turnover rates, etc.?? Generally, the answer is no. CDCs are not known for their operational efficiency. Therefore, they need to keep drawing in vast amounts of resources from the US economic mainstream, via government funding programs, foundation grants, etc., as to overcome these efficiency losses. CDCs grow dependent upon public relations and fundraising efforts, and thus fail to come to grips with the efficiency issue.

A disturbing trend: the residents of the US mainstream economy seem to be losing patience and sympathy for the inner city. The days of racial guilt are coming to an end. There is waning tolerance of affirmative action, and at the same time we see "the end of welfare as we know it".

CDCs depend upon money donated by mainstream society. Contrary to their public statements about community self-reliance and economic success, CDCs are really a relatively new and somewhat more acceptable way of channeling public aid into the cities, a welcome option following the disillusionment with direct government efforts such as public housing and the "Great Society" programs of the 60s (although CDCs turned out to be not all that different from the Community Action Agencies promoted by federal "War on Poverty" efforts in the mid-60s). As the mainstream culture now retracts its commitment to aid the inner-cities, urban CDCs as we know them may also contract.

CDCs are generally not more efficient as vectors of public aid than government was. But they at least appear to be more community-responsive. However, as CDCs mature and form an increasingly elite and separated board constituency (a predictable effect, given the inner-city trend toward factionization), along with their hiring an increasingly professional management staff drawn from outside of the community (necessitated by increasingly complex funding mechanisms), and given their increasingly strict oversight of workers and residents (a by-product of low worker skill levels and the troubled lives of their tenants), they are losing their claim to community sensitivity.

Thus, CDCs may eventually lose the public's acceptance and support. Small CDCs have already failed; a major failure will attract press coverage and damage public-political support for them (in keeping with the public de-commitment to urban support, discussed above). Given the on-going contraction of public commitment to urban poverty relief and the increasing scarcity of public funding, increasing numbers and degrees of CDC failures seem possible.

THE EFFECTS OF 35 YEARS OF GOVERNMENT INTERVENTION

THUS: Thirty-five years of significant public support (including welfare) did shrink down the inner city, in terms of population -- but not in terms of geographic size (see Wilson). It created places where a residual group of minority persons choose to stay, despite the inherent deprivations, because that place has a culture and a way of life that feels better to them than the rather different culture and way of life of the American economic mainstream (i.e., suburbia); furthermore the economic barriers to leaving are now very high.

The inner-city culture and way of life arguably echoes the African, Latin and southern agrarian experiences of parents and ancestors. The economic deprivations are severe, but were somewhat mitigated as the American mainstream economy expressed some regret for its many anti-urban sins by supporting Aid For Dependent Children (later TANF, in its welfare reform guise), public housing, affirmative action measures and CDCs. (Those "anti-urban sins" include suburban highway systems, restrictive mortgage insurance guidelines, etc.) Thus, although many persons chose to leave after being assisted by various grant-funded programs, many others chose to stay.

PUBLIC SUPPORT ENDING

But it looks like mainstream economic support is now coming to an end; as noted above, a new and subtle variant of race consciousness, i.e. anti-ghetto, seems to be growing. It can be summarized as follows: "I have nothing against minorities, I watch Bill Cosby and Geraldo Rivera, I get along with minority people in my office, but those people who live in the city and take drugs and have all those babies without fathers.... I'm tired of supporting them with my tax money and being endangered by their criminal ways everytime I go into a city." It was embodied within the Willie Horton advertisements used in the 1992 Bush presidential campaign. It does not necessarily presage a return to Jim Crow, but it certainly does evidence a "compassion fatigue" and a growing lack of sympathy for the problems of inner city residents. (This compassion fatigue is not limited to affluent whites; some middle and upper-class blacks and Hispanics are also exhibiting less sympathy for the inner city).

HIP-HOP SIDENOTE

SIDENOTE: the rap music videos of the late 80s and 90s probably helped to break the patience of the suburban mainstream, given gangsta rap's glorification of values contrary to mainstream values (although rap lyrics might also be read as a lamentation of conditions in the ghetto and a protest against the mainstream's lack of humane concern). Ironically, many rap stars are not from the inner-city, and a prime market for gangsta rap is suburban youth (and rap has transmuted into "hip-hop" and other forms which white musicians now play). Still, rap is arguably the most distinctive music form to come out of the urban ghetto sub-culture in recent years.

THE NATIVE AMERICAN PRECEDENT

The American public made a decision in the nineteenth century not to allow the Native American way of life and culture to continue; it became too expensive, in terms of opportunity cost, to allow large tracts of western land to go unfarmed, mined, lumbered, etc. It appears that the subsidized inner-city culture of the late 20th Century will soon likewise be put to an end. Economic subsidies are now being halted, and eventually force might be brought to bear, as was used against the Native Americans.

Why? As with Native American lands in the early 1800s, the urban ghetto is a sparsely populated region that could become valuable real estate, once reclaimed and "gentrified" (suburbanized). Once such a reclamation were made, a provision could be made for concentrating and controlling the remaining unassimilated population, something akin to an Indian reservation. See Herrnstein & Murray, The Bell Curve; despite their fallacious and unscientific use of IQ and genetics as an explanation for social dysfunction in minority populations (some commentators cite their arguments as an example of the new "Willie Horton" style of race consciousness), their observations regarding social trends and "IQ", i.e. cognitive techniques which are valuable to the modern mainstream economy, are cogent. They predict that impoverished areas, where persons generally achieve lower levels of this type of "intelligence", will become subject to "custodial" arrangements, a "high-tech version of an Indian Reservation".

WELFARE REFORM '96

What are the implications of the Personal Responsibility & Work Opportunity Act of 1996, in terms of assimilation? Because of the threat of aid cut-off, some families who otherwise would not will follow the pathway to assimilation, i.e. discipline, work, and education. However, it seems doubtful that the "work-first" philosophy of the current welfare reform effort will succeed for everyone, given that there are not enough entry-level jobs accessible to urban inner-city dwellers. Furthermore, most of the jobs that are available today are in the suburbs, not in the city.

THE UNDERGROUND ECONOMY

Aside from the transportation and logistical difficulties, there will also be various cultural and class barriers, the types of barriers which have impeded the assimilation of the inner-city over the past 40 years (as discussed above). These social tensions may be exacerbated as suburban residents perceive inner-city residents to be competing for jobs on their home turf (given the new anti-ghetto variant of race consciousness).

What options would the ghetto parent whose welfare is about to terminate because of the new time limits have? Would they have any rational option to gritting their teeth and putting up with the unpleasant cultural factors that might be associated with suburban employment? One option could be the expansion of an "underground economy" that is becoming more prominent in the modern urban ghetto.

Already, many urban people support themselves from illicit trade, e.g. drug traffic, weapons traffic, prostitution, toxic waste dumping, stolen goods fencing, etc. It is possible that this economic system will continue to grow and formalize itself, offering various employment opportunities (reflecting the scene from the movie "New Jack City" of typists busy at work on computer terminals at a crack dealership).

Another manifestation of these alternate structures of economic support is seen in the rise of highly-organized street gangs in low-income urban areas. Many of these gangs support their members through street-level drug trade and low-level property crime, but there are examples of more sophisticated enterprises that evolve from basic "street sets". One such example was the "Conrail Boyz", an urban gang in northern New Jersey that developed sophisticated surveilance, communication and infiltration techniques to pilfer high-priced goods from railroad intermodal trailers.

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FOOTNOTE ON CULTURE AND POVERTY: Since the 1960s, the idea that poverty may at least be a partly explained by cultural effects has been deemed politically incorrect. To a large degree, that's because a disproportionate number of black males are poor, remain poor, and are getting poorer and poorer. To look for cultural factors behind this is seen by many as racist. Thinking people who want to be liked are directed to stick to the social sins of slavery, discrimination, Jim Crow laws, inadequate schooling and lack of jobs paying living wages in the modern economy. I certainly agree that those factors are very relevant. However, to ignore cultural reverberations is to ignore the other half of the story. Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson published an article in the New York Times explaining why scholars are now cautiously returning to cultural factors in the search for ways to rescue black men from the trap door that too many of them have fallen through in our high-tech world. Patterson's version of "culture" (and mine) does not equate that term with race; it carefully focuses on a particular dynamic affecting particular people. It also recognizes that other cultures, e.g. the modern suburban success culture, contribute to the plight of the poor, including poor black men (e.g., via the admiration that young affluent whites have for "hip-hop world" -- see Patterson's explanation).