A Little Bit About Poverty
An excerpt from one of my new favorite books -- Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress toward Racial Equality by Patrick Sharkey. This is one of the quickest tutorials on the causes of urban poverty you're likely to see.
If one is willing to simplify the complex set of theories and analyses put forth by [William Julius Wilson (The Truly Disadvantaged)] and [Douglas Massey (American Apartheid)] and their co-authors, there are two crucial observations about urban poverty that stood out from their work.
The first, from Wilson, is that ghetto poverty transformed in the post World War II period, so that urban ghettos were increasingly characterized by the concentration of poverty and related social problems.**
The second, from Massey, is that racial segregation has persisted in the post civil rights era, and the segregation of urban neighborhoods by race has allowed for the concentration of poverty and other problems that Wilson described.
The way that scholars have studied the sources of neighborhood inequality, the consequences of neighborhood inequality, and the persistence of racial inequality in America as been shaped by these two complementary observations about the persistence of racial segregation and the concentration of poverty in America's cities....
An additional observation..provides a new perspective for scholars and policy makers attempting to understand and respond to concentrated poverty. The problem of urban poverty in the post civil rights era is not only that concentrated poverty has intensified and racial segregation has persisted but that the same families have experienced the consequences of life in the most disadvantaged environments over multiple generations. It is not just that the ghetto has persisted, but that the ghetto has been inherited. The problems and challenges of life in the urban ghetto are problems experienced by parents and then passed on to children -- multiple generations of family members have been taught in the nation's worst schools and have been exposed to the nation's most unhealthy and most violent environments. (25-26)
To these three points, I would weave in two more and we'd have a pretty darn robust theory of poverty.
I would begin by adding an understanding of neoliberalism -- that breed of capitalism introduced to the West by Ronald Reagan and Margarett Thatcher which has defined the global economy for almost four decades. The structures of this system set the rules which produced the extreme levels of inequality we live with today. I'm working on a long blog that will dive into the weeds of neoliberalism over the next month or so.
Finally, to really get at Sharkey's point on the inheritance of poverty over generations, we need to study childhood development and the effects of trauma. The ramifications of poverty and hostile developmental environments stay with children over the course of a lifetime. New research suggests that the physiological transformations that occur in victims of trauma are even passed on into the DNA of their children. I'm only beginning my journey into this world, but I've been staggered by it's power over people's emotional, physical, mental, relational, and spiritual functions.
People aren't poor because they're lazy, sinners, want to be that way, or are over-suckled on welfare. They're poor because of centuries of racism, sexism, greed, exploitation, and isolation.
**When Sharkey/Wilson say that urban ghetto's transformed after WWII, what are they talking about? First, Wilson wrote to debunk myths that located the cause of black ghetto poverty during the '80s in stereotypes like welfare queens, crack heads, and fatherless families (or didn't look into the causes for any of those phenomena). Here's part of Sharkey's summarization of Wilson's view:
Wilson documented how the manufacturing base in northeastern and midwestern cities had begun to evaporate, leaving minority populations that had relied on stable, working-class jobs since the Great Migration without an employment base. With the decline in manufacturing jobs within central cities, joblessness skyrocketed and there were fewer "marriageable" black men who could support a family and play the role of breadwinner -- the rate of families headed by a single parent rose sharply, as did the rate of welfare receipt.