1.3.16

WHEN THE SOCIAL CAPITAL LEAVES TOWN.

Steven Shultis reflects on becoming a homeowner in a rough part of Springfield, Massachusetts.
Being poor is hard. Whether the poor living here think so or not, in many ways this is a great neighborhood in which to be poor. Whatever the general state of public transit, living where I do gives people a tremendous mobility that no other location in the region does. Just about every governmental body and institution has a branch or outlet here. Living in an urban center gives the poor access to many of the services which cater to their needs. Residing near the region's hospitality industry (7 hotels now, 11 by 2018 with thousands of guest rooms), universities, and medical centers makes access to thousands of entry level jobs possible.

But these are mostly not actually benefits of the concentration of poverty, they are the benefits of living in a city center. One problem of the concentration of poverty is how it normalizes dysfunction. I see the dysfunction every day. Some gentrification is what the neighborhood needs. Concerns that it could go so far as to displace tremendous numbers of people here are misguided in my view. That is not to say that it wouldn't create new challenges for the people living here--far from it, of course it would. But in many cases what these people need is for a buffer of "function" between themselves and their neighbor's dysfunction. Someone needs to call the police. Someone needs to care enough to pick up the nips bottles, the used condoms, and the dog poop. Someone needs to be at the city council meeting, and the PTO meeting.
Gentrification is emergent, and the critical mass of service industries suggests it is likely.  What Mr Sultis is writing, however, is a suggestion both to the new arrivals to see the grit and determination of many of the current residents, rather than to think of those people as those people ...

At the same time, he's suggesting that the life management skills of the middle class matter.
With school desegregation, white flight created a vacuum which has (in a paradoxical turn of phrase) given concentrated poverty a chance to expand. With the middle class and the wealthy having fled to the suburbs and the exurbs, one result is that many of the rich not only do not ever see poverty, they also have a very warped sense of their own disproportionate wealth. That is to say: I know families with incomes a quarter of a million dollars a year that think that they are middle class.

The concentration of poverty does not just isolate the poor in their behaviors, attitudes, and dysfunctions, it does the same to the middle and upper classes. The recent epidemic of opioid overdose deaths in more suburban and rural parts of the country has led to a spate of articles acknowledging that "we can't just incarcerate our way out of this problem.” Funny how that same realization never occurred to people when most of those being locked up over drug problems were from "that place, that class, and that race.” When "that place" is your place, and people of that class and that race are your neighbors, that realization might well come sooner.

A fact became clear to me a short time back, it is now almost something of a mantra: Were I to find a billion dollars, my dream would be to stay here. Were most of my neighbors to find a thousand, their dream would be to get out. It isn't the place so much as it is the people around them. When you have resources you can be in this world, but not of it, so to speak. The poor do not have that luxury; the poor are always with them.
Whether your bogeyman is "social engineering" or "snob zoning" or "self-segregation" the message might be that your place, wherever it is, will be a more livable place if you and your family are capable of living competently, and more so if your neighbors also are.  I'm likely to return to this argument again, although it's being crowded out by the electoral crack-up going on this spring.

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