Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Thinking about poverty and the purpose of cities...

Things have been up in the air real-world-like, so it has taken me nearly a week to get to Pandora's interesting post on being poor in the city [via WaPo].

Worth reading, but boils down to three major observations: (a) poor people get victimized by higher prices because supermarkets and discount shopping are not available in the inner cities; (b) poor people in the inner cities have difficulty making good plans; and (c) consumption taxes hit poor people harder.

This is Pandora's conclusion:

How in the world are people supposed to attain the American Dream when the entire system seems to function as a vicious cycle designed to make sure they don’t get ahead - even when they’re doing everything right?

And she also notes in the comments:

There’s an extra price - in money and time - for the poor, and it is levied due to their reliance on public transportation, lack of appliances (washer/dryer), and inability to get a bank account.

I'm going to take a different route in examining this question, because I don't think we're actually looking at the cause of the problem.

The problem is that most cities in America no longer have a reason to exist.

Think about cities in historical perspective: for most of human history cities have parasitic rather than productive. Cities dominated nation-states because they had to control the agricultural hinterlands that fed them. Cities have always had higher death rates and higher poverty rates than towns or rural areas. For the most part, cities have been consumers rather than producers of goods.

So why did cities exist at all? Primarily as political centers, religious centers, and communications centers for empires and larger societies [empires]. Bureaucracies found cities particularly useful; some industries like shipbuilding tended to concentrate in cities.

London in the 17th-18th centuries resembled far more Rome or Damascus in the 2nd Century CE than any modern city.

But something happened in the late 19th century that created a sort of blip in the form and function of cities. The industrial revolution briefly--for a period of several decades--located the factories turning out the products of heavy industry in and around the cities, because absent automobiles or effective mass transit that was the best way to keep a concentrated pool of labor available. Commerical services targeted toward that population helped balloon the size of the cities further.

Problem: during the post WW2 period, in uneven waves, the combination of the aging and dislocation of America's manufacturing capability and the development of the interstate highway system actually sucked out the two major reasons for large cities to exist: the heavy industry and the skilled/semi-skilled workforce. Prior to the advent of the internet age, other businesses (specifically financial services or corporate headquarters) moved into the gap, but they didn't have much use for the lower-income folks struggling to figure out what to do next. At the same time (roughly) we saw the progressive expansion of social programs designed to keep these folks afloat--as long as they remained in place.

There's the real rub for the prisoners of the inner city: not the prices, not the lack of mass transit, not the consumption taxes, not the failed education system, but the inability to leave.

Speaking as somebody who has picked it all up and moved cross-country on multiple occasions to seek better employment, you can only do it with (a) a support system where you're going; or (b) enough cash or credit to get by for at least three months, PLUS the skills necessary to pick up and start over completely in a new environment...

... which is not the skill set of somebody who won't go get his driver's license renewed to avoid massive check-cashing fees ...

One of the reasons that we have massive amounts of migratory immigrant labor (and not just in the agricultural field) throughout the suburbs of America is that they'll suffer in pretty much silence the fact that they live in migratory poverty (well below that which most inner city dwellers would ever accept) while filling necessary economic niches.

Did anybody in policy-making positions ever think that it would be significantly less expensive in the long run to get people the hell out of our cities rather than constantly try to invest more and more money into what amount to urban singularities?

Forget enterprise zones.

Forget urban welfare programs.

I'd be willing to tell a family, Here's $25-50K and a job contract [including benefits] in a town or small city three states away. No strings attached, except this: use the money to get yourself situated, and don't ask me for a damn penny for the next five years.

Yeah, I know there's all kinds of necessary variations on the theme, and the consequence of my program would be a dramatic change in the very nature of American urban society....

But until we start thinking differently about our problems, we're never going to get much closer to solving them.


Mike Protack said...

Along the way stop payday loans and marketing Lottery in poor areas.

Brian Shields said...

How about educating people not to use these practices.

I had a coworker who borrowed $250 and in 2 weeks had to pay back $500. I told him it had better had been for rent to save from eviction before I would pay that much for so little money.

He had a cell phone bill to pay. I told him that phone would be in the trash before I would pay a loan shark double the money for 2 weeks, especially because his adult daughter rang up the charges.

It is just poor decision making, not the practices of the loan sharks. they are just there, noone forces people to make dumb decisions.

Steven H. Newton said...

Educating folks, while a good thing in and of itself, is not going to change the fact that even under the best of conditions the job opportunities of the sort that will allow people in our cities to live good lives simply don't exist.

Brian Shields said...

True. Reacting to Protack more than anything.

I dunno about urban solutions, I never lived in the city.

Tyler Nixon said...

All this, plus the parasitic elements of political patronage that burrow themselves into the public power caste systems that particularly rise up in these cities. The mass concentrations of population, often transient - even if just locally, ensure most voters are oblivious, distracted, or too disgusted to bother.

Greedy, corrupt, dishonest, unchecked, almost-invariably and quite lopsidedly Democrat bully fiefdoms are the result (I am thinking of the Northeast and "industrial" United States more than anything when it comes to smaller cities.) Witness Wilmington, Delaware.

There is good reason they say you can't fight city hall (versus "town hall", or "county hall", or even the "state").

Having recently visited my brother in his new home in Phoenix (Scottsdale, really) I was literally bowled over by just how efficient, effective, and invisible city/local government can actually be...when run by people not primarily beholden to the political and patronage careerism with champagne tastes, like we see here in Wilmington.

It is sad because these parasitic-type urban governments inevitably enervate the economy and become unsustainable, as we see in Wilmington...yet no one stops it until it screaches to a halt, the city a wasteland of wasted opportunities and public resources down the rat hole ... often to developers who buy off the local officials to get subsidies (see Riverfront Development Corp).

And of course, left behind in its wake as a permanent albatross are a bunch of fat-assed pensioners who put in the time as some churmoistener shlub in the city governments' "gotcha" schemes - parking, fees, fines, licenses, permits...which (like the jobs of the people running them) should have never existed in the first place.

It's really a nightmare and the true "blight" on our cities. Most people just vote with their feet (easily enough) and the leaches win.

Anonymous said...

rather than compare urban poor to suburban middle class, compare urban to rural poor...

but start with a simple understanding of humanbeings.

Poverty is man's "nature State" it is man at rest.

If I find myself alone on an island, I can lay in the sand and eat what falls from the trees or crawls within arms reach or I can build a hut, tame beast, hunt what I can't tame.....

Here in Delaware, I can go to work, pay my bills and live well...


I can lay on the couch watching cable until the bankacount is empty the power is turned off and the sherrif dumps me at the curb.

poverty and homelessness are available to everyone, just do nothing and they will appear

Anonymous said...

"This is Pandora's conclusion:

How in the world are people supposed to attain the American Dream when the entire system seems to function as a vicious cycle designed to make sure they don’t get ahead - even when they’re doing everything right?"

Allow me to call BS!

If you graduate from highschool, don't get married until you are 20 and don't have kids until you are married, you have a less than 1% chance of living in poverty.

it's not the real estate, it's the culture.

Steve N. you are flat out wrong. The city is full of jobs that will lead to the middle class. Those skyscrapers are not empty!