Sunday, May 3, 2015

"Poverty Culture" is a symptom of poverty, not a cause

Let's talk about a ghetto. I won't name it, but you'll recognize the symptoms. Drug abuse and alcoholism were rampant, and most mothers were young and unwed. Brutal gangs controlled the neighborhood and on average one person was murdered a day. No one was punished for these crimes because the police were to terrified to even enter the neighborhood. 

Writers agonized about the place, and charitable groups tried to help. But most people agreed that it was probably incurable because of the culture of the people who lived there. They simply didn't know how to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Some thought it was endemic to their race, while the more enlightened simply thought they were too enmeshed in the culture of despair to ever escape. The ghetto had persisted for more than 70 years, and no one expected it to change. 

David Brooks might have been talking about just such a place in a recent column in the Times this weekend about how the real problem with places like Sandtown-Winchester in Baltimore is the culture of the place. In a complete misreading of the an interview of David Simon of "The Wire", he explains that the problem is the "informal guardrails" of life came off (the "guardrails" that Simon described being a knowledge of when cops would beat the crap out of you). Brooks complains that "half the high school students don’t bother to show up for school" and that the attitudes of people in Sandtown "discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition." 

Brooks is far from alone of course. Whenever people talk about urban poverty, especially among black people, someone will ask whether anything we do will change without a change in the culture of poverty that's filled up the place. 

Let's go back to the ghetto I was speaking about at the beginning of the article. It was called Five Points, and it made Sandtown-Winchester look like Mayfield, USA by comparison. The level of brutality and desperation of Five Points in the 19th century simply have no comparison in America today. The horror of this place is well documented in the book "Gangs of New York." When we think of "gang wars" today we generally think of gangs doing drive-by killings or individual "hits", a series of spread out murders. Gang wars in Five Points, on the other hand, were more like actual urban warfare we would expect to see today in the Middle East: bands of armed people filling the streets and battling to the death with guns, knives and clubs. The life of a Five Points resident was as cheap as a penny dropped in the streets. 

And most people thought that the brutality and desperation was an inevitable symptom of the cultures of the ethnicities that filled it - Catholics (mostly Irish and Italians), Jews and Chinese*. These kinds of people simply didn't have the moral principles and work ethic that Protestant Americans did.

Obviously, Catholics Americans, Jewish Americans and Asian Americans are viewed very differently today. Some people might argue that, contrary to what thinkers of the time believed, there is some quality of these cultures that led them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Mysteriously, however, the cultural magic didn't show itself for the 70 years that Five Points persisted.

What happened? I think it's very simple: they got good jobs. A combination of New York industry and union-protected public sector jobs (often created by the Irish-dominated Tammany Hall) allowed people of disadvantaged ethnicities to make families, own homes and feel secure. These people went on to send their children to college, and became part of America's middle class. Their descendants often moved to the more prosperous suburbs, and now Bill O'Reilly defends White America on TV and Antonin Scalia stands up for traditional morals on the Supreme court.

Why didn't Black America take advantage of the same opportunity? First of all, many of them did. There is a strong Black middle class in New York. But as Irish and Italian Americans went from being "ethnic" to being "White," they found it advantageous to preserve their position by adopting some of the same prejudices that White Americans already had. No more evidence is needed of this than the brutal murders of Black Americans during the Draft Riots during the Civil War, murders every bit as brutal as the lynchings that took place later in the South. 

As a result, jobs that were available to Irish and Italian Americans weren't available to Black Americans, and the middle class suburbs that grew in the middle of the 20th century explicitly excluded Black people. 

If you look at any community with ongoing poverty and little hope, you'll find most of the same symptoms that fill Sandtown-Winchester: unwed mothers, drug abuse, gang warfare and persistent crime. 

Want evidence? During the end of the 20th century, the industrial jobs that elevated many groups into the American middle class were exported to developing nations. Many communities that had supported themselves on manufacturing jobs suddenly had no well-paying jobs. Many mostly-White suburbs have become desperately poor. And what do you see in these communities? Oxycontin abuse, unwed motherhood, and increasing violence. Somehow their Protestant work ethic did nothing to protect them from the culture of poverty. 

What does Sandtown-Winchester need? Simple. They need good jobs that are available to people without a college education that can support a family. Some people, of course, will not take advantage of the opportunity. But most people will. 

*There were some Black Americans in Five Points as well, but they were a minority.