I’m normally a bit suspicious of crowd wisdom where history is concerned, but What Was There is a great site for urbanists to explore their region’s past. As it grows, maybe it will become a visual/spatial/oral/public history archive.
I had heard of Stanley Kurtz’s new book in the course of some research on Fulton County secession, and aside from a morbid curiosity about what evil lurks in the brains of the professional right-wing punditariat, had little professional interest. The subtitle gives away the trick: “How Obama Is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities.” In fact, quite the opposite is true. American suburbia is a spatial transfer of resources out of cities, through public and private agency, on a scale unprecedented in history. This notwithstanding, Kurtz’s tale opportunistically marshals several disparate threads of right-wing thought (anti-urbanism, Objectivist distrust of the public sector verging on political autism, automobile transportation as a fundamental human right, decision processes based on reflexive spite against the preferences of imagined liberal elites, and fear of imaginary United Nations conspiracies. Oh, and not-really-cryptoracism). If you had forgotten, the cover reminds you that Obama’s black!). Ben Adler’s smackdown review on Next American City summarizes all of this quite well.
If you read Next American City, you probably think you are reasonably well-informed on the major urban policy issues of the day. You poor sap! You’ve been deceived. It turns out, according to Stanley Kurtz — a fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center — that President Obama has a plan to massively overhaul the nation’s cities and suburbs. It’s all right there, if you just connect the wildly disparate dots.
Adler’s not kidding about the wildy disparate dots, and rather than quote after quote after quote, I’ll just recommend that you go and read the whole thing. OK, one more quote:
Kurtz uses nothing but pure assertion to rebut the understanding — widely accepted by experts — that America’s landscape reflects 60 years of encouraging suburban sprawl through tax, zoning and transportation policies that favor building roads and parking, buying new homes, and segregating uses over mass transit, density and renting.
After reading and thinking about Adler’s rebuttal, though, I realize that it’s important to explore the roots of this kind of argument a bit more, not because it’s a logical argument, or one supported by evidence, or one with principles of fairness on its side. It’s important to understand because it represents the ways that cultural politics have and will continue to shape our metropolitan areas. In other words, the interesting puzzle is not to show why Kurtz’s argument is objectively nonsensical, but to show how and why it continues to make such potent subjective sense.
In part of his tome exerpted at the National Review (linked so you can see that this is for real), Kurtz identifies the boogeyman of regionalism. Thinkers like David Rusk and other New Regionalists stand in for an elitist plot to substitute regional authority for local government, and ultimately herd Americans into dystopian apartment blocks built by the United Nations.
“replacing civil engineering with social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit.”
Nutty? Unfortunately mostly to a small community of academics and other reality-based life forms! But Kurtz’s conspiratorial rantings tap into a broad based-common sense.
Understanding the rhetorical potency of Kurtz’s argument requires understanding how he leverages two fallacies rooted in ahistoricism in his discussion of “the suburbs.” First, Kurtz is ignoring the way that suburbs grew in relationship to central cities. In making this historical elision, Kurtz portrays suburbs as outcomes of choice and preference, and the concentration of wealth and privilege in elite suburbs as natural and praiseworthy outcomes of preferences in the marketplace. There’s a kernel of truth this view, which is best expressed here, though even this account elides the way that the desirability of suburbanization in the 19th and early 20th centuries was a relational idea (a “bourgeois utopia”) formed in distinction to the wretched conditions of immigrant slums in New York and other large American cities, rather than an innate, trans-historical human desire to live in a suburban environment (see here to the contrary). It also ignores the role of government policy in subsidizing this lifestyle and environment. Regionalism, viewed through this market fallacy, is an illegitimate attempt to take from people who have built equity wealth in suburban real estate and give to people who don’t deserve it. This trope is pernicious enough, and works as a rhetorical puzzle piece that dovetails nicely with other pieces like racism, trickle-down economics, and the demonization of public employees.
Now, historically speaking, it’s nonsensical to think of suburbs outside of a regional context. The first residential suburbs (and, to be clear, these are the kinds of suburbs that Kurtz imagines are threatened by Obama’s schemes–affluent residential areas of single-family homes) were residential outposts connected to city centers by streetcar lines. While people lived there, they depended on the cities for work, for commerce, and for the cultural and economic substance of their lives. While the built environment of these suburbs was different, and the people living there certainly preferred the semirural setting of the suburbs (and had the means to act on their preferences), no one thought of the suburbs as spaces entirely separate from the city; both proximity and selective connections to city centers defined suburban life. Further, access to city services like water and sewers influenced many suburban communities to annex to larger cities in the 1800s and early 1900s (see Jon Teaford’s classic work on this subject). Indeed, in places like Los Angeles, streetcar lines licensed by downtown municipal governments enriched the Huntington family only partly through fares: the political apparatus of municipal franchises allowed them to route streetcar lines through their speculative land holdings and subdivide them to increase their fortune (see this account by Henry Friedricks).
Technological, political, and cultural barriers to suburban independence have gradually fallen, and today many pundits imagine suburban space as untethered to old central cities. Suburban cities operate their own utilities and services; corporate offices and retail and shipping facilities have moved outward to cheap, developable land, and the daily life of a resident of an affluent suburb may include less frequent contact with the big city than ever before. But the infrastructure that makes this autonomy possible is quite dependent on urban centrality–road networks were built around concentrations of people, business went where the money was, and even the infrastructure of telecommunication, the stuff that supposedly obviates the need for “technoburbs” to connect to cities at all, was built around central nodes that followed patterns of urban concentration. Most often, central city taxpayers funded the expansion of this infrastructure, and, as Richardson Dilworth has shown, the intellectual capital of civil engineers and builders developed building big-city sewers and roads was then sold at a discount to growing suburbs.
Cities, in other words, provided the laboratories and paid for the research that produced the technology of living together. If Kurtz wanted to start an honest tally of debits and credits on his ledger, he might find a different answer to the question of who owes whom.
But Kurtz isn’t interested in an honest discussion of regionalism, a disinterest betrayed by the second fallacious part of his argument. Kurtz defines “suburbs” as places filled with people he likes (white, affluent, straight, and right of center) and imagines the landscape they inhabit as threatened. This is an argument about suburbs that exist in Kurtz’s imagination, rather than in America, where suburbs have always been varied. They have been poor as well as wealthy, racially diverse and peopled by minorities as well as homogenous and white, and have departed from the picket fence ideal far more often than they have conformed to it.
This has been true since the dawn of suburbanization, and it’s true today (For further reading, start here, and continue with now-classic studies by Andy Wiese and Becky Nicolaides). As Manuel Pastor and other New Regionalists demonstrate, many suburban municipalities fit the demographic profile of “inner city” areas. They have high unemployment, low levels of educational achievement, large minority populations, and deteriorating infrastructure. In fact, many of these suburbs have seen their own form of white flight. Today, the greatest numbers of poor Americans live not in cities, but in suburbs. Not only are many of these suburban cities impoverished, their political autonomy leaves them isolated as small governments attempting to address big problems, and the suburban poor face daunting challenges in physical mobility that impede their social mobility in ways that the poor in large cities don’t face–the typical cost of owning an automobile in America is almost $9,000 a year, according to AAA (an organization with little incentive to promote alternatives).
This suburbia that is excluded from Kurtz’s vision is, in fact, the part of the country that needs regionalism the most. New regionalists provide ample evidence that integrated development strategies can help produce both expansion and greater equity. Yet this win-win strategy remains an extremely tough sell, in part because of the distorted and deceptive view of suburban victimization painted by Kurtz and generations of suburban politicians, who have eagerly capitalized on the racial motivations of white flight and the development of a distinctly suburban identity and political culture, as well as the sense of upward mobility conveyed by suburbanization, to create a zero-sum metropolitics both in institutions and in culture. Residents of poorer suburbs aren’t conditioned to think of themselves as beneficiaries from greater regionalism.
I should note that I’ve been particularly concerned with historicizing the New Regionalist critique of metropolitics, because, while the argument for win-win development they advance is compelling, as social scientists many New Regionalists greatly underestimate the historical tenacity and path-dependency of zero-sum, antagonistic thinking. I’ve published work on this problem here, and will have a piece coming out soon in the Journal of Urban History exploring a case study in Southern California.
In the meantime, beware the conspiracy to destroy the suburbs; the fact that there’s no evidence for it just means Obama’s covering his tracks carefully.
Paul Tough’s New York Times Magazine piece on Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood, a mostly African-American area of the far South Side that has fallen on the kind of hard times that are common to post-industrial neighborhoods across the nation, reveals a great deal about how American poverty policy works, though perhaps not entirely in the ways he intended. Tough’s hook for the article was that Barack Obama’s brief career as a community organizer found him working in and near Roseland. Quoting Dreams From My Father, Tough posits that Roseland was a pivotal experience for Obama.
If any American president might have been expected to focus his attention on Roseland and its problems, it would be Barack Obama. The neighborhood, as it happens, played a critical role in Obama’s personal and political history. As a young community organizer, he worked in Roseland and at a nearby low-rise housing project called Altgeld Gardens for three years in the late 1980s; it was in these communities, Obama said in the speech announcing his presidential run, that he “received the best education I ever had.” And when he finally left Roseland, for Harvard Law School and a political career, he did so, he said, to gain the knowledge and the resources that would allow him to eventually return and tackle the neighborhood’s problems anew.
For Tough, then, the important questions stem from the continuity of poverty in Roseland and the rest of the nation, despite the election of a president who was familiar with the neighborhood and pledged to do something to help. Tough sees a disjunction: Obama, in a long tradition of liberal idealism, sought greater power to help Roseland, but somehow failed to deliver enough of that help to make a difference.
I would suggest quite the opposite. Rather than disjunctions, Roseland helps us to understand ideological threads that have been continuous for four decades of thinking, talking, and acting about poverty. The structure of this article as a narrative shows what I mean. Tough makes a sensible proposition in the second paragraph:
Fifty years ago, Roseland was a prosperous part of Chicago, home to thousands of blue-collar workers, most of them white, employed by the South Side’s many steel and manufacturing plants. But the plants closed long ago, the white residents all moved away and Roseland has become one of the worst-off parts of the city by just about every measure you can think of: unemployment rate, dropout rate, murder rate or just the barren, empty feel of the streets.
Structural transformation of the economy from industrial to post-industrial results in the vanishing of low-skilled and moderately-skilled work. Racism-driven migration out of the neighborhood jibes with the real estate market to depress values and erode the wealth of residents. Without wages coming in or equity wealth to draw on, the neighborhood gets and stays poor, and those with means, whether whites or the black middle class, move out. And, since Roseland is in many regards a modal neighborhood for the City of Big Shoulders (and industrial cities across the United States), this process replicated throughout the city and nation means that property taxes for schools crater, and public schools cease to be a vehicle for even a limited kind of social mobility. It’s a rare thing when complex problems have relatively simple explanations.
So, one would think that the remainder of the article might focus on the fundamental problems of the job and housing markets (i.e. that the market provides insufficient quantity and quality of both) ; or the funding of sufficient public education; or the cultural problem that the humanity and citizenship of African Americans and other racial minorities is still incompletely recognized, particularly by white Americans who now perceive themselves as the principal victims of racism.
But you can probably guess from the fact that I’m blogging a response that Tough’s piece doesn’t go there. I’m less concerned with bashing Tough, who deserves some credit as a journalist for painting a rich picture of the ways that multiple forms of disadvantage link up to create cascading quality of life problems for the poor, who find themselves in communities that are stripped not just of wealth, but of opportunity too (pdf). And he paints a compelling portrait of Steven Gates, a social worker who seems as beaten down by the grind as the troubled youths he mentors. The problem lies in the ideas that Tough has close at hand to explain why Roseland is, to be blunt, so messed up. Most of the social science he cites amounts to an effort to ignore the core of the problem—an economy that is not at all organized to create full employment or living wages, and a political culture of institutional racism that works to ensure that places like Roseland have borne and will continue to bear the brunt of this systemic failure–in favor of endogenous explanations rooted in family structure and even neurobiology that shift attention from the social and historical process of impoverishment to the individual (or familial) phenomenon of poor people. Unfortunately, these ahistorical ideas aren’t just close at hand to Tough. They’re close at hand for some pretty influential policymakers too, Barack Obama among them.
Tough follows Roseland native Steve Gates, who works in youth outreach for an organization called the Youth Advocacy Program (YAP), through the streets, schools, precinct houses, hospitals and funeral homes of Chicago’s far South Side, where he encounters a tragic roster of problems in his efforts to keep at-risk youth on the straight and narrow, wondering along with Gates whether his daily grind is the best or only solution:
The big question that Gates wrestled with every day — how do you help young people growing up in poverty to succeed? — was not too long ago a major focus of public debate in the United States. During the Johnson administration, the place to be for smart, ambitious young people in Washington was the Office of Economic Opportunity, the command center for the War on Poverty. In the 1990s, Washington once again saw a robust public discussion of poverty, much of it centered on the issue of welfare reform.
In a political climate where the right generally eschews thinking at all about poverty in favor of sloganeering and moralizing, Tough seems to be falling into a trap of taking it as an unalloyed good that powerful people are thinking about poverty at all. Here’s where we have to get historical,though. It’s not enough that people in high places think and talk about poverty. What they think, say, and do matters considerably. Much more than 31 years separate the War on Poverty from the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act signed by Bill Clinton in 1996. These two moments are equivalent only in the sense that they reflected the most powerful people in the United States attempting to set public policy to deal with poverty according to their understandings of the problem. The ideas and policies that flowed from each moment reflect a profound rightward shift in thought and policy that has impacted the prevalence and experience of poverty in the United States.
So, while Tough reports the factually true statement that
In 1966, at the height of the War on Poverty, the poverty rate was just under 15 percent of the population; in 2010, the most recent year for which data is available, it was 15.1 percent.
He omits some other salient information, including the poverty rates in intervening years. Poverty was not, in fact, constant.
Although this dual-line graph compresses the slopes of the downward trend beginning in the mid-1960s and the upward trend in the early 1980s, figures don’t lie: the War On Poverty made a significant dent in the U.S. poverty rate. It also made a more specific intervention salient to this article and to the work that Steven Gates is doing in Roseland: it reduced the numbers and percentage of children living in poverty.
While children under 18 will always comprise a high proportion of people in poverty (their presence in a household increases the denominator but not the numerator of dollars per member since, at least for now, child labor remains illegal), the War on Poverty made a significant dent in the number of children living in poverty. Critics will point out that the injection of AFDC payments into mother-headed households lowered the number of households under the poverty line, to which I’d answer: that was the point. Tough goes on to survey a range of interdisciplinary research on poverty, encompassing brain development, the effects of familial stresses caused by poverty, and the impact of poverty on early school achievement. In summary, he concludes
the way we direct services to poor children would work better if we did more or less the opposite of what we’re doing today.
The number of children in extreme poverty grew in 1990s and 2000s because of shifts in antipoverty policy:
This shift is mostly the result of a series of legislative changes in the 1990s meant to encourage work among the poor — among them the expansion of the earned-income tax credit and a law permitting children of single mothers working low-wage jobs to be covered by Medicaid. At the same time, government support for nonworking poor families began to drop sharply. The welfare-reform law passed by Congress in 1996 continued to provide cash aid to some poor families but did so with stringent requirements that adults who received that aid — mostly single mothers — either be working or actively looking for work. Over the last two decades, cash aid shrank steadily, and in many states, it has now all but disappeared. In Wyoming, just 314 families currently receive cash welfare. Illinois’s caseload fell by 86 percent from 1997 to 2011. In Georgia, in 1996, more than 90 percent of poor families received cash aid. Now 8 percent of them do.
What struck me was the length of the detour through a description of the lives of Roseland’s poor that separated Tough’s discussion of historical poverty rates and his discussion of the impact of post-1990s reforms.Why write that way? Describing the deficiencies of poor communities and poor people is, I think, compulsory in any discussion of poverty policy.
Michael Katz’s important work shows conclusively that the poor have long been stigmatized in American political culture, and that while directly bashing the poor has been common, lamenting the futility of efforts to to help them has been the more important political tool, in that it has allowed liberals to imagine themselves protecting the best interests of poor people by dismantling the welfare state.
Alice O’Connor’s work in policy history covers more contemporary ground, and does much more to expose the intellectual production of anti-poor stigma as a concrete strategy. What I’ve found most compelling in her analysis of the rise of right-wing think tanks (see here for her take on the Manhattan Institute–“The Privatized City: The Manhattan Institute, the Urban Crisis, and the Conservative Counterrevolution in New York.” Journal of Urban History 34, no. 2 (January 1, 2008): 333–353.) is the way that she connects the dots between nominally economic or fiscal elements of conservatism (tax cutting, slashing spending on social welfare and services), the cultural politics of resentment (against gays and lesbians, minorities, and feminists), and the role of the social space of the city (in this case, principally 1970s and 1980s New York) as a foil for a rightist, authoritarian, and neoliberal vision of society. O’Connor credits the Manhattan Institute for its craft–it created a circuit of self-referential political arguments that could be encapsulated in a set of urban symbols, so that
New York, in the well-worn conservative phraseology, became a showcase for “the billions of dollars that made things worse,” as well as for the broader moral degeneration of post-1960s American culture.
Which brings us back to William Julius Wilson, whose ideas are the keystone of the policies under review here. Tough writes of The Truly Disadvantaged that
There is probably no book that did more to explain the changes that were taking place in neighborhoods like Roseland.
It’s important to clarify what “explain” means in this context. It’s quite debatable whether Wilson was the best explainer of urban poverty, if explaining meant constructing the best explanation for a phenomenon. But Wilson was certainly the most successful at offering an account of causes that jibed with a prevailing political-economic consensus in neoliberalizing America as the ideas produced by the Manhattan Institute and other think tanks shifted toward the mainstream, to the point that (Even the Liberal) Brookings Institution is on board.
Wilson identified a major shift in American poverty at that time. Sociologists define a neighborhood as being in “extreme poverty” if 40 percent or more residents are poor, and Wilson showed that from 1970 to 1980 in the five largest American cities, the number of poor people living in extreme poverty almost tripled. That degree of concentrated poverty, Wilson wrote, was extraordinarily toxic, especially to children, and it led, in neighborhoods like Roseland, to “an exponential increase in related forms of social dislocation.”
Although criticism Wilson took over this 1987 book prodded him to revisit the matter of employment in When Work Disappears, his thesis that the internal social dynamics of high-poverty communities, were the crucial explanatory mechanism for a lack of social mobility among the urban poor nonetheless hit a political sweet spot for the rising New Democrats. Wilson was at pains to stress that he didn’t feel the poor were necessarily inferior, congenitally incapable of improving their lot, or morally undeserving of material sufficiency or social respect. Charles Murray and other right-wing think tank ideologues were there for that. But he really didn’t have to engage in the malignant racist pseudoscience of Murray and Richard Herrnstein to do considerable damage to the interests of the poor, because his work justified Bill Clinton’s “centrist” accommodation to conservative plans to “end welfare as we know it.” Barack Obama, in his preferred self-presentation as a post-partisan, centrist, pragmatist fully embraced Wilson’s ideas on the campaign trail in 2008:
While Obama expressed support in the speech for some of the traditional, broad-brush Democratic antipoverty policies — raising the minimum wage, strengthening unions, expanding access to health care, improving educational opportunity — his focus was on the need for new solutions to concentrated urban poverty, which he described as “the cause that led me to a life of public service almost 25 years ago.”
With a nod to the ideas of William Julius Wilson, Obama made the case that inner-city poverty is qualitatively different from other strains of poverty. “What’s most overwhelming about urban poverty is that it’s so difficult to escape,” he said. “It’s isolating, and it’s everywhere.” Addressing this kind of poverty was neither simple nor straightforward, Obama said. “If poverty is a disease that infects an entire community in the form of unemployment and violence, failing schools and broken homes, then we can’t just treat those symptoms in isolation. We have to heal that entire community.”
What that has meant in practice is that communities targeted for improvement are analyzed solely in terms of endogenous factors. While Tough cites Obama’s campaign promises to tackle poverty approvingly, it’s worth parsing his message much more closely than Tough does:
At its center was a proposal to expand the work of Geoffrey Canada and his organization, the Harlem Children’s Zone, which takes an intensive and comprehensive approach to child development in a 97-block high-poverty neighborhood in central Harlem, providing poor children with not just high-quality charter schools but also parenting programs, preschools, a medical clinic, a farmers’ market, family counseling and help with college applications. (My 2008 book, “Whatever It Takes,” is a profile of Canada and a history of the Children’s Zone.)
There is little doubt that poor communities benefit from some of these things (with the jury still emphatically out on charter schools). But the focus on farmer’s markets and clinics underscores the fact that this sort of antipoverty thinking adopts a very particular lens, that of the deficiencies within the neighborhood. Systemic factors originating or operating outside those 97 blocks are simply assumed out of existence. It’s akin to treating lung cancer with chemotherapy while still sending the patient to work in an asbestos mine.
But within this ideological framework, it’s possible for theoreticaly serious and influential people to continue their efforts to improve the poor rather than eradicating poverty. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the field of education, where a cohort of Chicago “reformers” is driving the national discussion. Tough quotes Education Secretary Arne Duncan
“What I fundamentally believe — and what the president believes,” Duncan told me, “is that the only way to end poverty is through education.”
Statements like this have such resonance with common sense that it is easy to miss their ideological character. As boosterism for a particular set of reforms organized around privatization and parental involvement, such talk deflects attention from public institutions and collective provision to a model in which every family is responsible for their own outcomes. This is not a model that is built for a 100% success rate.
But there is a growing concern in education-policy circles that those reforms — like charter schools that require a significant level of parental involvement — tend to have a much higher success rate with better-off low-income students, the ones who come from more stable and capable homes.
The confusion in Tough’s article, and the reason why he takes a conflicted tone, is that he is trying to reconcile Arne Duncan’s vision of reform with the struggles faced by Steve Gates, whose workaday life is quite literally trying to plug the holes in neoliberal social policy.
Bob Jessop has written insightfully on the shift in urban governance from the precepts of a strong public sector and a minimal social safety net to what he calls the “Shumpeterian Workfare Postnational Regime” (“Liberalism, Neoliberalism, and Urban Governance: A State-Theoretical Perspective.” Antipode 34, no. 3 (2002): 459-460). “SWPR” is a mouthful even in acronym form; the crucial elements with regard to poverty are the substitution of mandatory low-wage work for public assistance combined with “postnational” offshoring of manufacturing and other traditional sources of living wages. “Shumpeterian” denotes the idea of creative destruction, by which capital realizes new opportunities for profit by dismantling old arrangements (swapping AFDC for workfare, public schools for privately run charters, voucherizing housing assistance, or breaking public employee pension contracts for 401k plans), and “regime” denotes the coalition of political actors inside and outside of government who advance this destruction, as well as the ideas they share in common and around which they mobilize and seek to win support.
William Julius Wilson has been arguably the thinker most essential to the rise of the SWPR in the United States. The critical deception that Wilsonian culture of poverty social science commits is one of scale. While the concentrated neighborhood poverty that Wilson observed appears to be a narrowly parochial phenomenon, to use Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s infamous phrase, a “tangle of pathologies” present in poor neighborhoods. historians have begun to recognize how that spatial pattern has been produced at the metropolitan scale, with Bob Self’s terrific American Babylon and Colin Gordon’s Mapping Decline being the most notable accounts in terms of the development of industrial and real estate wealth in suburban Oakland and Saint Louis respectively at the direct expense of central neighborhoods, and works like Matt Lassiter’s The Silent Majority and Kevin Kruse’s White Flight describing the political and cultural formations in American suburbs that encouraged and defended this pattern, making it seem natural, normal, and, crucially, not changeable through redistributive politics.
The right has always seized on Barack Obama’s past as a community organizer as evidence of what they imagine to be his radicalism (Obama has strategically encouraged this interpretation in his own writings and speeches). But while the community organizing of Saul Alinsky and the Poor People’s Movements chronicled by Piven and Cloward was based on the premise that a neighborhood could organize to make big shots outside the neighborhood–in City Hall and the downtown boardrooms–deliver material or political goods to the community, Tough makes it depressingly clear that the kind of organizing that has been going on under the banner of Wilson’s scholarship for decades has been inward-looking, aimed at improving the poor themselves to the point where they might be ready not to be poor any more.
The upshot? When even well-intentioned writers like Tough write about poverty, they get boxed in to a frame of reference that leads to despair.
Americans know how to use their government to remediate a certain kind of poverty. If a family does not have enough food to eat or money to survive, we know how to issue food stamps or cut a check.
[Ed: this is precisely the kind of aid that we do less and less of these days, despite the fact that it is historically the one sure-fire method to make poor people less poor.]
But when children are growing up in a home without the kind of stability and support and order that they need to succeed in life, Americans don’t always know — and certainly don’t always agree — on what we want the government to do. We generally agree that we want the government to help increase opportunity and social mobility.But we don’t like the idea of the government meddling in the home lives of private families. And so we’re in a dilemma: the biggest factor holding back social mobility for poor children may be one we don’t have a good strategy to solve — and it may be one we don’t feel comfortable even addressing at all.
Tough is right that there’s a problem we’re not addressing, but wrong about what it is. The way we talk about poor communities obscures the fact that those communities are created by a political and economic system that takes as a baseline assumption that not all people in a society will be adequately provided for. Once we let that assumption pass, we’re just arguing about the appropriate limit of non-provision.
Newspapers present an interesting view to ruling ideology through the stories they cover and the juxtaposition of those stories without overt intent or purpose. The front page of the same Sunday edition of the Times announced with an objective sense of inevitability that all of our skilled (read: well-paid) manufacturing work will soon be done by robots. One perspective, held by this blog, is that except for a few folks on the North Shore who will finance and design those robots, we are all Roseland, whether we choose to accept it or to continue in a set of delusions embedded in our social thought and policy that reassure the more comfortable among us by explaining what’s wrong with the poor. There is another perspective that holds there is absolutely no connection to be drawn between the two of these stories, and that those of our children who are educated for success, entrepreneurialism, and STEM fields will all prosper. Just ask Arne Duncan or Barack Obama.
It was a big day in the New York Times Sunday edition that’s been showing up on my doorstep unannounced for the last couple of weeks (It must belong to the old tenant or to the one next door who’s out of town, to judge by the uncollected junk mail in their box. At any rate, I did my due diligence by waiting until after I returned from a run to bring it inside–the unwritten laws of urban living have been followed).
I’ll get to the big serious article about urban poverty in a while, but before that, let’s consider Stephanie Strom’s front-page piece on pending litigation against food companies for deceptive labeling.
The problem starts with the headline,
After Tobacco, Lawyers Set Their Sights on Food Industry [note: online, it’s the slightly less terrifying “Lawyers From Suits Against Big Tobacco Target Food Makers”])
and gets worse from there. If I remember my inverted pyramid (and I think I do, but there’s a reason I’m practicing history and not journalism), the most important stuff the reporter wants to stress comes in the first paragraph. That way, if a busy reader wants to stop reading, they still take away the most important stuff. What’s Strom trying to make sure her reader grasps?
Don Barrett, a Mississippi lawyer, took in hundreds of millions of dollars a decade ago after suing Big Tobacco and winning record settlements from R. J. Reynolds, Philip Morris and other cigarette makers. So did Walter Umphrey, Dewitt M. Lovelace and Stuart and Carol Nelkin.
Ever since, the lawyers have been searching for big paydays in business, scoring more modest wins against car companies, drug makers, brokerage firms and insurers. Now, they have found the next target: food manufacturers.
I’m struggling to find any daylight between the Newspaper of Record and a Limbaugh Two Minute Hate: Trial Lawyers segment. When a reporter, ostensibly writing a news story, frames the case as a challenge to
industry players like ConAgra Foods, PepsiCo, Heinz, General Mills and Chobani that stock pantry shelves and refrigerators across America
it sends a pretty clear signal about who’s wearing the black hats. “Those Trial Lawyers, at it again!” says Joe Q. Sixpack. “They won’t be satisfied until they’ve sued all of the food out of existence,” he grumbles, as Stephanie Strom revels in the satisfactions of a job of professional, objective journalism well done.
It takes quite a bit more reading, and turning to page 4, before a reader gets any sense of the stakes for consumers of mass-produced food products: honest representation of the products they (and by “they” I mean “we, all of us”) consume. But we can’t even get there directly, without first hearing the industry’s perspective.
“It’s difficult to take some of these claims seriously, for instance, that a consumer was deceived into believing that a chocolate hazelnut spread for bread was healthy for children,” said Kristen E. Polovoy, an industry lawyer at Montgomery McCracken, referring to a lawsuit that two mothers brought against the maker of Nutella. “I think the courts are starting to look at the implausibility of some of these suits.”
This, incidentally, is an example of the advertisements in question.
The semiotics of this ad are pretty rich. Visually, we have Blonde Attractive (But Not Threateningly So) Mom, and Three Fair Haired Children in a Big Suburban McMansion With Obligatory Great Room and Kitchen Island. The Golden Retriever is a little on the nose, but I’ll let it slide. Clearly, this is not a household where Imperfect Things are welcomed.
As for Nutella, this hazelnut spread fits right in. It’s great for getting those kids fed (and look at how healthy those kids are!), particularly because of how well it spreads on other healthy-sounding foods like “multigrain toast” and “even whole wheat waffles.” Pictures do most of the messaging work here, because the language in Super Mom’s lines has been lawyered to the point of meaninglessness. Nutella helps her “give my family a breakfast they’ll want to eat.” It is made with “simple, quality ingredients.” The words “nutritious” don’t pass her lips, nor do the words “sugar” and “palm oil,” though they’re first on the list of those simple ingredients. But unless you’re blind, you probably get the message.
So, we could rephrase Polovoy’s defense as “our advertisements play you for suckers, but it’s not our fault it worked.” Some moral high ground we’ve got here. It’s almost as if big food corporations have no regard for…. HEY! LOOK OVER THERE! A PLAINTIFF’S TRIAL LAWYER MADE A LOT OF MONEY ON A CASE!
We do learn, paragraphs later, that food industry lawyers are concerned that they might be compelled to stop exploiting the vagueness of terms like “natural” and “healthy.” Litigation particularly focuses on the use of “evaporated cane juice” as a purposefully deceptive label euphemism for sugar. While we’ve been assured by the numerous industry representatives quoted that such claims are frivolous,
Even so, such cases are raising concerns within the industry.
At a recent food and beverage conference attended by more than 100 lawyers, Madeleine M. McDonough, a lawyer at Shook, Hardy & Bacon who is co-chairwoman of the agribusiness and food safety practice, warned in a session on fraud litigation that it was imperative for companies to comply with federal regulation. “Otherwise, we are dead in the water,” she said, according to two lawyers present, including J. Price Coleman, who is working with Mr. Barrett’s group.
In another time or place, this story might have been headlined “The Threat of Litigation Makes Companies Consider Following the Law.”
It’s not until the final column that Strom gets around to explaining some of the public stakes of the lawsuits
Consumers are increasingly conscious of their eating habits as rates of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, obesity and other health problems rise. State and local governments are also becoming alarmed at the escalating costs of caring for people with those diseases and are putting pressure on food companies….
Plaintiffs’ lawyers realize that critics may counter that their lawsuits do not have real victims.
Mr. Barrett fought tobacco cases for years on behalf of smokers dying of cancer — and lost because juries agreed with the tobacco companies that smoking was a personal choice. Not until he and Richard Scruggs sued on behalf of states, which had spent hundreds of millions of dollars caring for sick smokers, did they win their record settlement.
Oddly, for an article stressing the links between food lawsuits and tobacco lawsuits, Strom doesn’t directly state the most obvious link: tobacco companies made immense profits selling deadly products and externalizing the costs of using those products onto the broader public. Although winning lawsuits delivered big fees to lawyers, they also served to internalize some of those costs.
As an urbanist I found Upton Sinclair’s sociological observations of the Back-Of-The-Yards and his indictment of labor and predatory credit practices in the Gilded Age far more interesting than his what’s-in-your-sausage-anyway passages. As Eric Schlosser writes in the introduction to a great reprint edition, public response to The Jungle unfortunately picked clean food out of a complex ethos of social justice that included fair working and living conditions. Nonetheless, the idea that people should know, and that wealthy corporations owe us the truth about what was in their food used to be kind of a big deal.
The campaign to split Fulton County in Georgia is, to say the least, fraught with racial implications. More to the point, the controversy illustrates competing frames of understanding about what is and isn’t racial or racist.
Reaction to a 2011 voting rights lawsuit filed by the Rev. Joseph Lowery and members of the state legislature’s Black Caucus illustrates this dynamic quite clearly. Lowery v. Deal demanded the disincorporation of several recently-formed northern suburbs, including Sandy Springs, and injunction against legislative action to create Milton County. The politics of the suit–impeding the creation of Milton County by returning the cities to an unincorporated status where they would receive services from Fulton County– were, in my view, somewhat at odds with the core legal claim of the suit–that the cities were majority-white and thus diluted minority voting strength in violation of the Voting Right Act.
Judge Timothy Batten, Sr.’s dismissal of the suit in March 2012 could be critiqued on many fronts (and check back here for more on that), but certainly validated the position of advocates for the new cities; as State Representative (and Sandy Springs City Attorney) Wendell Willard argued when the suit was filed, creating new cities was only a positive in terms of democratic participation, giving all residents another, closer set of officials to vote for.
“They claim a dilution of voting power, but in fact there hasn’t been any dilution. The people who live in these cities still have the ability to vote, as they have in presidential elections, state elections, county elections – now we’ve added for them the benefit of voting in a local election.”
No one was being denied anything, and certainly not because of race.
Nonetheless, resolving the fairness of the cities’ incorporations only accentuates the larger issue: that the incorporated cities are in a much stronger position to work to split the county. This was a fact recognized by all observers of the suit, and for a matter that was not about race, race had an odd way of popping up in discussions of the suit on the web in 2011.
White supremacist sites, including one operated by author Paul Kersey under the charming name “Stuff Black People Don’t Like” [No Links to Bigots Policy] was quite happy to frame the suit and the larger controversy as battles in open racial conflict. Kersey optimistically argued that pro-Milton County forces were striking back against “BRA” (an imaginary state of affairs called “Black Ruled America”).
South Fulton is full of Black people whose mere existence is predicated on the redistribution of tax dollars collected from the North Fulton residents…. Tired of playing Atlas for Fulton County’s Black residents, the largely white residents of Sandy Springs, Johns Creek, and Dunwoody have decided to finally shrug.
In his imagination, then, the battle over Milton County is the Fort Sumter of a war of redemption:
The push of that domino – the first domino – will come when DWL [note: Disingenuous White Liberal] residents of the Northside attempted [sic] to form their own county. The Department of Justice will attempt to intervene, thereby showing that white people have only one role and one duty in BRA: to continue working and paying taxes to support Black people’s proliferation (and, increasingly, other non-white minorities)….Once the push comes, the legitimacy of BRA will end. The salvation of Real America ironically begins in the same city where the dream of the Confederacy was burned to the ground.
Yikes! More mainstream conservatives like “lineholder” at Red State had a more difficult time explaining why they deeply opposed the suit and its aims in non-racial terms. This required some explaining away of basic social facts, like how exactly most of Fulton County’s white people and money ended up north of the Chattahoochie River, without recourse to any explanation that involved racial animosity.
The theory of “white flight” originates from the 1950s and 1960s. It contends that financial institutions owned or operated primarily by white people were willing to lend housing funds to white people seeking to live in the suburbs but refused to do the same for black people.This led to redlining, mortgage discrimination, racially-restrictive covenants, and environmental racism, “all of which deny black people their chance to obtain the American dream”.
It’s a good thing none of those things happened in reality, just “in theory!”
Rhetorically of course this use of the “theory of white flight” is analogous to the way that religious conservatives refer to the “theory” of evolution: as an unfounded and wrong explanation for uncomfortable facts, rather than as a set of explanatory statements based on extensive research and evidence (somehow I don’t think that Kevin Kruse is terribly worried about being cast as Red State’s Charles Darwin on this issue, or as Race Traitor Number One at SBPDL)
And, much like creationists imagine the diversity of life to have been created in its present state, “lineholder” seems to think that North Fulton communities simply look the way they do… well, just because. Questioning why and how segregation and spatial stratification developed is just a step away from dystopic outcomes:
What implications might the “white flight” theory have for other white citizens in this country? Does it mean a white person has to gain permission before they move from a certain area?
It’s interesting that while the economic and racial polarization of Fulton County is dogmatically regarded as Not About Race, “lineholder” is quite willing to interpret the suit in terms of its potential negative impacts on white people. There’s a long tradition of this in America, as W.E.B. DuBois shows us. Of course, denying the historical reality of white flight in Atlanta and elsewhere as a generative moment of contemporary conservatism is a tough delusion to maintain. The Council of Conservative Citizens [NLTBP] at least dropped the pretense, writing on March 30, 2011 of Lowery v. Deal that
White people have fled Atlanta for obvious reasons. Parts of the majority black city now resemble the third world. Now a collection of “white flight” communities outside Atlanta want to secede from Fulton and Dekab counties and form a new Milton County. The black legislative caucus of Georgia filed a lawsuit demanding that the city charters of several “white flight” communities be dissolved. They claim that the majority white cities violate their “voting rights.”… Atlanta is a crime ridden cesspool. Instead of trying to improve the black community, race hustling black lawmakers want to outlaw white flight.
Despite all that is repugnant in these statements, I have to at least respect the honesty on display.
The contrast between these rhetorical framings of pro-Milton/anti-Lowery positions illustrates a difficult analytical and methodological challenge for scholars. While the nakedly white supremacist position is definitely out there in the public, and no doubt a greater-than-zero share of the pro-Milton crowd shares it, it’s extremely difficult to demonstrate that naked bigotry is driving the mainstream Republican position, and irresponsible to attribute the views of one segment of a broad coalition to all of its members. What, in other words, is the linkage between a declaration like this from Stuff Black People Don’t Like
Though it might not seem that obvious yet, the coming political war in Fulton County is the start of a series of clashes around the nation, as white people begin to slowly understand the burden of high taxation goes directly to pay for public jobs and services that go toward their dispossession.
and state Representative Jan Jones’s pledge to
reduce the thumbprint … of Fulton County on your lives and your pocketbooks such that in a very few years, Atlanta and south Fulton will not fight us on recreating Milton County because Fulton County will be insignificant,” she said. “We will begin that process next year.”
As I’ve written here, contemporary libertarian, objectivist, and other conservative objections to big government and the public sector do not exist in a historical or spatial vacuum. As ideas, they are rooted in particular social spaces and bear the imprint of the history of those places. That means that in Atlanta’s postwar history, discussions about shrinking the public sector have never existed independently of the politics of white resentment over the ways that minorities, when enfranchised and empowered, have sought to use the public sector as a means of securing economic or social security.
It’s slipped my mind and schedule to comment on this May 25 Times op-ed by Christopher Leinberger, which summarizes the results of his Brookings-supported study of the Washington D.C. metropolitan real estate market.
I’ve got little to quibble with in Leinberger’s description of the trend toward walkable neighborhoods fetching a premium in the housing market, and, having recently moved to a new place where a supermarket, veterinarian, post office, gym, Thai/Sushi fusion restaurant, pizza parlor, and liquor store are within a 500 foot radius of my front door, I’m not personally pleased to be paying a premium on my rent each month.
But I’ve got the premium to spend, which explains the problem I do have with the article. Here’s Leinberger’s closing:
Building walkable urban places is more complex and riskier than following decades-long patterns of suburban construction. But the market gets what it wants, and the market signals are flashing pretty brightly: build more walkable, and bikable, places.
I may be taking an uncharitable view of what is necessarily a distillation of a more complex project, but Leinberger writes as though the benefits that flow to people from walkable neighborhoods are important components of social provision only insofar as the market validates them.We’ve been here before, and though Leinberger is probably right that we can expect the market pendulum to swing back from the extremes of urban renewal, highway building, and the 1990s vogue for exurbia, we’re still left at the whim of big investors to get more walkable communities built, and in the meantime, we can expect the market to distribute other people to the places that are left over.
This problem is even reflected in some odd choices in subjects and verbs. Describing the correlation between neighborhood walkability and land values, he writes:
As a neighborhood moves up each step of the five-step walkability ladder, the average household income of those who live there increases some $10,000.
Maybe this is just a careless mistake, but in actually existing social space, neighborhoods don’t move up the scale of walkability, they pretty much stay the same, because the way they are is the way they were built. Small leaps, one rung upward, might be accounted for by the addition of bike lanes or altered traffic patterns or other modifications of a neighborhood’s infrastructure, or by new businesses moving in to meet basic needs. But even in this case, the driving factor certainly isn’t the neighborhood itself, it’s the influx of capital–financial, social, or cultural–that moves governments and developers to build more walkable infrastructure. We could make this statement more accurate by saying that wealthier people are moving to walkable neighborhoods. We could make it still more accurate by saying that wealthy people are moving to the limited supply of walkable neighborhoods that exist in the United States because of decades of heedless expansion and support for automobile-centered transportation, and often realizing a substantial financial gain through gentrification in the process.
If we assume the market will eventually get around to reorganizing the exurban sprawl of America after a long spell of sorting by income and purchasing power, then we will have the poor inhabiting what Atrios perceptively describes as decidedly disadvantaged places:
It’s as if instead of ruining cities by building urban highways, you’re starting with the cities being pre-ruined by the ribbons of roadways running through them
Indeed, this process is already visible, as a 2010 report from Brookings’s Metropolitan Policy Program shows (can we pause to ask if the right hand knows what the centrist hand is doing down at Brookings?). The suburbs are now home to the largest share of the nation’s poor and the highest concentrations of poverty in most metropolitan areas are now in older suburbs. People with more power in the marketplace are now choosing to live elsewhere, and the evidence doesn’t show that the process is leading where Leinberger thinks it’s leading.
To think about process in a serious way, addressing how metropolitan communities that exist today are shaped by past policy choices, cultural values, and financial incentives (e.g. the interconnections of highway construction, federally subsidized mortgages, and redlining practices between the 1930s and the 1970s, or the explosion of exurbs driven by the 1990s and 2000s real estate bubble) would force us to focus on a less attractive side of the market–the banks, lenders, securitizers, speculators, and other guys in suits moving paper, plus the government bureaucrats, bank executives, and homeowners associations that actively or by indifference aided and abetted the production of a national landscape of economic and racial segregation–as opposed to the carpenters, plumbers, civil engineers, and other guys in hard hats building stuff and the honest hardworking Americans paying to live in places where they can walk to pick up a gallon of milk or see The Dark Knight Rises.
It’s worth noting as well that there has never been a “free market” in housing development in the modern United States, only various incarnations of state-supported subsidies for lenders, buyers, and (usually white) homeowners, but there we go with the history again.
Excellent read (but old) on the implications of GOP efforts to eliminate this essential demographic tool. I’m sure that if we cloak ourselves in complete ignorance about who lives in our communities and particularly which communities have greater unmet need than others we will pull through just fine….