The Neighborhood Plague

by John McKnight on March 23, 2011

Tagged as: Gifts / Raising Children / Local Economy / Care of People on the Margin

A plague has descended on many of our neighborhoods.  It is a plague intensified by recession, corporate drive for profit and confusion about what government can do that is useful. People are out of work; homes are foreclosed. All the public debate about what to do keeps getting more and more ideological and thereby paralyzing. All the while families suffer worklessness and homelessness.

This suffering calls forth a sense of compassion and charity. However, this response can be dangerous if it is misplaced.

Going back to the 1960’s, the nation responded to the suffering caused by segregation, discrimination and poverty with the War on Poverty.  It was a national response to the harm experienced by people called “poor.”

Their basic problem was economic poverty. However, instead of relentlessly focusing on the problem of inadequate income, much of the money for the War came to local neighborhoods as an array of services, agencies and programs. These services usually focused on the individual harm and hurt caused by poverty and sought to treat the wounds.  Therapeutic professionals, expert ameliorators and expensive compensators focused on the result of poverty rather than the cause: lack of income.

Going back to the 1960’s, the nation responded to the suffering caused by segregation, discrimination and poverty with the War on Poverty.

When I was working at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University, in 1986, we did a study of all the Federal, state and local government money specifically designated for low-income people that came to Cook County where Chicago is located.  We found that the total annual allocation was $4.85 billion dollars which, adjusted for inflation, would be $10.2 billion dollars today, or $13,031 per poor person in current dollars.  Sixty-five percent of all these dollars were used for services and commodities while only 35 percent went to low-income people in money.  In fact, if the total government dollars for low-income people in Cook County had been divided among them, no one would have been living below the poverty line.   Nonetheless, the majority of the money went to service providers and their programs. Low-income people had the leavings.

Twenty-five years later, as the new plague devastates many neighborhood people, we should resist responding by largely dedicating our efforts to treating the wounds of joblessness and homelessness.  The problem is not in the suffering people.  The problem is in a society that responds to people without income or homes by paying professionals to treat their misery while giving tax breaks to people who have huge incomes.

Our neighborhood crisis is economic, not therapeutic.

One country that understands the critical nature of income as the antidote to poverty is Brazil. While among industrialized nations we have the greatest concentration of wealth at the top of society and the widest disparity between the rich and the poor, Brazil has done something to deal with the inequities that continue to mire our country down. In a New York Times blog, Tina Rosenberg describes the Brazilian effort. It may not fit us exactly, but it demonstrates the basic principle for building a new economy. And for anyone who thinks such a program would be too costly, consider that it costs $1,200,000 a year to maintain each of our 100,000 soldiers in Afghanistan.

~ John ~