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Poverty and Racism Series, Part 1: The Poverty Trap

November 19, 2017

Dear Constituent:

As mentioned in my most recent newsletter, I am facilitating a series of conversations, this month and next, on the difficult topics of poverty and racism. This is the first part of that series.

The Causes of Poverty

About one-quarter of all Columbia residents live below the federal poverty level and almost one-half of children attending Columbia Public Schools qualify for free or reduced lunch. Two weeks ago, I kicked off the conversations by asking you the following question:

What do you believe are the causes of poverty?

Thanks very much to those of you who responded - here's a selection of your unedited comments:

  • "poverty is caused/defined by lack of access to resources"
  • "lack of education and work skills"
  • "minimum wage is too low to anyone except a teenager interested pocket change"
  • "people who have children when they cannot afford to take care of themselves even"
  • "Most can be helped if they stop asking for a handout and start asking for work"
  • "My dad found a job that paid $2000 a year. He drove a high risk steel truck in the mountains. He had a second grade education and mom has a 3rd grade education. This is poverty."
  • "I have come to believe that the sole source of poverty is hopelessness."
  • "People who are poor are also subjected to psychological trauma, shame, and fear"
  • "Many of the following are interrelated:
    • Not finishing high school
    • Inadequate education
    • Lack of marketable skills
    • No role model or guidance
    • Lack of goals
    • Low wages
    • Poor transportation
    • Pregnancy before completing school
    • Inadequate housing
    • Inadequate health care
    • Racism
    • Unfair justice system
    • Limited work opportunities"

"The crime is real, the drugs is real, everything is wrong"

Before I offer my thoughts, I would like to give someone who lives in poverty the opportunity to speak. Angela Whitman, a resident of Quail Drive, Columbia, attended the September 18, 2017 City Council meeting and waited patiently until after midnight for the opportunity to address us during "Open Comments" at the end of the meeting. Please spend the next few minutes listening to what she had to say:

Angela lives in "one of the worst neighborhoods in Columbia, Missouri" where "the crime is real, the drugs is real, everything is wrong." She worked for Columbia Public Schools in the 1990s and raised her children in Columbia; she went away to Ferguson and, when she came back, she found that the only place she could afford to live was "in that poor community," with inadequate street lighting, an absence of sidewalks and parks, and nothing for the children to do. Angela went on to say, "We don’t have to have a lot of crime - if those kids had something to do, we’d be better off," but "Somebody forgot about us."

I will return to the causes of poverty, shortly. But, first, I want to focus on Angela's suggestions/requests for changes that will improve the situation in her neighborhood - things like street lighting, sidewalks, parks, and something for the kids to do! I am pleased to report that the Department of Utilities immediately went out to Quail Drive and replaced the street lights with brighter LED bulbs, improving safety for Angela and her neighbors. And, as part of a "social equity" focus in our new Strategic Plan (adopted in 2015), we identified three neighborhoods of poverty and made adjustments to our budget priorities to improve City services and projects in those areas.

While these are still early days, the strategic focus on these neighborhoods seems to be working. Since early 2016, the Columbia Police Department has implemented a community-oriented policing pilot program in the three neighborhoods, meaning that specially-trained patrol officers have been given the time and resources to get to know and build trust with residents, business-owners, community leaders, and school-kids. In the first year of the program, the officers recorded about 6,000 positive interactions in the three neighborhoods and saw some remarkable declines in crime (shots fired down 38%, robbery down 53%, aggravated assault down 50%, and many others).

Other strategic neighborhood activities include community barbecues, installation of basketball hoops, and prioritization of infrastructure improvements such as sidewalks and parks in these areas. And the community engagement process that was used to identify these projects, has created opportunities for neighborhood leaders to be heard - these include Angela Whitman, who has been an energetic participant in the process even though Quail Drive lies outside these neighborhoods.

A Focus on Social Equity

My purpose in discussing the Strategic Plan is not to give the City a "pat on the back," but to encourage more of a focus on social equity as a strategy for addressing poverty. We seem to have a system in which poor families become concentrated in specific areas with few resources, and it is not surprising that this system leads to a reinforcing cycle of crime, hopelessness, and more poverty. We need to break this cycle and one strategy is to improve public services and infrastructure, exactly as Angela requested.

This still leaves the question about the causes of poverty unanswered - and in some ways, it may be unanswerable. Referring back to your comments at the start of this newsletter, just about everyone agrees that these social ailments - poverty, low educational attainment, low earning potential, a lack of health insurance, poor physical and mental health, feelings of hopelessness, criminal behavior, arrest and incarceration, exclusion from social services, more poverty - form numerous, intersecting and self-reinforcing vicious cycles. Once you slip into "the poverty trap," it's extremely hard to get out!

The fact that these vicious cycles trap people in poverty may give us a clue about the causes of poverty. We have a socio-economic system that reinforces success - those of us with the privilege of being born into economic security and receiving a quality education then go into well-paid careers, have good health care, live in more expensive neighborhoods, develop social networks with other well-off individuals, adopt similar political persuasions, and support public policies that reward success. At the same time, an opposite reinforcing spiral punishes failure - over and over again.

Maybe this is what Nelson Mandela meant when he said "Poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the action of human beings."

"Poverty is not natural"

I tend to agree with Mr. Mandela.

The idea that poverty is natural and cannot be eradicated stems from a belief that certain individuals possess innate flaws that make it impossible for them to contribute positively to society. However, the vast majority of poor people are decent, hard-working, compassionate individuals with qualities and talents that could benefit us all. They endure unfortunate circumstances that are usually beyond their control, they don't have access to economic resources many of us take for granted, and they are doing the best they possibly can.

For example, people with physical or mental disabilities and the family members who care for them make up a large proportion of those living in poverty. And, among those who are able-bodied and working age, more than 50% have worked within the last year and more than 25% are working full-time, according to the Center for Poverty Research. The problem is not that people will not work - it's that they cannot work, they cannot find work, or they cannot find work that pays enough to get them out of poverty.

Poverty is like a vortex or whirlpool that tends to suck people down, making it almost impossible to escape. Millions of Americans are living on the edge of poverty so that one unfortunate event - someone loses their job, suffers an illness or injury without having health insurance, becomes a victim of crime - is all it takes to cause them to slip into that vicious cycle. The friends and family of poor people are other poor people, and so the economic gap widens.

I believe poverty is man-made in the sense that our public policies, social networks, and cultural beliefs have created this vicious cycle, and tend to reinforce it. Schools in poor communities are poorly funded because taxes are lower, so those children are less well educated; when poor families suffer an economic hardship, there's no-one in their social group who can help them out, as there is for a well-off family; myths about "Welfare Queens" and "the lazy poor" tend to harden public opinion against efforts to address the problem.

Poverty is a structural problem, and we can solve it by changing some of these structural components of our society.

Changing the Structure

The United States is consistently among the most generous nations in the world. In 2014, individual Americans donated about $250 billion to charities, according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics.

But, while charities work tremendously hard to relieve the suffering of poverty, many of their actions amount to giving hand-outs that help people get through another day or another year, but do nothing to change the structures that generate and perpetuate poverty. In order to dismantle these structures and create an economic environment in which everyone can thrive, I believe we need systemic change, and that will require a national conversation and a deeper understanding of the ways public policy and social culture impact society.

This has been a long newsletter, so I will wrap up with a list of possible strategies and links to further resources:

Head Start: According to Darin Preis, Executive Director of Central Missouri Community Action, this federally-funded early childhood education program is starting to demonstrate success in breaking the cycle of generational poverty.

Health Care for All: Every developed country in the world, except the United States, provides universal health care coverage to all of its citizens through some form of taxpayer-funded national insurance program. Not only do these systems fight poverty by ensuring everyone receives prevention and treatment services, but they also produce better outcomes and cost less!

Mixed-Income Housing: Residential zoning policy has divided the rich from the poor, and this division works relentlessly to concentrate poverty in certain neighborhoods. However, research shows that, when poor kids move to middle-class neighborhoods, they perform better in school and have better economic outcomes.

Universal Basic Income: An experiment in the strategy of providing a living stipend to every citizen suggests it will increase entrepreneurship. Mark Zuckerberg agrees.

In conclusion, I feel that there is no single cause of poverty. Instead, it emerges from a complex system that allows both success and failure, but then rewards success and punishes failure. What are your thoughts?

Constituent Conversations

I want to hear your feedback on these ideas. Please email me or join me for "Constituent Conversations" at Dunn Brothers Coffee from 2-4pm this afternoon, or on Sundays December 3rd and 17th.

Next time, we will talk about race and racism. To get us started, please send me your responses to the following question:

What do you understand by “diversity,” “inclusion,” and “equity?”

Cheers, Ian