After this statistic came out on the 16th of this month, I spent some time thinking about what it means for 1 out of every 5 residents of a state to live in poverty. It’s tempting, I think, to draw the “If I’m sitting at a table with 4 other people, one of us is poor!” conclusion, but I’m fairly convinced it’s not that simple. If you’re not poor, it’s unlikely that you sit at metaphorical tables with poor people. The law of large numbers does not apply as easily here because people self-segregate. A convenience sample of your friends or, more importantly, your neighbors, is unlikely to reflect a trans-neighborhood sample.
Racial residential segregation and the housing prices in an area cause a self-selection phenomenon creating areas of concentrated poverty and, often, nonexistent or insufficient community resources. If you’re uncertain as to how widespread racial residential segregation is, check out these maps of major US cities by Eric Fischer: http://www.flickr.com/photos/walkingsf/sets/72157624812674967/with/4981417821/. On these maps, concentration of color is concentration of race, which in many cases translates to concentration of wealth. From these threads of thought I’ve realized that, if we adopt the (perhaps too simple) idea that all “neighborhoods” are of equal size, what 19.6% in poverty really means is that 1 out of every 5 neighborhoods in Arizona is a whole community of very poor people. This is including and especially children, the elderly, and people of color.
The question we face, then, is so what? What can we do about concentrated poverty?
The first and too obvious solution is to empower people to move out of poverty. History shows us, however, that people who move out of poverty also tend to move out of their neighborhoods. A cycle of that type of movement leaves a neighborhood in an even worse condition of poverty than it was before some of the better educated, motivated, connected, whatever families left the block. So what about integration? Integration--while in my view an excellent way to challenge racial prejudice and diversify and more equitably distribute social capital across communities—often leads to gentrification of a neighborhood, whereby poorer households are priced out of the local housing market and are forced to move elsewhere. On a macro level, gentrification just scrambles the squares on the racial checkerboard of a city but does little to shrink or eliminate them. A third solution moves closer to a model of community organizing, whereby an area’s relative homogeneity becomes an asset for coming together for a more influential voice in the city. In this way, people of similar backgrounds and interest become a powerful voting bloc. This does less, however, to create opportunities for relationship-based anti-racism work within a neighborhood.
I’ve mentioned before a course I took at Duke on the ethics of poverty. This course put forth an interesting 3-pronged model for community engagement: (1) working for the poor, (2) working with the poor—the model by which most conscientious anti-poverty agencies work, and (3) being with the poor. Since that course, the idea of “being with” has intrigued me. “Being with” essentially means that the non-poor look for opportunities and spaces where they can be part of multi-racial, multi-SES conversations and not be the facilitator or the leader or even a contributor. “Being with” is all about listening and showing compassion and, where possible, empathy. It is about the value of human relationships in and of themselves, but also about creating a solid understanding of poverty on which to base more “working with”-based programs. One way of “being with”, according to the professor, was to move into a poor neighborhood. It is easy to sit in an office or community center and work with poor families, it is certainly harder to commit to the poor by living with them. As a white female, however, I worry that my presence in a poor neighborhood would be viewed as the first step in a gentrifying process that would push the poor out of their homes. I worry that my presence would fundamentally change the dynamics of a neighborhood. If that neighborhood was non-white, I worry that my presence “at the table” would change the conversation, regardless of whether or not I ever opened my mouth.
I remain in an inner struggle with myself to think about my participation in anti-poverty and anti-racism efforts. How can I be a valuable contributor to the effort and when is my presence and participation harmful? What are the unintended consequences of my actions to impact poor communities? How do I, as a middle-class white woman, think about and protest against, if appropriate, racial residential segregation? The idea that 1 in every 5 residents of Arizona is poor is an unfortunate, though manageable idea for me. I can approach one person with compassion, humility and open-mindedness. The idea that 1 in 5 neighborhoods is poor is a far bigger, daunting concept as I am left on the outside looking in.
Photo created by Eric Fischer, New York, NY as of 2000 Census