One of my co-workers is pretty religious (church twice a week kind of religious). As part of her indoctrination, she attends some sort of young adult program where they occasionally go into go into poor neighborhoods to work in a soup kitchen. She calls the religious organizations that give out food/medical care/shelters "ministries". I asked her what the point of ministries were, besides black holes* for social service dollars. She looked at me, puzzled, and I explained that while her heart was in the right place, her thinking might not be.
If poverty is a disease, then simple charity is palliative at best. There's no debating that feeding or housing hungry people is helpful in the immediate sense; I'm certainly not saying we should stop doing it. In my estimation, curing systemic poverty comes from looking one level up, by asking what objectives can we accomplish that will subsequently enable people to significantly alter their own trajectories.
While I wrote this, I asked Susan what she thought the answer was, to which she replied, "education" and went back to her iPad as though she'd cracked the nut. I'm less certain. In Chicago, we spend more on education than just about any other municipality in the country and we have a school district that leads the nation in murders per week (i.e., students killing students).
I pointed this out to Susan and asked her again why education was still such a problem. "Because there's no buy-in from the parents or the community," she explained. "Kids are surrounded by friends and family who don't place any value on education, so most of them don't care either."
This gets closer to the heart of the matter, in my opinion. It's very possible other risk factors for poverty (crime, becoming a parent at a young age, poor family structures) are also borne of systemic failings that arise, not with individuals, but with the larger communities. After all, there are people who rise up from ghettoes and go on to better lives, but it's rare that entire communities experience robust gentrification - we've seen this in cities in Chicago as well as on the country- and continent level.
I've been nibbling around the corners of this problem for years with no real solution. It's daunting - people have tried to "fix" poverty since forever and a day using thousands of different approaches. If one of these approaches was a panacea, we'd surely hear about it.
But we haven't. So I've altered my thinking a little by taking a step back and asking a more basal question: If we suspect that poverty is a largely systemic problem, what qualitative differences are present in poor neighborhoods that might contribute to this phenomenon?
The following are a list of my very unscientific (probably incomprehensive) traits of poor communities:
(1) Lack of/Inability to achieve delayed gratification.
The famous Stanford Marshmallow Experiment is one of the best predictors for lifelong success (on income, intelligence, and even how fat you're likely to become). Simply restated, the experiment is a simple test of whether an individual can accept delayed gratification (small reward now or a larger reward later). I suspect poor people would do rather poorly in this type of test, as poverty creates short-sightedness that robs individuals of logical, long-term thinking.
To illustrate this, let's perform a thought experiment: Imagine you're a first grader and someone's mom brings in birthday cake. The result: an immediate bum rush for the baked goods by every kid in the classroom. Why? Scarcity - there might not be enough to go around. Even if there is, those who tarry in their seats might not get the best piece of cake if they're not aggressive, and the kids aren't yet sophisticated enough to realize that not getting the corner piece with the extra frosting won't kill them.
Now imagine the same situation in a high school class. No crazed rush. There's a little dignity there - a system of order prevails and things are much, much smoother. Applying the metaphor to our communities, it's difficult to imagine poor people forgoing an immediate benefit when such rewards are few and far-between. The recent lead water pipe fiasco in Flint, Michigan is a lovely example of short-sighted thinking leading to far bigger problems later.
Even when the shit hits the fan, well-to-do societies keep their shit together far better than poor communities. When the Tohoku provine was struck by the recent tsunami in Japan, cut off communities lined up the wounded by roads and organized themselves to receive aid, resulting in a bare minimum of post-crisis casualties. After the fact, older individuals volunteered to clean up radioactive areas in part because it made more sense for them to do it. We saw a much different response in the Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina, which consisted mainly of looting and finger pointing.
(2) Poor resource management.
Poor people are much, much more likely to spend money frivolously when they come into it. Proof: Lottery winners (mostly poor) who go broke. Here's a bum who got $100,000 and managed to blow it all almost immediately. In a sense, they're victimized by an irresponsible idea of what it's like to be rich. Even those poor people who manage to not go bankrupt report a heightened need to display ostentatious status symbols of wealth, according to the authors of the most excellent book The Millionaire Next Door.
This behavior stands in stark contrast to the brilliant-but-unsexy investing principles espoused as a path to get rich slowly and quietly, creating a vicious tie-down that's likely to keep the rich wealthy and the poor destitute.
(3) Poor Leadership
Point number two seems to be exacerbated whenever poor community members move into positions of power. They often skim huge chunks of money off the top. Examples: Jesse Jackson Jr. and Mobuto Seko (the massively corrupt president of the Democratic Republic of Congo). It also exists on a smaller scale - I cannot believe how many sleazy low-end "ministers" in Chicago fleece hordes of people who attend their churches. They're regularly on the news, usually being led into courthouse on fraud charges. I have this nascent theory that these crappy leaders are elected based on their ability to connect with their constituents, who mistake familiarity for qualification. However, in many ways the problem of poor leadership is simply a manifestation/continuation of short-sightedness and poor resource management in individuals who just happen to matter more.
This problem also affects nonprofits that are there to help. Although this TED talk explains it better than I, the low-paying environment of nonprofits scares away smart, driven people who can easily get better, higher-paying jobs elsewhere. What's left are a few true-blue do-gooders (who may or may not be all that good at their job) surrounded by dead husks of unambitious paycheck chasers.
(4) Lack of Personal Investment
Here's a story I heard on WBEZ (Chicago's NPR affiliate) about group of high school students in South Chicago who'd started their own production company. It's a fairly standard feel-good story about poor kids trying to make good, but that's not really the point: If you listen to the interview, you repeatedly hear the kids saying that this is their opportunity to "get out" and how this is great because sports is "the only way out" in their neighborhood. This term, and variations thereof, are used so many times you could play a fairly intense drinking game centered around its use. "Getting out," as it were, seems to be their top priority.
I hear this kind of term get tossed around a lot. So let me get this straight: Here are kids who have at least some motivation and are trying (although it's clear they have no idea what they're doing**) to create a better life for themselves whose desire to succeed is fueled primarily by the desire to get the fuck out of their shitty neighborhood. No mention of returning anything to their community, no desire to create jobs in the area they come from, no personal responsibility. Just a desire to pack up and leave as soon as possible.
Amazingly, there's no stigma or backlash when this sort of thing is said. In fact, it seems like skimming/poaching the best people out of terrible neighborhoods is expected and encouraged. I can't even say I blame them - it's easier, after all. Nevertheless, there's a clear problem that no one ever seems to address.
None, really. This is not a lot better than describing the water to a group of drowning men. However, understanding a problem is an important part of solving it - imagine trying to cure a disease without knowing the cause. That's what I do pretty much every day, and it definitely adds to the degree of difficulty. More seriously, I believe the need to identify inroads to combat the systemic problems I've listed are perhaps our greatest challenge. This may be even more important than finding resources - there's an army of people like my religious co-worker who have the means and inclination to do good. The challenge will be in directing their efforts, isolating and leveraging this force to greatest effect.
There's also the possibility that poverty, much like Michael Jordan in his heyday, is an impossible problem that can only be minimized. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to create a more egalitarian society, which virtually concedes the existence of a less-successful class of people while offering a path towards social mobility (sometimes - and this is not meant to be inflammatory - I wonder if that's part of the reason our military and/or government is so large).
Finally, there are certainly lots of issues on the "rich" side of the coin (income disparities and compassion fatigue immediately come to mind), but that's for another day. I'm not trying to shit on poor people - there's enough of that already - but there has to be some engagement. As a middle-class person, it's difficult to hear poor communities say 'help us' one minute, then profess a desire to escape the same blighted neighborhood the next (vis-a-vis point number four). As part of being honest about what's going on it's important to communicate that securing buy-in from recipients of assistance is perhaps the most critical part of any plan. As this sort of engagement occurs on a personal level, I'm most optimistic that future solution(s) lay there as well.
*Oh, that sounds so racist, yet so accurate from a quantum- and physical relativity standpoint.
**To be fair, I mostly spent my teenage years eating hot pockets and watching that awesome Batman cartoon.
Noah's Inner Monologue
Scribblings of a man who can barely operate an idiotproof website.