A History of Poverty in America: Chapter 2

A History of Poverty in America: Chapter 2

Poverty in Urban America: Its Causes and Cures by David Hilfiker introduction ¦ Chapter I ¦ Chapter III ¦ Chapter IV ¦ Chapter V ¦ Display All Chapters
David Hilfiker

Chapter II: Specific Causes" Causes of poverty are always multiple, interrelated, and mutually reinforcing. As we examine some of the other forces that have shaped the black, inner-city ghetto, it is important to remember that a written description cannot adequately convey the full impact of the multiple forces, for each affects the other, increases the complexity, multiplies the difficulty, pulls the web tighter, adds to the surround of force. It is the combined, intertwined effect of these various factors that is so intractable. Racial Discrimination Discrimination based on skin color is still widespread in the United States. While there has undoubtedly been progress in the last half century, discrimination against African Americans remains a persistent cause of inner-city poverty. Until relatively recently in our history there has been little effort to treat African Americans equally. Well into the middle of this century, federal government policies made social security, FHA loans, and unemployment insurance virtually impossible for most blacks to obtain. Job and housing discrimination have been both legal and overt. Educational opportunities have been restricted. Some of these conditions have improved, but the history of discrimination helped to create the ghetto environment. Even past discrimination, therefore, remains a potent cause of contemporary inner-city poverty. And discrimination itself persists, most notably in housing and employment. In study after study, when paired couples, similar to one another in every respect except color, are sent out to purchase homes or rent housing, white couples will be shown housing that black couples were told was unavailable, black couples will be steered to black neighborhoods. It is still more difficult for African Americans—especially those living in the city—to obtain mortgage loans. William Julius Wilson has studied the attitudes of employers toward young, black men in the city of Chicago.8 It is quite clear that employers are more reluctant to hire young, black men9 from the inner city. It is hard to determine, however, whether this results from racial bias or an objective assessment of worker qualifications, a point underscored by the fact that black employers viewed young men from the ghetto just as harshly as white employers, tending to view them as uneducated, unstable, uncooperative, and dishonest. Many employers screen out black, inner-city applicants by

  • not using employment ads in city-wide newspapers (when ads are used, they appear in ethnic, neighborhood, or suburban newspapers),
  • screening out applicants from urban public schools,
  • avoiding welfare programs or state employment services as sources of referral, and
  • relying on informal job networks. Employers are especially likely to hire their unskilled workers by getting recommendations from current employees, which means that job hunters who live in areas of high poverty where few people work face an almost insuperable barrier in simply getting an interview.

Wilson writes,

Inner-city black job seekers with limited work experience and little familiarity with the white, middle-class world are also likely to have difficulty in the typical job interview. A spotty work record will have to be justified; misunderstanding and suspicion may undermine rapport and hamper communication. However qualified they are for the job, inner-city black applicants are more likely to fail subjective "tests" of productivity during the interview.10

The dialect of the black ghetto, "Black English Vernacular," can also lead to problems. Not only is the ability to speak, write, and communicate effectively in standard English essential for employment in most white-collar jobs (meaning that most ghetto residents will be considered only for the blue-collar jobs) but even blue-collar employers also make frequent use of language as a screening device. Prospective employees may fail the "telephone test" because they do not speak Standard English well, never even making it to the initial interview. While it may be easy to sympathize with employers looking for qualified applicants, from the point of view of the man looking for a job, this form of discrimination is just as virulent as if it were due purely to prejudice against African Americans. Segregation Continuing, imposed, severe segregation of African Americans from the rest of society is the single most important cause of urban black poverty.11 The ghetto itself is the problem. The effect of segregation on black well-being is structural, not individual. Residential segregation lies beyond the ability of any individual to change; it constrains black life chances irrespective of personal traits, individual motivations, or private achievements.12 Although the degree of black segregation has declined somewhat in the last decade, African Americans today are still far more segregated than any ethnic group has ever been segregated in America, excluding Native Americans living on reservations. The history of the American segregation of African Americans is complex, and it does not make for pleasant reading. Although this century's use of violence as a means of maintaining the color line crested in the 1920s, its use declined only gradually and the fear of violence is still, according to polls, a major deterrent keeping black people from moving into white neighborhoods. Earlier in this century violence against black people occurred regularly at the borders between white and black neighborhoods, keeping black areas from expanding. Although overt violence is less common, its threat—especially the threat that one's children will be harassed or harmed—remains important. Earlier in the century, groups of white neighbors sometimes organized themselves to keep their neighborhoods white. Forming as "Neighborhood Improvement Associations," these groups:

  • lobbied for local zoning restrictions to close hotels and rooming houses that attracted African Americans,
  • gave cash bonuses to black renters as incentives to leave the area,
  • boycotted real estate agents who sold to blacks,
  • boycotted white establishments that catered to blacks,
  • lobbied for public investments in the area to keep property values up and thus create economic barriers to African Americans, and
  • created funds to buy property back from black buyers or to buy vacant houses to prevent them from being sold to black homebuyers.

One of the most effective methods used by the improvement associations was the Restrictive Covenant, a legal agreement forbidding signers to sell their property to African Americans. Although Restrictive Covenants were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1948, the Federal Housing Administration—claiming an interest in maintaining the economic viability of neighborhoods in which it was guaranteeing mortgages—continued to recommend their use until 1950. Restrictive covenants continued to be used covertly for decades until the Federal government began enforcing the law in the 1980s. As more African Americans moved into northern ghettos, the fixed size of the areas in which they were allowed to live naturally increased property prices within them, leading to pressure for expansion. Since whites would ultimately move out of neighborhoods if enough (or any) black people moved in, unscrupulous realtors developed the practice of "block busting." As middle-class blacks began to move in, property values would fall as whites hurried to sell and leave. Often spreading rumors about the "invasion," "developers" bought up property, divided it up, and rented to poorer blacks from the ghettos at inflated rates. It was often true both that property values fell and that poverty developed when black people moved into an area, but these changes had to do with white flight and realty practices, not any inherent characteristic of African Americans. The intensification of the black ghetto in the middle of this century caused a breakdown in the politics of integration. Traditionally, immigrants have almost always been in the minority even in the political districts in which they lived. If they were to succeed politically, therefore, they had to develop coalitions across ethnic lines. These coalitions led to other kinds of mutual cooperation and increased the pace of their integration into the mainstream. By the 1940s, however, black people had been highly segregated. As opposed to other minorities, therefore, their political power came from their ability to vote as a block, under the leadership of powerful black politicians (who then had a stake in the area remaining segregated). In effect, if African Americans wanted political power, they had to "take over" a particular area and dominate its politics. Even today, much of African American political power lies in black segregation. Rather than lead to coalitions, this side effect of segregation leads to mistrust and, ultimately, political marginalization of African Americans. In the 50s and 60s, the federal government subsidized suburbanization in various ways. Road construction made easy commuting from suburban residence to urban jobs possible. FHA policies guaranteed mortgages and made owning homes in the suburbs possible while (until the mid-60s) discouraging mortgages to inner-city areas. Tax breaks on home mortgages made home owning even easier. While this relieved housing pressure in the cities and therefore allowed for physical expansion of ghettos, the color line was maintained despite massive population shifts to the suburbs. At each point between 1940 and 1970, whites and blacks lived in essentially separate worlds. Due in part to FHA policies and in part to racism, discrimination by realtors and bankers was institutionalized and—as mentioned above—continues into the present (although there has been some improvement in the 1990s). Finally, of course, white people just move out. Studies have shown that while the vast majority of African Americans desire to live in integrated neighborhoods, they would not choose to be the only black family or one of very few black residents in an otherwise white neighborhood. There is still a very real fear of harassment and violence. African Americans tend to see the most desirable mix, therefore, as something approximating 50-50. Most whites, on the other hand, will not choose to move into integrated neighborhoods. Studies have shown, in fact, that whites begin to move out of their own neighborhoods once the percentage of black residents grows above 10%. To over-simplify, once the percentage of black residents is enough that blacks can feel comfortable living there, white people move out. The consequences of segregation are insidious. Because of their history, the persistent discrimination, and the fewer opportunities, African Americans are, as a group, poorer than other Americans. Segregation then forces African Americans to live in neighborhoods that are more likely to have higher than average concentrations of poor people. Segregation concentrates poverty,13 thus intensifying its force. To take only a single example of the deleterious effect of concentrated poverty, the physical appearance of a neighborhood is thereby threatened. Individuals have fewer resources to maintain their property, and buildings will begin to show signs of physical disrepair. But, "studies suggest that property owners are extremely sensitive to [these small signs]" and will view them as a "signal that the neighborhood is going 'downhill,'"14 leading to more disinvestment, further physical deterioration, and so on in a vicious cycle. Poverty tends to be self-reinforcing, so people born into poorer neighborhoods have a higher probability of becoming poor themselves. Education Segregation and the concentrating of poverty have especially pernicious effects on education. Because elementary and secondary schools are primarily funded through local taxes, cities with large numbers of poor people have fewer resources per child and are therefore less able to fund decent education. Further, because the ghettos are politically marginalized even within the city, education in the ghetto can easily be neglected. As Jonathan Kozol graphically describes in Savage Inequalities, the physical state of inner-city schools, the equipment and supplies available, the level of instruction, class size, expectations of the students and so on are markedly inferior when compared to their non-ghetto counterparts. Concentrating poor African Americans into the ghetto, of course, means that ghetto schools will be completely black and predominantly poor. The other problems these children bring to school (hunger, homelessness, exposure to violence, and so on) demand resources that have to be pulled away from the already meager educational resources allotted. Ghetto schools should be getting far more money than suburban schools because the problems they have to deal with are worse. Instead, they get less. One current approach to improving urban education is the "magnet school," which takes students from the districts of many schools, often to emphasize a particular area of study, such as science or the arts. These schools are better funded and have better teachers, more access to supplies, and better physical plants. They are of very significant benefit … to the children who qualify. Unfortunately, by creaming the best students, the most committed parents, the more assertive parents, and (often) a higher-than-average proportion of the school district's budget, they also weaken the schools that remain. This creaming and consequent weakening of the remaining school system is the primary danger of the proposed educational voucher system for education. Vouchers represent a determined amount of money (usually the average that the public school system spends per student) that parents can use to pay the tuition at any school (including private schools) to which the child can be accepted. Private schools (although not all parochial schools) usually cost more than the average public school cost, so poor families that can't afford another expense will not benefit, nor will the children of parents who are not actively involved nor children who for any reason can't get accepted at a private or parochial school. Since the voucher money is withdrawn from public education (with large fixed costs in buildings, maintenance, teacher contracts, and so on), the danger is that the public schools that remain (which will have to educate many of the most difficult students who require the highest level of resources) will have even less adequate funding than they do today. In their 1886 Plessy vs Ferguson decision, the Supreme Court created the doctrine of "separate but equal." Schools could thus be segregated as long as the education provided to black students was equal to that provided white students. In their 1954 decision, Brown vs School Board of Topeka, the Supreme Court went further to demand the integration of schools. As Jonathan Kozol has pointed out, we have not only failed to meet the conditions of the 1954 decision, we have also failed to meet the conditions of the 1886 decision. In Washington DC approximately half of the black children will drop out of school before they graduate. Those who do graduate will, on the average, be two years behind national norms. Without a decent education, a child is handicapped for life. Health Care In 1999, 43 million Americans—most of them poor—do not have health insurance. We tend to assume that if people are poor enough, they are eligible for some kind of governmental health coverage. Our assumption is wrong. Less than one-third of people living in poverty are eligible for Medicaid, the primary form of health insurance available to the poor. The low-paying jobs available to poor people rarely pay for health insurance. A family policy currently costs more than $500 a month or half the total income of a family of three living at the poverty level. Poor people, therefore, cannot afford to purchase insurance on their own, so they remain uncovered, spending significant percentages of their income on doctor or emergency room visits, especially if they have young children. Even those few who do qualify for Medicaid can find themselves in trouble. Although patterns vary from state to state, fewer and fewer doctors and hospitals accept Medicaid, so poor people must usually go to hospital emergency rooms or public clinics for their care. Emergency rooms handle emergencies well (even for the poor), but they cannot offer much in the way of continuing care, preventive medicine, or help in routine medical problems. In fact, patients with routine problems are increasingly triaged out of emergency rooms. Public clinics can be good, but they rarely have the staff or other resources to provide good care to all who need it. Waits are usually long, one usually sees a different doctor each time, charges are made and bills are sent anyway, and there is usually no special provision for paying for other needed services—x-ray, special lab, hospitalization-which can be enormously expensive. So, cost prevents the appropriate use of health care and drives the poor further into poverty. We sometimes forget the other side of the equation: poor health is not only a complication of poverty but also among its causes. The health of poor people is measurably worse than average, which in turn aggravates their poverty. Poor prenatal care, inappropriate maternal drug use, and maternal malnutrition, for example, can all lead to significant learning disabilities and decreased cognitive abilities (which can lead to poor educational achievement, which further complicates poverty). Congenital disease and infant AIDS are far more common among the poor. The chronic diseases of childhood are far more common among the poor. Asthma, lead poisoning, various anemias, malnutrition, chronic middle-ear infections are not only expensive to diagnose and treat, they can also lead to adult impairment, sometimes in surprising ways. Consider chronic middle-ear infections (otitis media). The usual acute ear infections cause pain and lead to emergency doctor visits. If these infections are (as often happens) insufficiently treated, chronic otitis media can develop which may have few noticeable symptoms. For financial reasons, a poor child is less likely to return to the doctor after her acute ear infection seems to have gotten better, so chronic otitis media remains often undiagnosed. Otitis media causes a temporary loss of hearing, which often persists through early childhood. Undiagnosed hearing loss can lead to poor school performance and permanent educational deficiencies, making it that much harder to escape poverty as an adult. Similar stories can be told about lead poisoning, malnutrition, and many other childhood health problems. The "surround of force" seems inescapable. The poor are much more likely to live in environmental conditions and work in conditions that are detrimental to health. A friend of mine cannot afford to move out of her damp basement apartment although the mold spores severely aggravate her daughter's asthma. Finally, the stress of simply being poor has been documented to be a real health risk. The poor get it coming and going.

Criminal Justice System African Americans compose approximately 12% of the American population, yet they are 45% of the combined local, state, and Federal prison population, a percentage that has approximately doubled since 1930. 40% of all prisoners awaiting a death sentence in the United States are black. One out of every five black men in the country spends some time in jail during his life. According to the Washington Post, in 1998 over half of the black males residents of the District of Columbia between the ages of 18 and 34 are in the criminal justice system: awaiting trial, awaiting sentencing, in prison, or on parole. Given the statistics, our recent decisions to fight crime by "getting the criminal off the street" mean that increasing numbers of poor black men will be in jail. One can certainly argue that the increase in safety that should result from "getting the criminal off the street" makes current policies appropriate, especially for the inner-city poor who are much more often the victims of such street crime. At the same time, removing tens of thousands of young men from the cities takes potential breadwinners from their families. Since ex-cons find it much harder to get jobs, the impact of the criminal justice system on poverty is doubly harsh. It is important to remember, too, that in computing the unemployment rates, those who are in jail are not counted as "unemployed;" they are removed from the denominator altogether, effectively lowering the real unemployment rate. The reasons for the high numbers of African Americans in the criminal justice system are debatable and complex. Certainly, as we will see in the next chapter, proportionately higher percentages of poor black people commit crimes for which we ordinarily send people to jail (especially drug offenses but also burglary, robbery, murder, etc).15 It is also undeniable that our system of criminal justice is more willing to prosecute poor African Americans than others, especially since these prosecutions are usually resolved through plea-bargaining. The few resources at the disposal of public defenders relative to those available to private attorneys mean a further tilt toward conviction of the poor. Whatever the reason, the result is the same: the criminal justice system impacts African Americans, especially poor African Americans, far more harshly than average. Conclusion Each of these factors is exacerbated by the others. The segregation of poor African Americans into ghettos is the linchpin holding it all together. As long as ghettos exist, most of the people who live there will be poor. Footnotes 8 Wilson, William Julius, When Work Disappears 9 Black women do not seem to be perceived so negatively. 10 Ibid p. 33 11 In fact, an astonishing experiment over the last twenty-five years, the Gautreaux Project, suggests that merely moving poor families out of the ghetto is enough to bring those families out of poverty within a generation. 12 Massey, Douglas and Denton, Nancy, American Apartheid pp. 2-3. This book is an excellent history of modern segregation and its impact on poverty. 13 African Americans compose approximately 12% of the population. If there were no segregation at all and if the rate of white poverty were 10% and the rate of black poverty 20%, then the average rate of poverty would be 11.2%. Given complete racial segregation, however, the rate in black neighborhoods would be 20% (not taking into account class segregation in the United States that intensifies the problem). 14 Massey and Denton, American Apartheid, p. 131 15 On the other hand, we tend to punish more severely those kinds of crimes committed by the poor than those committed by affluent people. Why is it, for instance, that we prosecute shoplifters so much more aggressively than people who "fudge" their expense accounts? Both are crimes against business that can cost a significant amount; both are Federal crimes since neither source of income is usually reported to the Internal Revenue Service. The notorious example of the differential punishment for possession of crack versus powder cocaine is another example. The amounts of cocaine one can possess without risk of significant jail time are one hundred times smaller for crack (used by poor people) than for powder (used by affluent people), despite the fact that the powder can be easily transformed into equipotent doses of crack.

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David Hilfiker

is a physician and cofounder of Joseph's House. He's the author of Not All of Us Are Saints: A Doctor's Journey with the Poor and Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen.

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