A New Ecology of Poverty
By Steve Suitts
Vol. 15, No. 4, 1993, pp. 8-13
While it is true that the poor have always been with us, poverty in America today is profoundly different and more disturbing than ever before. Our nation is now tolerating dimensions of poverty that threaten anew our collective well being, our communities, and our spiritual values. Over the last two decades, we have witnessed the arrival of new aspects of poverty and new faces of the poor without coming to terms individually and collectively with the human and moral costs to us all.
As the latest census report confirms, for the first time in America, children have become in the 1990’s our largest population in poverty. During the last twenty years this transformation has been slowly evident through a sea of official statistics and the carefully measured monotone of governmental reports. At bottom they tell us that one in five of all children in America is poor and almost one in four of all children under the age of six lives in poverty. America’s poverty encompasses more than 13 million children.
The United States may now be the only industrialized nation in the world where children are the largest population in poverty. Our rate of poverty among children in the last decade was probably more than twice as high as the rate in West Germany and almost double the rate in neighboring Canada. These statistics are reinforced by other international comparisons showing that in the United States our youth are more in jeopardy from infant mortality, birth at low weight, violent crime and teenage pregnancy than the youth among most of the world’s other industrialized nations.
Yet, the changes in the nature of American poverty involve more than its increasing visitation upon the youngest and the smallest among us. Poor children in this country today are more often the third or fourth generation of poor within their own families. They live within families and communities that have become terribly de-
pendent upon private and public charity for survival. These boys, girls, and babies may be the first generation accurately described as America’s underclass.
Not in recent times have we as a nation witnessed so many children, families, and communities in persistent poverty. As many as 2.5 million people (one in three of whom are probably children) may be among the persistent poor today. Since 1970, the number of the persistent poor has likely quadrupled.
In places like the South Side of Chicago this fundamental change in the nature of poverty is ever-present. Like the communities themselves, the proud edifices of homes and buildings which were once constructed in an active, if poor, community now stand abandoned, crumbling around the poor. These structures are the testaments of persistent poverty—dependency and deprivation, two characteristics of this new poverty that have engulfed communities as much as individuals.
The dependency of many poor families is linked indissolubly with the dependency of their communities. The life of one is the predicament of the other. Areas of persisting poverty have no vitality because they lack employment, safety, reliable services for basic necessities, and people of some means. They have no employment, no basic services, little safety, and few people of means because the people are poor. As William Julius Wilson has begun to document, this damaging interaction between the dependency of families and the dependency of their communities continues to dissipate the strength of both and has created a downwardly spiraling deprivation of the body and spirit in which children, more than anyone else, are now caught.
Within the spiraling dynamics of poverty, African and Hispanic Americans are disproportionately concentrated. While these individuals and families constitute only one in five of our population, they may comprise as many as two out of every three Americans in persistent poverty.
In essence, there is today a new ecology of poverty in which children, their families, and their communities are suffering without their own means to vastly improve circumstances. In America today from Los Angeles to Liberty City, from Navajo reservations to Delta plantations, the new ecology of poverty evidences primarily four characteristics which are sustained by the interactions of place, people, and policies. Those characteristics are deprivation, dependency, isolation, and violence. They have rendered both urban and rural communities into dysfunctional, dangerous places for children, their parents, and their neighbors.
In urban areas poor children are growing up without a diversity of adults and without family and friends who have the habits of industry. They live with few opportunities to earn money legally, and they see wealth and prosperity only from television and shady, violent transactions. They live in a world in which their families and most of their neighbors are usually the recipients of charity and seldom the benefactors of good deeds. They live in apartments that are aesthetically poor, too often dangerous, in buildings where entire floors remain as burnt shells, on street blocks where abandoned buildings are the most available play structures, and in neighborhoods where liquor stores are more prevalent than laundromats.
In rural areas the problems of isolation have also become more profound for the poor in recent years, as they have been left behind. Many rural communities were once created to provide cheap labor for agriculture work. Now, they exist with little demand for their labor, at any price. In some places an entire community may embody the same, stultifying dimensions of this new ecology—no jobs, few adult males, no playgrounds, no services—in the words of one community leader in Mississippi, “just no nothing.” In other locations poor chil-
dren and their families remain separated by the distances of rural life, even more isolated than before from health care and other vital provisions which have become more centralized. Often they are without private or public means of transportation, probably more scarce than at any other in the last twenty years.
As government statistics tell, these distressed communities are also our most violent places. Children often play within the sounds of gunfire and walk across the sites where other children have died from guns or gangs. Mothers and school teachers instruct their children on how to duck gun shots and the elderly retreats behind locked doors for most of the day and all of the night in these profoundly poor places.
With a remarkable, saddening consistency, the invidious aspects of this new ecological poverty build upon themselves, like a cancerous growth, as their inhabitants witness the decline and jeopardy. In Chicago homeless mothers—some with fussy babies in their laps—can talk of their plight, living on the margin outside of any real community or nurturing support; older residents of the Ida B. Wells Center can talk with melancholia about the decline of their own community over the last few decades. And in Chicago’s Little Village on the floor of a local church building Mexican-American moms and their toddlers, valiantly can explain in broken, haunting English their joy for having a few hours together amid a life of isolation and struggle in a strange new land called America.
In the Delta children and adults can tell the incredible stories of how plantation life has and continues to foster dependency deprivation, isolation, and violence. They know the vast distances of flatlands, toiled now primarily by machines, that separate people and services. And they truly can feel a sense of the Delta blues as it rhythmically evokes both the awesome forces of poverty and racism and the endurance of the human spirit.
In these and other poor communities across the South and nation many local leaders can also offer genuine insight about how necessary and how difficult it is to work locally in poor communities. It was surely no accident, for example, that both residents of South Chicago, and Marks, Mississippi, began their efforts to turn around their own communities with issues of security and laundromats. On a bleak October day, at Ida B. Wells Center, an elderly resident representing a tenant organization explained that their first initiative was the “security committee,” to provide solid padlocks for residents’ doors. In Marks, the origins of the local development organization began with a boycott over the mistreatment of local residents by the police. In Chicago another local resident of Ida B. Wells recalled: “Next, we had a dream… that someday… we would have a laundromat….” and now they
are opening one. In Marks, the Quitman County Development Organization responded to a real community need first by building a laundromat. Amid the nation’s poor, real needs begin at an elemental level.
And so does the work to meet those needs. Many community leaders know the strategic value and the moral imperative of helping to assure the participation of the poor in the life of their own communities and in meeting their own needs. Where effective efforts exist to reduce poverty and its deprivations—to enlarge the real chances of many poor children and their families—are found marvelous leaders and community-based organizations and hopeful moments of the promises of the American democratic process. In Chicago the elections for the management of local schools enlivened a new sense of participation and activity in poor neighborhoods, and in Mississippi a fair election process has helped to create and improve vastly poor communities like Metcalfe and has elevated caring, local leaders like county supervisor Robert Jackson. Anyone who has worked in or studied poor places has stood in witness of the poor as they began to see themselves participating in their own communities, controlling their own lives, and experimenting with new democratic forms.
Yet, most poor children will not escape poverty nor its dependency, deprivation, or other ill features unless the new ecology of poverty is recognized and squarely addressed locally and nationally. Because children are increasingly living in deprivation, dependency, and isolation, and violence—intertwining factors of this new ecology—our nation must act with a sense of urgency. That children, their families, and their communities are interdependent in this new ecology of poverty signals how we must respond. No one knows what will be the real damage that these new dimensions of poverty have upon our nation and all of our individual lives, although the current persistence of violence and death among the young may be a harbinger of the future we have sowed. Common sense, common interest, and common spiritual values tell us simply that we cannot wait to know. Today a new poverty is with us, and we must respond as wisely and as purposefully as we can.
The commitment to a new approach to poverty should not only be deep, reflective, and, in a sense, personal, but it also must become long-standing. The nation’s work on poverty over the last twenty five years permits no delusion about our ability to make a real difference within a couple of years. The problems of poverty have always been formidable, and lately they can appear overwhelming. For these reasons, the nation’s new commitment must stay the course for several years if work and dedication are to have more than symbolic values.
Our nation must begin with a preference to support community organizations, churches, and other associations who already work effectively in and with poor communities. These institutions and their leaders have a pivotal role at all levels. From their collective experience and observations, they are most likely to carry out enabling and even ennobling local practices that can help reduce the deprivation of poverty; they are the empowering instruments for the participation of the poor; they are among the most knowledgeable about how to change government practices and local policies for the better; and they are often the best advocates to make the case and build the constituency for transforming public policies.
The simple fact is that poverty is local in nature and national in scope. The work to reduce poverty requires activities at all levels—local, state, and national. Exemplary, local activities will be very important, but they can be instructive and instrumental in assuring improvements in policies and activities only within a broader venue and in the context of broader activities.
In response to ecological poverty, we must reach different levels of work, address diverse elements of needs, and venture into enterprises where success may be no more likely than failure. Without a broad, interactive approach, that is nurturing, incisive, and venturesome, the nation will not be able to sustain work that helps to reduce the new ecological problems of poverty today.
Both the government and the private sector should establish work and policies in the following areas:
1) effective and exemplary local practices in the poorest areas to reduce poverty,
2) empowering of poor communities and supporting indigenous talented leadership,
3) public policies that address the worst characteristics and the interlocking nature of ecological poverty
4) public discourse that deepens understanding about the nature of poverty and its claims on all of society.
Effective, Exemplary Local Practices
Twenty years ago political scientist Charles Hamilton examined a Harlem tenement, finding that its poor families dealt with almost two dozen government officials who were in the business of helping the poor. Today private and government assistance to the poor suffers often from similar circumstances, and the poor suffer from the disastrous consequences. The families of poor children have become wards of the state, governed by a multitude of regulations and social workers whose functions are defined by separate volumes of eligibility details and accountability statistics on “transactions” with the poor.
The paramount goal in this area should be to support existing organizations to explore new, more effective and comprehensive ways to provide services to poor children and their families and to enable poor communities. We should seek to assist those local practices that end the bureaucratic, arbitrary division of individual and community services; that promote a comprehensive, respectful response to the needs of poor families and communities; and that experiment carefully with projects bringing together public resources, the private economy, and private associations to reduce poverty and restore community. These programs should be family centered and community based. They should include those local practices that have, within one program, both the flexibility to respond to the real personal needs of poor families, without bureaucratic restraints or indifference, and to help build an infrastructure within poor communities. The government and private services which these projects
may attempt to deliver better should include housing, social services, cash payments, transportation, sanitation, job readiness, education, economic development, recreation, and security.
Empowering Poor Communities and Supporting Indigenous Leadership
Second only to the notions of community, the concepts of empowerment reverberate throughout the language of poor communities, their leaders, public policy analysts, and some government officials. The work of empowerment is to help people and communities build agency in their own lives—to participate meaningfully in the vital decisions affecting them.
In this area, private philanthropy and the government should support work that empowers the poor, in league with others, to help themselves out of poverty. This work may often include community organizing when it is driven with specific goals and practical strategies for improving services, policies, and practices; activities that enlarge the clout of the poor in dealing with the larger society; undertakings that give voice to the strategies and aspirations of poor communities; and effective programs of mediating institutions that genuinely take up the needs and causes of the poor.
The public policies relating to poverty at all levels of government in the United States have not yet come to terms with the dynamics and needs that are a part of the new ecology of poverty. In both development and implementation, public policies tend to address the various needs of poor children or poor individuals, as if their lives can be disconnected into manageable compartments—as if their chances in life can be divorced from the fate of their families and their communities. These failures in public policy continue at a time when the states are increasingly responsible for shaping policies and distributing available resources to address poverty.
In this field the nation needs the development and implementation of policies that eliminate barriers to effective, comprehensive services for poor children, their families, and their communities. Support should be available for experiments that suspend traditional guidelines and divisions in practice in order to allow for more comprehensive, effective collaboration with and among local organizations in poor areas.
No less important are projects that explore and implement practical ways in improving the structure and opportunity for jobs and earnings for the poor in both urban and rural areas. Finally, we need efforts that establish the means by which public policy is better informed in its development and implementation by the local organizations that have valuable experience with government programs.
Poverty and Public Discourse
The nation must have research and public discussions that explore how well the American people and their governments understand poverty and the poor and that examine the factors influencing the development and implementation of public policy on poverty.
Poverty in the United States constitutes a set of problems that cannot be resolved only by the efforts of the poor, their indigenous leaders, public policy analysts and activists, and government officials. They demand a broader range of responsibility, concern, and understanding. The existence of poverty says more about the values and nature of our nation as a whole as it does about those in poverty.
Steve Suitts is executive director of the Southern Regional Council.