A History of Poverty in America: Chapter 1

A History of Poverty in America: Chapter 1

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

Chapter I: The Formation of the "Black Ghetto" By the early 1950s, the black, inner-city ghetto was already well formed. African Americans already lived in highly segregated, densely concentrated urban areas. These ghettos, however, differed significantly from their modern counterparts. Their levels of "social organization" were intact, that is to say, informal social networks kept neighbors in touch with one another, formal social networks (churches, fraternal organizations, and volunteer organizations) brought people together, and institutions such as businesses and schools made community viable. Most people worked. Single-parent families were a distinct minority (about 17%). Levels of violence were low. Education were "integrated vertically," meaning that affluent, middle-class, working-class, and poor people all lived in relatively close proximity. This is not to overlook the often severe poverty (with its related conditions) that existed, but the social organization still present made these ghettos vastly different from their modern counterparts. They were societies unto themselves that mirrored the larger society. The seeds of the black ghetto's current problems had, however, already been planted. Most importantly, these areas were highly segregated. It had not always been so. Prior to the late 1800s, urban rich and poor, white and black lived in relatively close proximity, (whether they wanted to or not). The poor were often servants (or, previously, slaves) of the rich and so lived close by, and the still primitive modes of transportation made living close to the centers of business and commerce necessary for everyone. With the coming of large manufacturing factories to northern cities during the industrialization of the late 1800s, however, workers were needed and wages were unprecedented, so immigrant workers flocked to the United States from Europe, Asia, and every other area of the world. At the same time, efficient modes of transportation were coming into use, so the affluent were able to avoid this onslaught of "undesirables" by moving from the central cities. It was, in some ways, the beginnings of American suburbanization. Most immigrants could not afford to move away from the places where they worked, so they lived close to the factories and tended to live together in the same neighborhoods, choosing to live in a culture familiar to them. These were the first American urban ghettos. But foreigners were not only "immigrants." African-American agricultural workers from the South also poured into the northern industrialized cities. They were not only pulled into the North by the lure of decent wages but also pushed out of the South because of the joblessness due to the mechanization of southern agriculture. Like other immigrant groups, they settled in ghettos near their jobs. Unlike other immigrant groups, however, they stayed there. As workers from the white ethnic ghettos became more affluent over the course of one or two generations, they gradually moved out from their ghettos and dispersed into the general population. We don't speak of "Finnish ghettos" or "German ghettos" anymore. Segregation, of course, did not allow black people into white areas. Even those African Americans who became affluent were confined to black ghettos. The second great migration of African Americans from the South into northern cities occurred in the 1940s or 50s. Once again, they were pushed out of the South by increasing agricultural mechanization (especially the introduction of the mechanical cotton picker), and they were pulled north by decently paying jobs in the manufacturing centers of the cities. Because of continuing segregation, however, the geographical area of the black ghetto could expand only slowly and these new immigrants had few options. Population density increased constantly. By the 1950s, black people in the least segregated cities of America were more segregated than any other ethnic or racial group had ever been in any city in the United States. The second factor that would play increasing prominence in the formation of the modern black ghetto was the relative poverty of African Americans compared to European Americans. Discrimination in education, employment, and housing was, of course, legal, but there were other, less well-known causes of the relative poverty of black Americans. Poverty had been widespread among all ethnic groups during the Great Depression, but many Federal programs had helped to alleviate that poverty. Unfortunately, African Americans were often left out of those efforts. Two of the most important elements of social insurance introduced during the Depression, for instance, were Social Security and mandatory unemployment insurance, but they specifically excluded domestics and agricultural workers. Since two-thirds of employed blacks were, at that time, either domestics or agricultural workers, most black people were not eligible for benefits. While the rest of the country was receiving significant Federal help in moving out of poverty, African Americans were left out. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was another important anti-poverty program developed during the Depression to guarantee mortgages for the purchase of homes. This not only allowed families to become homeowners (and thus accumulate wealth) but also created jobs and provided investment in the community. Citing concerns that the poorer black neighborhoods were not good financial risks, however, the FHA "redlined" almost all black areas, refusing to guarantee mortgages there. Private lenders followed suit. These FHA policies lasted well into the 1960, and redlining by private institutions is still in unofficial practice today. Finally, cities had frequently used zoning requirements (first initiated in the United States in the early 1900s) to zone poor neighborhoods as "industrial," prohibiting not only new residential construction but also frequently the improvement of old residential buildings. The quality of life in these areas was already lower because of neighboring industry, and the housing stock tended to deteriorate easily. Other poor people could move out to other areas, but the reality of segregation forced African Americans to stay in these increasingly industrialized areas of the cities. Despite the segregation, crowding and poverty, however, the black ghettos of the early 1950s were viable neighborhoods, primarily because of the intact social organization. A series of events over the next three decades, however, was to change that situation markedly. The first event was the wholesale destruction of black neighborhoods by the Federal Urban Renewal and Federal Interstate Highway programs. Urban renewal was an attempt to improve decaying center cities by transforming them into new, architecturally pleasing areas. Because of the minimal political power held by African Americans at that time, black ghettos (and other poor areas) were usually chosen as sites for urban renewal. Large, inner-city black ghettos were razed. Some of the poorer people from the "renewed" areas were moved into public housing, but these were usually large apartment buildings reserved only for the poor. But the rest simply squeezed into remaining ghettos areas. The same phenomenon occurred when the Interstate Highway Program started during the Eisenhower administration. When these superhighways went through cities, poor black areas were usually the ones disrupted. Either the area was simply razed and the former inhabitants moved into public housing or the highway was placed so as to create a physical boundary between the black ghetto and other areas of the city, effectively isolating the inhabitants. A second event facilitating the disintegration of the ghettos was the gradual loss of jobs that paid a living wage. The major structural changes in the American economy over the last four decades have almost all been detrimental to poor people. By the middle of the 20th century, the United States had become the overwhelming leader in worldwide manufacturing, and many of these factories were located in the large cities of the North. They offered good employment for workers who entered the job market with little education and few skills. High levels of unionization meant that the jobs were secure, wages were relatively high, and the chances for advancement were good if one stayed with the company. Blue-collar jobs were a primary way out of poverty for many African Americans. But soon Europe and Japan had rebuilt themselves after the destruction of World War II, and their manufacturing competed, often quite successfully, with American companies. Later on, less developed countries, such as Korea and Taiwan, expanded their manufacturing, too. More recently, the globalization of the economy and the development of large, multinational companies have led to the loss of manufacturing in the United States as plants have moved to the Third World, where salaries are lower, environmental regulations are few, and expensive regulations for worker protection almost non-existent. With the increasing computerization and mechanization of manufacturing worldwide, moreover, the well-paying jobs that remained wen to those whom William Julius Wilson calls the "symbol manipulators," those who analyzed data, wrote computer programs, managed people, administered organizations, or performed other tasks for which higher degrees of formal education were required. Increasingly, the only jobs remaining for poorly trained or educated people were in the service sector—as domestics, janitors, clerks, salespeople, nursing aides, and so on—where wages had historically been low and benefits poor. To make matters worse, the wages in the service sector were declining even further relative to other sectors of the economy, so even full-time workers were finding it difficult to stay out of poverty. Segregation, of course, made it difficult to find well-paying jobs outside of black areas. The third event was integration itself. With the coming of integration, affluent and middle-class African Americans could now find housing outside the crowding of the black ghetto. Only those who could not afford to move out—that is, the poorest—were left, often crowded together in high-rise public housing. What had been poor but vertically integrated neighborhoods—where most people worked, social networks were intact, and institutions functioned—were now extremely poor areas where only poor people lived with few or no social networks, no institutions of support, no jobs, and large numbers of people who did not work. Under such conditions, the results are predictable. The "surround of force" that people experience leads to despair, inertia, and increasing anti-social behavior. By the 1960s, the wider society had begun to notice the changes occurring in the inner city. As always, there were analysts eager to blame the poor themselves for their poverty, but the political tenor of the times (as a society, we believed much more strongly then in structural causes of poverty than we do now) made it unfashionable to criticize poor people, and the structuralist view dominated. Due in part to the publication of Michael Harrington's The Other America, the country was rediscovering poverty and wanted to do something about it. In 1964, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a young advisor to President Johnson, wrote what was supposed to be a confidential memo to the President. Although the report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, stressed male unemployment as the primary cause of black poverty, Moynihan also documented dramatic increases in single-parenthood among black families4 and expressed concern about its impact on black poverty. The report was leaked, circulated widely, and the issue of single-parenthood was sensationalized by the press, causing a firestorm among liberals.5 Black activists (their influence nearing its apex in the liberal community) interpreted the report as humiliating to blacks at a time when they were trying to support black strength and identity. More radical Black Power advocates condemned the report as another racist attempt to discredit black people. What right did this white man have even to write such a report about black people? Other (white) liberals didn't like it either, since it seemed to blame black people for their plight. The condemnation of the Moynihan Report was so severe that liberals, sociologists and researchers responded by

  • avoiding even mentioning race when discussing behavioral problems among the poor,
  • emphasizing racism as the cause of any such behavior,
  • denying that the behavior (e.g., decreased labor-force attachment, increase in single-parenthood, even the increase in drug use) was inappropriate, or even
  • denying that the behavior existed.

Anyone who dared talk about a "culture of poverty"6 was so viciously attacked that research simply stopped. Lyndon B. Johnson declared a "War on Poverty" early in his presidency, significantly increasing public spending on poverty, availability of services, and growth in benefits available to the poor, especially to the elderly poor. In today's political climate, the War on Poverty is vilified as an utter failure, but many of its programs—Headstart, food stamps, Medicaid, Medicare, higher social security benefits, increases in disability benefits, Legal Aid, the Job Corps and others—were much more successful than is commonly realized. Between 1959 and 1979, the poverty rate among fully employed blacks went through 43% to 16%. The War on Poverty was especially successful among the elderly as their poverty rate was cut by two-thirds. But the War on Poverty was stunted and ultimately cut short by the War in Vietnam. Few poverty programs were fully implemented and funding was curtailed in almost all programs. Despite the success with the elderly, overall poverty increased during the next two decades, primarily due to the major economic changes occurring worldwide. During the seventies, the forces within the now-fully-formed black ghetto intensified. Since there were no jobs, the illicit drug industry found a fertile field in which to grow new employees. And with the drugs came the violence, especially with the rise of gun sales in the 1980s. Liberals were in denial, refusing even to notice this new phenomenon in the cities for fear of criticizing African Americans. Middle America, of course, was watching television and reading the newspapers, and the behavior changes in the black ghetto were not only obvious but also frightening. Since liberals wouldn't acknowledge those changes, they were marginalized in the debate and the only voices average Americans heard were those who blamed the poor for their poverty. So, the conservative view (that focused almost exclusively on individual characteristics as a cause of poverty) was essentially unopposed until the black sociologist William Julius Wilson began writing in the mid-80s. The conservatives (most importantly, Charles Murray in Losing Ground7 in 1983) also added the new argument that the liberal welfare policies of the Great Society programs had worsened poverty. Given that one couldn't do much about cultural traditions, family structures, or individual character, their arguments strongly bolstered the conservative attack of social spending in the 1980s, which has continued in the 90s as "welfare reform." The mood of the country hardened against the ghetto. Poverty was increasing and the War on Poverty was declared a failure, forgetting that it had been more a skirmish than a war. By the 1980s, government programs for the poor were being drastically curtailed, and society was moving toward controlling the ghetto rather than helping it. The "black ghetto" that we know today had been found. Footnotes 4 In absolute numbers had been an explosion in black single-parenthood. The ratio of black single-parent households to white single-parent households, however, has remained the same since 1950. In 1950, for instance, 17.2% of black households and 5.3% of white households were headed by women. The "black multiple" was 3.2. In 1993, the figures were 58.4% and 18.7% respectively, so the black multiple was essentially the same, 3.1. 5 The words "liberal" and "conservative" have been so misused as to become almost meaningless today. "Liberal," for instance, seems to describe anybody in favor of big government. In this book, I will use the term "liberal" to refer to those who emphasize the structural causes of poverty and see them as prior to and more important than behavioral causes. I will use the word "conservative" to refer to those who see individual agency as more important. 6 The "culture of poverty" was a term introduced by sociologist Oscar Lewis in the late 1950s implying that certain groups had culturally induced behaviors that precipitated their poverty. 7 Murray, Charles, Losing Ground.

Voices on the Radio

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.