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Cities and Poverty

William Julius Wilson writes in this morning Times about—you guessed it—poverty. It turns out that Our Only President has put forward policies that are—you guessed it again—bad for poor people. OK, this is not much of a surprise. On the other hand, Prof. Wilson, who is tremendously thoughtful, insightful, and knowledgeable, points out a specific problem, or rather an important aspect of the problem, which I had not thought about.

Socially, the problem with poverty is not just that there are poor people (this is a moral problem for society, of course, no matter what), but that poor people cause problems for people who are not poor. There are several parts to this: first, social incentives are based on the middle-class, so they often don't work for the poor. If prison isn't much worse than your life, fear of prison isn't going to dissuade you from crime, nor is the fear of losing your bank account to fines. If a child is malnourished, he will not take full advantage of school; nor will a hungry adult spend time researching civic issues and preparing her vote. There are tons of examples, here, or both positive and negative incentives that apply to individuals who are well-fed, well-housed, and have at least a small amount of capital.

As it happens, many (if not most) poor people are also ill-educated, and live in neighborhoods that have substandard city services. This is because schools do better when a high proportion of the students are good, mayors direct services to neighborhoods where a high proportion of residents vote, etc., etc. Businesses, also, are affected. Thus, poor neighborhoods breed poverty as surely as poor people do; furthermore, poor neighborhoods, as Prof. Wilson puts it, magnify the problems that poverty inflict on society: "joblessness, crime, delinquency, drug trafficking, family breakups and poor "social outcomes" like school performance."

One of the outcomes of the nineties boom was a reduction in the number of poor neighborhoods in the US; both because some people got out of poverty and because some people who weren't poor moved into (or back into) cities. Both of those things were, at least in part, deliberate priorities of policymakers on a variety of levels. Part of that was simply that there was enough money in budgets to do things. Now, it appears that the federal level is downgrading that priority, states are in budget crises and as such revealing their priorities more starkly than they had, and cities, at the short end of the proverbial stick, are facing choices of where to spend what resources they have.

Recently, E.J. Dionne wrote about the crisis in city funds (specifically on the security issue), and quoted Boston's Tom Menino as saying "There's no Democratic Party or Republican Party. There's a Mayors' Party." I disagree. The Democratic party is, at least by default, the political party that cares about cities. And I know that not all poor neighborhoods are in cities (in fact, while cities' poor neighborhoods declined in the nineties, the suburban situation actually got worse, according to Paul A. Jargowsky of the Brookings Institution and the University of Texas). But it is important to be clear about things: The Democrats care about the poor, and the Democrats care about cities. And we are good for both.

Redintegro Iraq,


Democrats care about the poor, and the Democrats care about cities.

does that include southern dems?

i wonder if the changes in the last, hmm, how far back to go? 10, 20, 30, 40, what a difference as the decades are tacked on. anyway if we stick to since the 1990 census.

i wonder if blue states felt pain near cities, and red states felt pain away from them, and people are voting against their opposite demographic "because they're screwing me" or something along that line.

According to David Leip's Election Atlas, there are tons of Democrats in cities in the south. If you look at the results by county, rather than the state, I'm guessing you will be able to locate some urban counties in the South pretty accurately.

Warning: in an attempt to confuse me, Mr. Leip has represented Democratic counties in RED, and Republican counties in BLUE. This is the reverse of the usual, and although there is no reason why he shouldn't do it, it took me a long time to figure out why %80 of Middlesex County, Mass. (aka the People's Republic of Cambridge) had voted for W.


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