Trying Harder at Doing Better

In the current double-month issue of The Atlantic, Hanna Rosin wrote a story about rising crime rates in new areas of mid-sized cities. Sociologists and criminologists can link it to the outward migration of inner-city, housing-project dwellers who took Section 8 vouchers and spread out when their developments were torn down. It seems the projects took their crime with them.

Programs around the country, encouraged and financially supported by the federal Hope VI program, have spent the past decade trying to undo the damage done in the middle-part of the last century, when cities built inner-city high-rises that concentrated poverty, and all of its concomitant problems, and tore communities apart. The idea behind the new programs was to spread poverty out – to encourage low-income families to live amongst middle-class neighborhoods and, hopefully, adopt middle-class mores.

Rosin’s story concentrates on Memphis, and asks the question on whether these programs are really helping. The problem, many of her sources note, is that the programs in Memphis did not include anything else: social programs, community building, or education and job training. They just gave people vouchers, which can only be used for rents up to certain amounts, and wished them well.

In some ways, this just repeats the problems of urban redevelopment. Rather than letting communities grow organically, or involving the stakeholders in the problem-solving, a top-down solution is implemented without much follow-through. And the vouchers themselves present a problem with their rent limits. A cap on the rent drives holders to geographically or economically marginal neighborhoods. Many of the residents to whom Rosin spoke were increasingly isolated in their communities, in part because they were further away from city centers. The residents with whom they shared space were suspicious, they were suspicious, and they didn’t intermingle, preventing the kind of behavior adoption advocates were hoping for.

What then, to do? Projects in most cities around the country are in shameful disrepair, and people cannot continue to live in them. The concentration of poverty is a bad thing, most people agree. But the solution has to solve the other problems as well. It has to allow people to develop the sense of community and social networks that will encourage mobility, and it has to allow physical mobility. If poor people can’t pay rents, they can’t buy a car and live near the outskirts of a city.

I can’t help but tying this to another piece I just read, Atul Gawande’s book Better. Gawande is a doctor and a fabulous writer, and presents many examples of physicians who use the tools already available in medicine to treat people better. Everyone, it seems, is tireless, and ready to innovate, and committed to solving seemingly unsolvable problems. Getting better as a society and as a medical professional doesn’t require new medicine all the time, he said. It requires using the skills and the tools we have at our disposal to a higher degree of effectiveness.

Almost all social programs, from antipoverty initiatives to education, suffer from a lack of this kind of commitment. Antipoverty programs are not going to work in a single generation. But when there are problems, politicians and policy makers usually change something to give the appearance of problem-solving, rather than digging in to their elbows and trying harder. I don’t know what the answers are, but I don’t think we’ll ever know if we change course so easily, without a commitment to trying what we try, only trying it better.

  • I think the solution is to keep doing this: giving people cash aid or rent vouchers to live wherever they want. Social services should be more widely provided to everybody, but the problem of feeling isolated in a new neighborhood is indeed one that takes *time* to get over.

  • Grump

    The problems we face as a people didn’t occur overnight. They happened over a span of generations. Thus, we should reasonably expect to solve them in the same amount of time.

  • elliemaehoya

    Wow — I had no clue about this, and it’s really alarming. Unfortunately, politicians aren’t going to change, so I guess the best we can do is combine those quick-fix strategies that make it look like it’s helping with some real solutions that may take decades. The only problem is getting ahold of some $$$ to make that happen.