Urban Poverty


It isn’t lack of opportunity that keeps people poor. A welfare mother in Central Harlem is not poor for the same reasons that a subsistence corn farmer in Mexico is poor. That’s just one of the many self-evident conclusions to emerge from an antipoverty program begun by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2007. This initiative, Opportunity NYC–Family Rewards, bestows cash rewards on (for the most part) single parents and their children if they act responsibly—by attending school, for example, or by working. The program was based on Oportunidades, a Mexican initiative. Bloomberg’s version of Oportunidades officially pretended that New York’s underclass faced similar tragic choices, that the poor failed to “plan for the future” because they were “so focused on surviving”.

Oportunidades tried to change the perceived zero-sum relationship between self-improvement and present income by paying Mexican farm families for taking actions in their long-term self-interest, such as school work and medical visits.the theory that Mexican campesinos were so trapped in the daily struggle for survival that they couldn’t undertake behaviors that would help them escape poverty over the long term. Facing grinding economic pressures, parents pull their children out of school to help with the harvest; mothers don’t take their children to the doctor because they can’t wrest time away from work in the fields or at home.

Not all of the interim results for New York’s effort are as blindingly obvious, as the fact that multigenerational urban poverty in America is far different from Third World rural poverty. One detail in particular stands out: that the lives of America’s underclass are characterized by a degree of disorganization that is rarely grasped or acknowledged. The implications of this revelation will be difficult, if not impossible, for the welfare industry to accept.

Nor does American poverty bear any resemblance to Third World poverty. New York City is awash in welfare programs that confer on the poor benefits that would be unthinkable in rural Mexico or Africa, such as free high-tech medical care, monthly welfare checks, and free or subsidized housing. Family Rewards is an add-on to an already generous safety net; the Mexican version is the safety net. New York’s poor also enjoy a clean, reliable water supply, a public health system that controls environmentally borne infectious disease, a sound transportation infrastructure, and the rule of law. The city’s officially classified “poor” teenagers can be regularly observed sporting the latest designer sneakers.

The main drivers of poverty in America are family breakdown (in 2004, single-parent households nationally were six times as likely to be poor as married families) and non-work (only 5 percent of all families with one full-time worker were poor in New York City from 2005 to 2007, compared with 47 percent of families with no workers). The antisocial behaviors that contribute to multi-generational poverty also have nothing to do with suffocating economic pressures: very few inner-city students cut classes or drop out of school to help their parents work; they do so because their peer culture is toxic and because their parents exercise little control over their lives.

Nevertheless, lurking beneath the Family Rewards rhetoric about “our impoverished campesinos” was an implicit acknowledgment of a truth rarely spoken in antipoverty circles: it’s the behavior of the inner-city poor that perpetuates poverty, not just “structural inequalities,” rapacious capitalism, or racism. That covert acknowledgment was enough to earn the initiative the opprobrium of many in the traditional poverty industry.

While Heather Mac Donald (a contributing editor of City Journal ) is writing about New York, the tenor of her article in the City Journal yesterday could be applied to any western conurbation. With the title Bribery Strikes Out MacDonald points to the fallacy of attributing a common rationale for poverty between first, and second or third world poor. The article outlines an initiative to fund a problem, multi-generation urban poverty, that now sounds depressingly familiar.

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Hello, I’m Ed Conway, Economics Editor of Sky News, and this is my website. Blogposts, stuff about my books and a little bit of music

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