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Poverty 101 in the nation's third-poorest city

Poverty is Buffalo's No. 1 problem -- as evidenced by our ranking as the nation's third-poorest city.

What to do about it? Well, Mayor Byron Brown appointed a deputy mayor a year ago to answer just that question, but we're still waiting for an answer

William julius wilson No matter. Today and tomorrow I will delve into the issue, starting with a look at the root causes of urban poverty through the lens of Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, regarded as a pre-eminent expert, who heads the university's Joblessness and Urban Poverty Research Center.

Wilson draws on research, rather than dogma, in concluding that the reasons for the kind of sustained poverty we see in cities like Buffalo don't fit neatly into the analysis offered by liberals (the legacy of racism) or conservatives (ghetto culture).

Wilson has a new book, "More Than Just Race," which was recently reviewed by the New York Times and Slate. 

The Times review said Wilson makes a "convincing case that both institutional and systemic impediments and cultural deficiencies keep poor blacks from escaping poverty and the ghetto."

The systemic impediments include both the legacy of racism and dramatic economic changes that have fallen with disproportionate severity on poor blacks.

State-enforced racial discrimination created the ghetto: in the early 20th century local governments separated the races into segregated neighborhoods by force of law, and later, whites used private agreements and violent intimidation to keep blacks out of white neighborhoods.

Worst, and most surprising of all, the federal government played a major role in encouraging the racism of private actors and state governments. Until the 1960s, federal housing agencies engaged in racial red­lining, refusing to guarantee mortgages in inner-city neighborhoods; private lenders quickly followed suit.

Meanwhile, economic and demographic changes that had nothing to do with race aggravated the problems of the ghetto.

Encouraged by recently built highways and inexpensive real estate, middle-class residents and industry left the inner city to relocate to roomier and less costly digs in the suburbs during the ’60s and ’70s. Those jobs that remained available to urban blacks further dwindled as companies replaced well-paid and unionized American workers with automation and cheaper overseas labor.

The new economy produced most of its jobs at the two poles of the wage scale: high-paying jobs for the well educated and acculturated (lawyers, bankers, management consultants) and low-paying jobs for those with little education or skills (fast food, telemarketing, janitorial services).

And, as Wilson argued in an earlier book, “The Declining Significance of Race,”the success of the civil rights movement inadvertently made things worse for the most disadvantaged.

After federal law prohibited housing discrimination, successful blacks began to leave the inner city for many of the same reasons whites did: in search of better schools, less crime, lower taxes and a leafier landscape. This left the least well off behind in ghettos that were both more socially isolated and more economically depressed than ever.

Today many ghetto residents have almost no contact with mainstream American society or the normal job market. As a result, they have developed distinctive and often dysfunctional social norms.

The work ethic, investment in the future and deferred gratification make no sense in an environment in which legitimate employment at a living wage is impossible to find and crime is an everyday hazard (and temptation).

Men, unable to support their families, abandon them; women become resigned to single motherhood; children suffer from broken homes and from the bad examples set by both peers and adults. And this dysfunctional behavior reinforces negative racial stereotypes, making it all the harder for poor blacks to find decent jobs.

Concludes The Times review:

The urban poor need remedies that judges cannot order: public and private investment to create jobs that pay a living wage, training to help them learn new skills and understand the job market, and most of all a chance to move into racially and economically integrated neighborhoods where there are better opportunities and healthier cultural norms.

Addressing urban poverty is where I'll pick up tomorrow, focusing on the need for a healthy dose of capitalism in the nation's inner-cities, as prescribed by Michael Porter.




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