Housing · Poverty · Racism · Segregation

My Response to The Atlantic’s Article on Segregation and Poverty

On February 3rd, The Atlantic published this article, “Is Ending Segregation the Key to Ending Poverty?” by Alana Semuels. Below are my thoughts concerning key themes in the article. I welcome respectful discussion and critique of my arguments, especially from people who work on housing issues.

“Hard to escape, that is, until Harris got an opportunity to move out of the projects to a small village called Alsip, 40 minutes outside of Chicago’s city center and 80 percent white. Harris moved to Alsip 14 years ago and since then has led a quiet, suburban life alongside neighbors who go to work each day and raise their children to go to college.” This article seems to set up a dichotomy between middle class suburban white people who work and raise their kids to attend college and poor black people who don’t work and whose kids don’t go to college. Is this piece implying that poor black people do not work nor want their children to attend college? Unemployment is heartbreakingly high in poor black communities on the south side of Chicago, but it isn’t because a large mass of people are not willing to work. Labor market racism, educational inequities, mass incarceration, lack of affordable childcare, and many other factors are some of the structural forces that lead to unemployment. Black people, just like many other families, want their children to pursue higher education. Similar to unemployment, many structural factors converge to constrain the choices people have: mass school closures, inequitable funding, zero-tolerance discipline policies, community violence and many other issues lead to a low number of youth attending college.

In “Changing the Geography of Opportunity by Expanding Residential Choice: Lessons from the Gautreux Program”, James E. Rosenbaum, the Northwestern University researcher who authors this study, seems to agree with the researchers Galster and Killen that living in black neighborhoods discourages black people from working and going to school. I totally disagree with that. Black communities (created by racist public policy and white violence) are intentionally starved of resources (jobs, affordable housing, economic investment), and heavily policed. Black people living around each other does not cause us to not want jobs and education. Does segregation only cause these things among black people and not white people? If so, I wonder why…. Maybe it’s because white neighborhoods have living-wage employment, a sizeable tax base to generously fund public schools, and little intimidating police and social service presence.

“There are hundreds of programs that seek to improve the outcomes of people who live in concentrated poverty. But as Harris and thousands of other mothers like her have demonstrated over the past half century, one of the most effective strategies for lifting families out of poverty is to plunk them down in a completely new neighborhood far away from their past lives.” I find these programs problematic for a number of reasons. Right now I will just focus on one: why can’t the city provide people with the tools and opportunities to transform their current communities? Why is the city more willing to give people money to move away? Are there underlying motives that have nothing to do with ending segregation and poverty?

“The program that helped Harris move to Alsip was the result of a lawsuit originally filed in 1966, still being litigated today, referred to as Gautreaux for the original plaintiff, who died in 1968. Among other things, a consent decree related to Gautreaux required the Chicago Housing Authority to provide vouchers for black residents to move to white suburbs beginning in the 1970s. Many of the families who moved to the suburbs stayed there, and their children were more likely to stay out of trouble and go to college than families who stayed within the city.” What neighborhood conditions make it more likely that children stay out of trouble and go to college in the suburbs? Can those conditions be transplanted in city neighborhoods? Is the article implying proximity to white middle class-ness as a reason? If so, then we are perpetuating the ideology of white superiority and black inferiority; black people, the inferior race, need to have access to whites, inherently superior, in order to learn to adhere to social mores.

“Of course, moving some families to more affluent suburbs doesn’t help the families left behind, and policymakers say there also need to be programs focusing on improving the lives of people in concentrated poverty.” This is another issue I have with the program of moving people to the suburbs; glad the author addressed this. Chicago’s black population decreased by 17% according to the 2010 census, and more people leaving leaves communities with vacant properties, and decreased student populations (underutilized schools was one of many reasons offered by Mayor Rahm Emanual for closing 54 schools in 2013).

“Popkin found that even families who moved to the same neighborhood but better homes—such as the mixed-income complexes—said their lives had improved. Of course, those families saw no marked improvements in educational or employment outcomes, but their living situations were at least better than they had been.” Mixed-income housing is often touted as a solution to segregation and poverty, and while I think it has the potential to have wide-ranging positive implications, the way some mixed-income housing operates is very problematic. Research from the University of Chicago has found that in three mixed-income developments studied, former public housing residents were subject to rules that market-rate renters and home owners were not subjected to (surveillance, gathering in public places, kids playing on the property, etc.). I do think an increase in mixed-income developments can be a step in the right direction as far as increasing the supply of affordable housing, but they have to be developed with the needs of both affordable housing and market-rate renters and owners in mind.


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