"The whole idea of de-concentrating poverty was supposed to be that you would pick up middle-class values. But all it's doing is urbanizing the suburbs." [Emphasis added.]
That's what a suburban activist said about Section 8, a major U.S. government rent subsidy program for low-income people. The quote comes from a Cincinnati Enquirer article about how the program is creating clusters of low-income housing in the suburbs as poor people from Cincinnati's inner city move there.
My first reaction—a knee-jerk urbanist reaction—to the quote was: "Good! Suburbs are fake; cities are real. A shot of poverty will make the suburbs more real."
But then I realized I had accepted a questionable assumption: that poverty is somehow inextricably linked to and emblematic of urban life.
Do I actually believe that?
In America, poverty is more concentrated in urban areas. Still, there's lots of rural poverty in America and elsewhere. In European cities the poor tend to live in the suburbs, while the well-off inhabit the central city. And I know, of course, that cities are engines of economic growth. So, while the urban/poverty association does make some sense, it's also clear cities don't have a monopoly on poverty.
There's something else right about the linkage. I think it's this: Unlike some suburbs and gated communities, it's not as easy for cities to exclude undesirable things like poverty. And it is this vulnerability to what's in the world—including poverty—that gives cities more authenticity.
Cities—with their layers of old and new, their sediments of success and failure, their grime and glitter, their wealth and poverty—are real places par excellence. This authenticity is a meaningful part of why I like living in a city. Poverty is a sign you're living in a real place.
But where this idea could lead freaked me out.
Does appreciating the authenticity of cities entail liking failure, grime and poverty? If we eliminated poverty would cities bore us? Do city-lovers love cities because they're difficult to love? Because they enable the flexing of snob muscles?
The idea that savoring city life might mean acquiring a taste for poverty—because that's one of the spices required for the full flavor of authenticity—is revolting.
Thankfully, I don't think anybody has to buy this noxious idea.
Here's why not: There's nothing wrong with the desire to live in the real world—even a world that includes poverty and failure. Just as you can love your family even when it includes your depressed, grouchy sister and not have to love depression, you can take pride in cities even when that pride is partly based on an authenticity that includes poverty (something you don't have to feel proud about.)
Nor does being proud about city life mean you're obligated to regard poverty as an eternal feature of the human condition. We can—and should—fight poverty even though it's a tenacious and complex problem. Like your sister's depression, poverty might be preventable—and, at the very least, is certainly worth controlling and ameliorating.
For the record, I bet that people not distracted by the misery of poverty will contribute more excitement to cities, not less.
Let's return to what the suburban activist said. While there is evidence that moving out of poor city neighborhoods into middle-class suburban neighborhoods does benefit some poor people, the activist is right that poverty's problems won't just blow away in the fresh suburban air. Still, the claim that poverty is for cities not suburbs strikes my urban-biased mind as a very suburban attitude. Which is to say, fearful and irresponsible—and definitely not something to be proud about.