Is Urban Poverty An Acquired Taste?

"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.


Daniel Ahkiam said...

Very charitable to take the suburban activist critique at face value -- I see urbanizing the suburbs thrown around pejoratively and all I hear is "the blacks are coming."

I wonder about the degree to which the authenticity of poverty is a result of the classes of people that tend to be poor. It's hard for me to imagine a 'real' city without, artists & ethnic communities for example.

Anonymous said...

The term "urban" is co-opted by so many groups, from "New Urbanism" with its old time main street America nostalgia, to suburbanites relating "urban" to crime a.k.a. to minorities, to pop culture relating "urban" to youth culture, to minorities relating "urban" to blackness.

We live in an era of speaking in codes, which doesn't do anything but muddle the issues and hide our biases.

I don’t think poverty makes cities authentic, or somehow more “real” than anywhere else. What makes cities authentic is their inability to hide our differences, whether dramatic cultural differences or the tiny details of life.

In New York those differences can be extreme, because people migrate there from all over the world, but that doesn’t make other cities with more homogenous populations less authentic (take Tokyo for example),

One difference I think any city could do without is large economic disparities. Cities would just be more equitable places to live, not less authentic.

That said, you made a good point that the economic disparities found in American cities has less to do with urban form and everything to do with where we, as a culture, determine the most desirable places to live are.

For most of the past century that desirable destination has been the suburbs, and the poor therefore have congregated in the places that we, as a nation, have left behind. The trend is clear though: in the late 19th early 20th centuries we abandoned far flung rural areas, then we abandoned our city centers, and more recently we’ve abandoned the less desirable suburbs, which in most cases are the ones closest to city centers.

An even more recent trend is the abandonment of far flung bedroom communities, because of high fuel costs and the current mortgage crisis.

What’s clear in all of this is that people’s decisions are motivated by the fundamentals – most notably, by where the jobs are – but they are also motivated by people’s tendency to surround themselves with people like themselves. Even in cities, people self segregate, not only by race, but by cultural preferences, politics, etc.

I think cities can buffer that discomfort by teaching us about each other, by virtue of the vast amount of shared public space we inhabit together just going about our daily lives. But we still have to make an effort to get outside our comfort zone. When was the last time you had a long conversation with someone that you had next to nothing in common with?

I think that’s where the role of cultural and educational institutions comes in, whether large and well-funded or small and informal.

It’s definitely a complex and difficult issue all around.

Anonymous said...

It's not a complex problem at all.

Unless those poor people find great jobs when they move to the suburbs, they're essentially in the same place.

And the chances of that happening?


Anonymous said...

I actually think that your assertion that poverty is concentrated in urban areas is questionable. Take this quote from an article in the nation: "a historic milestone...has gone strangely ignored: For the first time ever, more poor Americans live in the suburbs than in all our cities combined." This NPR article about the original 2006 Browning report substantiates this: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6598999

There is also a fascinating review of the film "Revolutionary Road" that confronts the issues of "authenticity" that you were discussing: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123033369595836301.html?mod=loomia&loomia_si=t0:a16:g2:r3:c0.0338094:b0

Read all of it.

Dan Lorentz said...

1. Thanks for linking to the study. I’m not sure I had seen it before.

Key findings from the study included: 1. in 2005 the suburban poor outnumbered city poor by at least 1 million people and 2. between 1999 and 2005 the percentage of people in poverty rose in cities and suburbs alike, but the poverty rate in cities was twice as high.

So, the intensity of urban poverty is still a problem cities must grapple with. (And part of that intensity is the concentration of poverty in particular neighborhoods within cities.)

From the study’s conclusion:

“This “tipping” of poor populations to the suburbs represents a signal development that upends historical notions about who lives in cities and suburbs. As previous research has suggested, the poor—and especially the working poor—figure prominently among suburban populations today. Considerably faster growth in the size of the suburban poor, however, has not altered the fact that city residents on average are much more likely to be poor than suburban residents. In fact, the overall poverty-rate change in cities from 1999 to 2005 mirrored that in their suburbs, and further mimicked the national change during that time (Figure 2). Today, the combined poverty rate for all large central cities (18.8 percent) doubles that for their suburbs (9.4 percent). Thus, while poverty is now more suburban than urban in one important respect, cities still claim a disproportionate share of the metropolitan poor.”

Lee Siegel’s piece about the movie Revolutionary Road and anti-suburban sentiment in American culture was unconvincing to me on at least one point. He says: “anti-suburban sentiment is one of the most unexamined attitudes in American culture.” On the contrary, it seems to me there are shelf loads of books—novels, journalism, sociology—that articulate fairly precise complaints about America’s post-war suburbs. Dislike of the suburbs may be a pose for some people (Hollywood types and “intellectuals,”as Siegel puts it), but it’s really not that hard for many of us to find things to honestly dislike about the suburbs.

“Authenticity” is a somewhat hazy concept. That’s true. But—as a general thing—I think it’s not wholly off-base to characterize suburbs and cities like I did in my post: “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.”

The ability of suburbs—especially older, inner-ring ones—to exclude undesirable things is now weakening. But never underestimate what I think is fair to call the “suburban impulse” in many of us. We’ll just make new suburbs—a little farther out. Or, we’ll do what Siegel suggests we’re doing now: making the cities suburbs. That could happen. The “authenticity” of cities is a matter of history, not necessity.