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"We Must Acknowledge How Poor People Life,"

by Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh January/February 2005 issue of Poverty & Race

Polikoff offers a persuasive proposal to dismantle America’s ghettos. I leave to others a critique of its technocratic merits. Instead, I address the sociological underpinning, as it is a most elegant rendition of the liberal hymn for social justice.

Polikoff’s spirited argument presupposes a folk model of the ghetto. “Folk” is not a pejorative label. All of us make claims about the social world that are based on our own largely untested assumptions. When they motivate policies to help others, they surely must be interrogated.

The ghetto, in his perspective, is the result of historic, institutionalized racism. True enough, but Polikoff knows from his life of public service that the black ghetto, like its Jewish predecessor, arose from the interplay of segregation and conscious preferences. To be sure, the dialectic was a perverse one. Black Americans’ predilection for culturally/ethnically familiar spaces did not cause racism. Instead, discrimination and poverty created the conditions whereby comfort became a motive for mistreated souls to live near one another. In this era of near evangelical faith in the power of mobility vouchers, this basic structural feature of the black urban poor still makes liberals uneasy. Alas, the ghetto may not be dismantled until we renounce our bourgeois sensibility and acknowledge how poor people live.

Look, for example, at the goal of mobility proponents — exemplified in Polikoff’s proposal for a “National Gautreaux Program.” Namely, move the “family” out of the ghetto and into the “mainstream.” First, the “family” may not be as meaningful to the poor as it is to the middle class. “Family” is an administrative/juridical designation affirmed by public policy. But the poor live in networks and households. These fluid ties, rooted in kin and the exchange of symbolic goods (e.g., intimacy) and commodities (e.g., babysitting), hold for white ethnics and Latinos as well as blacks. How to incorporate this variability in a voucher program? I’m not sure, but it would be nice if the leading minds would take it seriously.

Second, public housing families who move, voluntarily or not, continue to show strong connections to their old neighborhoods. My own study of Chicago relocatees shows
1/3 of families sending kids back to their familiar, decrepit schools — they trust teachers, draw on free daycare nearby, get credit from stores. An even greater percentage are returning to their old areas after two years, even if they are leaving behind non-poor neighborhoods. We must do a better job of understanding why. FYI: only part of the answer involves improving relocation services.

Finally, Polikoff’s embrace of the mixed-Income vision is questionable. There is no evidence that mixed-income communities improve the lives of poor families — in fact, most exclude the poor because of unrealistic leasing criteria such as strict work requirements. Polikoff’s career displayed the courage not to trust the beneficence of government officials. Why does he now trust private-market developers ruled entirely by the profit motive?

None of these points necessarily invalidate a voucher program. I endorse much of Polikoff’s proposal, in spirit and substance. But there are dangers to forging policies solely on the assumption of middle-class resources and perspectives. One is that we become blinded to their limits and we fail to appreciate when those who need the help do not accept it.

Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh is on the faculty in Sociology and African-American Studies at Columbia University, where he also is Director of the Center for Urban Research & Policy.

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