Sunday, May 16, 2010

Poverty Inc.: An American Tragedy in 13 Parts

'If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin." ~Charles Darwin

If you like this post and would like to explore similar topics, please visit:

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This Mortal Coil: Shangri-La & the 2nd Death

Part One

At the beginning of the decade, a plague of chaos erupted in working class neighborhoods across America. In once relatively peaceful areas, epidemics of murder, rape and robbery broke out. Police faced a grim situation. The mayhem once contained to isolated sections of cities had jumped the breaks. A firestorm had erupted destroying neighborhoods and ripping apart families.

Horrifying though it may be, violent crime is mundane in one respect: It tends to occur in predictable patterns. These patterns signify that the thin veneer of civilization is holding. Without the thin veneer of civilization, man would tear himself to shreds.  This is the story of how a Federally subsidized social experiment played out on a grand scale is cracking the veneer in communities across this land.

Part Two
The Thin Veneer of Civilization

Who better to ponder the fragility of society than an Austrian Jew, Sigmund Freud, who had lived through slaughter of World War One and now faced the specter of ethnic annihilation at the hand of the Nazis?

In 1930, Sigmund Freud addressed this topic in his book, "Civilization and Its Discontents:"

"The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance in their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction. It may be that in this respect precisely the present time deserves a special interest. Men have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that with their help they would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man." 

Part Three

The Thin Blue Line

What took Freud years to discover about society is something police readily understand:

The conceptual "Thin Blue Line" is derived from the historical Thin Red Line. Proponents of the symbol claim that the blue strip between two larger blocks of black symbolizes the police's role of separating the "good" from the "bad", or protecting society from chaos. A second interpretation has the colors representing the memories of fallen officers (black) and the bonds of those who remain (blue, a color long associated with law enforcement).

Part Four
Visions of Darkness

One cannot learn much from cable TV but occasionally glimmers of truth emerge. One of these glimmers is the A&E television series, "The First 48."  Besides making one want to thank every police officer for providing that thin blue line of protection, it presents the grim picture of what happens when society slips into chaos:

Part Five
Communities Mourn

While the First 48 is produced for entertainment the victims are real. In cities across the nation web sites began to spring up to mourn the victims and to search for answers. Take for example these two sites for Milwaukee:

Mothers Against Gun Violence
Vigil for Milwaukee homicide victims

Part Six
A Gathering Storm

On October 13th, the Police Executive Forum released a grim report entitled, A Gathering Storm: Violent Crime in America.  While the conclusions were vague, the report noted with concern that an epidemic of violent crime had broken out in various cities across the nation. The chaos tipping point had been reached.  The thin blue line was being breached:

"There are some in both academia and government who believe these increases in violent crime may represent just a blip and that overall crime is still relatively low. They argue that before we make rash conclusions we should wait and see if the violent crime rate continues to increase over time. This thinking is faulty. It would be like having a pandemic flu outbreak in a number of cities, but waiting to see if it spreads to other cites before acting. Importantly, for many police chiefs, mayors and others living in dangerous communities, they do not have the luxury to “see what happens.” The time to act is now.

Part Seven
Disturbing Patterns Emerge

Readers of November 2009 issue of Homicidal Studies magazine would have been treated to an article entitled, Homicide Patterns and Public Housing: The Case of Louisville, KY (1989-2007), by Geetha Suresh. In it, Geetha Suresh an Indian born Criminologist at the University of Louisville had cracked the source of the plague:

"This study examines the impact of the revitalization of low-income, public housing properties on homicide patterns. It tracks the movement of homicide clusters from the initial properties to those neighborhoods where public housing residents were displaced over a 19-year period in Louisville, Kentucky. The median-income level of residents and vacant housing emerged as important predictors of homicide clusters. This article concludes that low-income public housing and Section 8 housing properties provide an environment where homicides are likely to occur. This pattern remained in effect even when the nature of public housing changed."

Part Eight
A Cautionary Tale

Several years earlier, in December 2003, George C. Galster of College of Urban, Labor, and Metropolitan Affairs at Wayne State University had issued a paper entitled, Consequences from the Redistribution of Urban Poverty During the 1990's.  In it, he found that a city with dispersed poverty would suffer more total crime than a city with concentrated poverty. He also found that it only took modest increases in poverty to push vulnerable neighborhoods past the tipping point and into chaos.

Taken together with Geetha's conclusion, the two papers pointed to one startling conclusion: Recent efforts to eliminate high density poverty in government projects by giving residents section 8 vouchers and having them disperse into various communities had caused the widespread spike in violent crime across the country. The dispersal of poverty into once stable communities had pushed many of them past the tipping point into chaos. Police used to dealing with violent crime isolated to a few sections of the city were overwhelmed as outbreaks occurred in numerous areas. Men were being murdered, women raped, families destroyed and neighborhoods ripped apart. Up to this point nobody had connected these dots, this was about to change.

Part Nine
Explosive Article Blows the Lid

In the July 2008, the Atlantic Monthly Magazine, published an article entitled, American Murder Mystery, by Hanna Rosin that ripped the lid off the whole issue. In it she describes, how an enterprising criminologist, Richard Janikowski, from the University of Memphis discovered the pattern:

"When his map was complete, a clear if strangely shaped pattern emerged: Wait a minute, he recalled thinking. I see this bunny rabbit coming up. People are going to accuse me of being on shrooms! The inner city, where crime used to be concentrated, was now clean. But everywhere else looked much worse: arrests had skyrocketed along two corridors north and west of the central city (the bunny rabbit’s ears) and along one in the southeast (the tail). Hot spots had proliferated since the mid-1990s, and little islands of crime had sprung up where none had existed before, dotting the map all around the city.

Janikowski might not have managed to pinpoint the cause of this pattern if he hadn’t been married to Phyllis Betts, a housing expert at the University of Memphis. Betts and Janikowski have two dogs, three cats, and no kids; they both tend to bring their work home with them. Betts had been evaluating the impact of one of the city government’s most ambitious initiatives: the demolition of the city’s public-housing projects, as part of a nationwide experiment to free the poor from the destructive effects of concentrated poverty. Memphis demolished its first project in 1997. The city gave former residents federal “Section8” rent-subsidy vouchers and encouraged them to move out to new neighborhoods. Two more waves of demolition followed over the next nine years, dispersing tens of thousands of poor people into the wider metro community.

If police departments are usually stingy with their information, housing departments are even more so. Getting addresses of Section 8 holders is difficult, because the departments want to protect the residents’ privacy. Betts, however, helps the city track where the former residents of public housing have moved. Over time, she and Janikowski realized that they were doing their fieldwork in the same neighborhoods.

About six months ago, they decided to put a hunch to the test. Janikowski merged his computer map of crime patterns with Betts’s map of Section8 rentals. Where Janikowski saw a bunny rabbit, Betts saw a sideways horseshoe (“He has a better imagination,” she said). Otherwise, the match was near-perfect. On the merged map, dense violent-crime areas are shaded dark blue, and Section8 addresses are represented by little red dots. All of the dark-blue areas are covered in little red dots, like bursts of gunfire. The rest of the city has almost no dots."

Part Ten
Clamping the Lid Back

On June 28th, PRI (Public Radio International) conducted a remarkable audio interview with the author of An American Murder Mystery, Hanna Rosin entitled: Public housing and crime rates.

Since she had had the nerve to question a politically correct topic,  Rosin faced an inquisition charging her of reaching dangerous conclusions, reinforcing negative stereotypes and having an unhealthy story line. Most damning to, Xavier de Souza Briggs , Associate Professor at the MIT School of Architecture, was her potentially providing fodder for right wing bloggers. While as a whole her main points were eventually conceded, it was with great reluctance.

Once could sense the scorn that Xavier de Souza Briggs had for the fact that a non-academic would have the gall to question a public policy in which he had a vested interest. It seems that in Briggs' world only academics that stand to financially gain from a policy have the right to question it. Advocacy in the guise of academia. In our Orwellian society, they now need ‘Geography of Opportunity’ and ‘Democracy as Problem-Solving’ experts at the MIT School of Architecture.

Briggs also scoffs at Rosin's lack of evidence. What he fails to mention is that the government blocks citizens from accessing the records necessary to conduct such studies on the grounds that it would endanger the section 8 recipients, the very ones who are actually responsible for the rise in violent crime. See section 13 below for more details on the censorship of information.

As you will note from reading his book, he is determined to disperse poverty across America despite evidence of the devastating impact that it is having. In essence, the plan seems to be to take a group of people who had their whole social structure destroyed in federally created projects and dump them on the unsuspecting suburbs:

The geography of opportunity: race and housing choice in metropolitan America

Frighteningly, he is in the position to do just to this as he has been appointed, Associate Director for General Government Programs at the Office of Management and Budgets:  Congratulations to Xav Briggs.

Part Ten
Gautreaux Assisted Housing Program

As with many novel programs taking place today, the Gautreaux Assisted Housing Program  has its origins in Chicago:

"The Gautreaux Program ended in 1998 after meeting the target of 7,100 families placed, over half moving to affluent, white-majority suburbs.---- What began as a controversial experiment responding to a civil rights lawsuit has become an integral part of federal housing policy."

The Gautreaux Assisted Housing Program did become part of federal housing policy but it was based on a faulty premises. The families moved as part of the program were the rare few who could make it in this new setting. They were highly screened and were provided with necessary counseling and coaching to assist them in adjusting. The majority of recipients who are ill equipped for such a move are the ones now being handed vouchers and dumped in neighborhoods without any of the necessary hand holding.

Part 11
A Decade of HOPE

With Orwellian flair,  the program that took over from the Gautreaux Assisted Housing Program was named HOPE VI and it is big business:

"Launched in 1992, the $5 billion HOPE VI program1 represents a dramatic turnaround in public housing policy and one of the most ambitious urban redevelopment efforts in the nation's history. It replaces severely distressed public housing projects, occupied exclusively by poor families, with redesigned mixed-income housing and provides housing vouchers to enable some of the original residents to rent apartments in the private market. And it has helped transform the Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) approach to housing assistance for the poor.

HOPE VI grew out of the work of the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing, which was established by Congress in 1989. Congress charged the Commission with identifying "severely distressed" public housing developments, assessing strategies to improve conditions at these developments, and preparing a national action plan for dealing with the problem. Based on its investigation, the Commission concluded that roughly 86,000 of the 1.3 million public housing units nationwide qualified as severely distressed and that a new and comprehensive approach would be required to address the range of problems existing at these developments."

Part 12
Media Templates

When one watches the  media, one notices a certain template that the media uses to cover these stories:

Standard Template (More Hope)

INTRO: Hopeful Message of Community
INTRO #2: Rise in Crime Mentioned
BODY: Violent Crime Detailed
BODY: Community has changed for the worse
CAUSE: Poverty, Racism
SOLUTION: More government programs like HOPE VI

Variant Template - Hopeful Bookends with Palliate

Even when the bad news about these programs cannot be avoided, it is bookended between hopeful stories about what a great program this is. Take for example this piece entitled: Dubuque Studies Link Between Section 8 Housing and Crime,:

In case you did not hear it between the hopeful bookends about what a great program this is, the story was actually about this startling finding:

"In a two month period police arrested 553 people and 121 of those arrestees listed a section 8 address as his or her home.

Those addresses make up just about 14 percent of all rental properties, but they accounted for nearly half of all the people arrested during the study period. And many of those people, the city never approved to live there."

The story also tries mentions the palliative of the government now required background checks for section 8 recipients. Of course the pesky readers recognize this as nonsense and note in the comments section:

"Well DUH! Of course the one person out of the family of 8 that doesn't have a criminal background is going to apply and once they're approved, then the rest of the gang moves in with them. This is what happens every time. Those statistic numbers shows what really goes on in these neighborhoods. And Dubuque is a small town compared to IC/CR and to have that many calls and arrests from Section 8 is like 12%. I know there are some honest people who need Section 8, so let's just limit it to Iowa residents instead of putting the welfare mom on the fast track ahead of Iowans who actually need it."  -bubbazep

Bubbazep is absolutely correct. It is not typically the section 8 holder committing the crimes but the gangster grandson or baby daddy right out of prison.

Variant Template - The Big Lie

Of course, sometimes it is just easier to lie to your subscribers as in this story entitled, Does Section 8 housing hurt a neighborhood?:

"Despite the persistent criticism, a Gazette investigation into the voucher program shows no clear relationship between crime and subsidized housing. The people who use vouchers, who administer the program, and many who study it fiercely defend it as an important stabilizing force in communities."

It also goes to some length to dispel the notion the poverty cases from Chicago are being dumped on Iowa. One always has to wonder if this there is not some sort of  effort to swing elections in Iowa to Democrats if they are shifting poor across state lines.

Again, those pesky readers poke holes in the lies :

Comment from Iowarch:

"As much as it pains me, figures do lie and liars do figure. There are large numbers of elderly on Section Eight, so that tends to color not only where they are located but also it pulls the statistics away from the number of problems with Section 8 Housing vouchers. Residence requirements are all well and good, but to assume this keeps the scum from moving into these houses, does not wash. Single women with children who have found themselves in Section Eight apartments often find boyfriends who tend to move in with them. Naturally, to the section Eight inspection crew they are house guests which are allowed for a certain period of time. Housing inspections are arranged with the renter ahead of time and the live in gang-banger can be gone, only to return later. Calling police seems to do nothing, underage drinking, smoking pot, yelling, screaming, riotous behavior, seem to all disappear in a matter of minutes and return just as quickly as police pull out of sight. I have lived with it for 35 years and it does not change. Section Eight is insured cash flow on cheap rental housing for many scumbag landlords, and that's a fact."

Comment from gazettereader:

"FACT: MAHP (Mid American Housing Partnership) has in the past advertised section 8 housing in Chicago with posters and leaflets.

FACT: Previous welfare recipients learned to game the system by becoming 'disabled' to continue benefits after the limit on welfare usage was enacted.

Corollary: So telling us Section 8 recipients are not on welfare is pure semantics, when disability checks are the new welfare. The local Social Security office has been inundated with ex-Chicago 'disabled' that don't have bank accounts or listed addresses to send a check. The local office got so fed up with it they told them they would no longer hand out checks every single month to the same people and setup alternate methods of automated payments as the 'disabled' Chicagoans were scaring the retirees (and the staff).

FACT:Many(most) landlords will not check for friends and family living with the voucher holder as they do not want to jeopardize the steady government paycheck rolling in every month"
Variant Template - Government Censorship of Information
When one cannot be bothered to lie, censorship offers the easiest solution as in this story entitled, Ames Section 8 participants subject to new background checks:

Part 13
..Not an Absence but a Positive Plague, Virulent in Itself

While academics and government bureaucrats may want to tempt fate and play God with society, common sense once told us that poverty is to be avoided like the plague and not incubated and spread. Below is a remarkable bit of dialogue for Preston Sturgis' Sullivan`s Travels (1942):

"You see, sir, rich people and theorists -- who are usually rich people -- think of poverty in the negative, as the lack of riches -- as disease might be called the lack of health. But it isn't, sir. Poverty is not the lack of anything, but a positive plague, virulent in itself, contagious as cholera, with filth, criminality, vice and despair as only a few of its symptoms. It is to be stayed away from, even for purposes of study. It is to be shunned."

While the whole bit is worth viewing, please skip down to the 8:25 mark for to view this powerful scene:

See No Evil
True to form policians have done their best to paper over the issue as this article entitled Memphis police cut ties with TV's 'First 48' shows:

"I heard out-of-town people say Memphis was out of control," said City Council member Wanda Halbert. "We were exposing the world to the worst aspects of our city."

The shows producer, John Kim, said he was told in a phone call earlier this month that the deal wouldn't be extended because of "pressure from certain members of the City Council."That's a first, he said. "We've never had a situation where city politics came into play."

Why shock innocent citizens with facts:

As usual pesky readers chime in with incisive comments:
Former_Memphian writes:

"Saying First 48 makes Memphis look like the crime capital of the US is like saying tight pants makes a 400lb person look big!

What is more embarrassing to Memphians is when visitors stay at local hotels and turn on the local news to see another ________ member (insert your local board of choice) indicted on bribery charges.

Or the same scenario with a murder, car jacking, burglary, etc.

Next Wanda will want the news to stop because it portrays Memphis as having a corrupt government and crime infested... oops, too late."


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