"Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral."
~Paulo Freire, Brazilian educator and influential theorist of education
Justice in the Context of Environmental Sustainability
Kyle D. Brown, Ph.D.
Mainstream environmental designers, academic institutions, politicians, and non-governmental and governmental organizations have embraced the concept of environmental sustainability. Confusion may abound over a precise definition of the term as various organizations and interests adopt it for their own use, but as Scott Campbell (1996) declared over 10 years ago in an article in the Journal of the American Planning Association, “In the battle of big public ideas, sustainability has won: the task of the coming years is simply to work out the details and to narrow the gap between its theory and practice” (p.310).
One of the details still being worked out is the specific relationship of environmental sustainability to social justice. It is well recognized that social inequities are often compounded by unsustainable systems. These systems adversely impact marginalized communities through pollution, resource consumption, and environmental exploitation. Continue article here.
"Many impoverished people, living in racially segregated neighborhoods, express adherence to mainstream American mores; hard work, family loyalties and individual achievement are part of their cultural repertory. Nevertheless, the translation of values into action is shaped by the tangible milieu that encircles them. So, incidentally, is the ability of affluent families to actualize values into behavior."
~M. Patricia Fernandez Kelly
The Causes of Inner-City Poverty: Eight Hypotheses in Search of Reality
Excerpted from The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD's) Office of Policy Development and Research (PD&R) website. Full article can be found here.
Michael B. Teitz, Public Policy Institute of California and University of California, Berkeley
University of California, Berkeley
Over the past 40 years, poverty among the inhabitants of U.S. inner cities has remained stubbornly resistant to public policy prescriptions. Especially for African Americans and Latinos, the gap between their economic well-being and that of the mainstream has widened despite persistent and repeated efforts to address the problem. At the same time, a continuing stream of research has sought to explain urban poverty, with a wide variety of explanations put forward as the basis for policy. This paper reviews that research, organizing it according to eight major explanations or hypotheses: structural shifts in the economy, inadequate human capital, racial and gender discrimination, adverse cultural and behavioral factors, racial and income segregation, impacts of migration, lack of endogenous growth, and adverse consequences of public policy. We conclude that all of the explanations may be relevant to urban poverty but that their significance and the degree to which they are well supported varies substantially.
Hypotheses on Urban Poverty
Whatever the debate about its nature and causes, almost all observers would agree that inner-city poverty is multidimensional, extraordinarily complex, and difficult to understand. Various disciplines and policy frameworks give rise to very different notions of poverty and of its sources. To economists, it is an issue of labor markets, productivity, incentives, human capital, and choice. Sociologists and anthropologists tend to emphasize social status and relations, behavior, and culture. For social psychologists, the issues may include self-image, group membership, and attitudes. For political scientists, the questions may focus on group power and access to collective resources. City planners and urbanists see the effects of urban structure, isolation, and transportation access. No single conceptual framework can incorporate or reconcile these conflicting and complementary perceptions, but, equally, a characterization that simply lists each disciplinary perspective would not do justice to the wealth of existing, cross-disciplinary insights.
In brief, the eight hypotheses on inner-city poverty are:
Inner-city poverty is the result of profound structural economic shifts that have eroded the competitive position of the central cities in the industrial sectors that historically provided employment for the working poor, especially minorities. Thus demand for their labor has declined disastrously.
Inner-city poverty is a reflection of the inadequate human capital of the labor force, which results in lower productivity and inability to compete for employment in emerging sectors that pay adequate wages.
Inner-city poverty results from the persistence of racial and gender discrimination in employment, which prevents the population from achieving its full potential in the labor market.
Inner-city poverty is the product of the complex interaction of culture and behavior, which has produced a population that is isolated, self-referential, and detached from the formal economy and labor market.
Inner-city poverty is the outcome of a long, historical process of segregating poor and minority populations in U.S. cities that resulted in a spatial mismatch between workers and jobs when employment decentralized.
Inner-city poverty results from migration processes that simultaneously remove the middle-class and successful members of the community, thereby reducing social capital, while bringing in new, poorer populations whose competition in the labor market drives down wages and employment chances of residents.
Complex social phenomena rarely have simple causes, despite the assertions of those who claim to have answers to social problems. It is perhaps disappointing not to be able to point to one argument about inner-city poverty and say that it dominates all others. Yet one of the real benefits of social science is that it forces us to consider complexity. That may be unwelcome to advocates of particular policy prescriptions, but it is often the rock on which those prescriptions founder. There is still much that we do not know about the nature and causes of deep urban poverty in the United States, but this review suggests that much is known and that it is not a simple issue. There is substantial, if uneven, evidence that elements of all eight hypotheses contribute to inner-city poverty in a significant way. What we do not know is the relative importance of each hypothesis. Furthermore, at this stage in the development of social science, there is no way to know. Thus if we want to say something about their relative weight, we must rely on experience, intuition, and judgment.
From the evidence of the hypotheses, some things do stand out. The inner-city poor do lack human capital to a profound degree in comparison with other groups. They are segregated and detached from the labor market. Demand for their skills at manual labor has declined. They face discrimination in employment and housing. They live in a social milieu that reinforces detachment from the mainstream economy, though how much that milieu results in a different set of values and behaviors is subject to much debate. Similarly, segregation has separated the inner-city poor physically from employment opportunities, but there is no clear agreement about the impact of that separation. Their communities have weakened in the past four decades, but whether this is due to outmigration by the middle class or has resulted in that migration has not been determined.
They face competition from new immigrants, but these immigrants also create employment opportunities. Their communities do not generate new businesses, but whether that deficit is crucial for employment opportunity is not known. Finally, they have disproportionately experienced negative effects from public policy, but whether this has made the critical difference is probably not measurable.
Can we assess the relative causal strength of each of the eight hypotheses? In a cross-disciplinary context, an assessment can only be done judgmentally. Nonetheless, it looks as though conventional wisdom, in this instance, may be correct. We would assign the greatest weight to the first two hypotheses: industrial transformation and human capital. Without employment opportunities and adequate human capital, there is little prospect that the situation of the inner-city poor will improve. Following these two causes, our assessment is that the evidence shows that segregation, the spatial mismatch, and employment discrimination are very significant factors. In general, we are inclined to give less weight to migration and cultural behavior as explanations. However, the role of the social system within which the inner-city poor live remains open to debate. Whether it constitutes an iron cage or a rational adaptation to a harsh environment, and whether (and how) it must change before poverty can be alleviated, are now in the realm of ideology, though good ethnographic research is revealing the weaknesses of some underclass arguments.
The question of endogenous growth in low-income communities appears to be important, but it is sadly deficient in rigorous research. Finally, we see public policy as a contributing but not a dominant factor that, in principle, can be alleviated.
Even more debatable are the policy measures that might reduce urban poverty. To suggest policy approaches is not the purpose of this article. Our sense is that policy advances are possible in most of the areas discussed, though the industrial transformation that destroyed the employment bases of inner cities is effectively irreversible and efforts to transform people’s behavior without changing their material circumstances are probably futile. However, it must be stressed that, the fact that inner-city poverty is demonstrably complex and resistant to change does not imply that equally complex policy responses are the only way to proceed. Such responses are likely to collapse under their own weight, either during the legislative process or in their implementation. Given that poverty is remarkably complex suggests that it requires a sophisticated response strategy that takes into account its complexity but relies on multiple and simple elements for implementation.
If the War on Poverty was not won, perhaps that is because, like all wars, victory requires a strategy that combines a deep understanding of the environment within which the war is waged and the willpower, resources, and weapons to do the job.
Michael B. Teitz is director of research at the Public Policy Institute of California and Professor of City and Regional Planning at the University of California, Berkeley. His major areas of work have been housing, especially rent control, and regional and local economic development.
Karen Chapple is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of city and regional planning at the University of California, Berkeley. Her dissertation examines the job-search strategies of low-income women and the geography of low-wage labor markets.