June 5, 2008

Poverty diffusion

By: Sonny Bunch

There’s a fascinating piece in the July/August issue of the Atlantic by Hanna Rosin about the failure of programs designed to move poverty-stricken families out of the projects and into the suburbs. It can be summed up thusly: “You can take the family out of the ghetto, but you can’t take the ghetto out of the family.” One bracing anecdote, about a family that had moved out of a Memphis project and into a “suburban paradise” by the name of Springdale Creek: “Neek generally stayed away from gang types, so some older kids beat him with bats. No one is sure whether a gun was fired. As these things go, he got off easy. He was treated at the emergency room and went back to school after a few days.”

Rosin’s piece isn’t online yet, but I’ll probably have more when it goes up. I have a feeling this one is going to stir up more than a little controversy. After all, the liberal argument goes, situations dictate behavior. If someone is surrounded by poverty, all they know is an impoverished lifestyle and the behaviors therein. But, we now realize, the good schools, the lower crime rates, the nicer neighbors: it doesn’t count for as much as we might like. So what do we do next?

I wish I knew. But I do know this: if we can’t have honest discussions about issues of crime, class, and race–as Rosin implies the city of Memphis has shied away from in her piece–we’ll never solve any of these problems.

(On a similar note, check out Ray Fisman’s article at Slate discussing why giving poor kids laptops isn’t a cure-all and might just be a detriment. You might be startled to discover that poor study habits are a bigger problem than poverty when it comes to performance in school. Shocking, I know.)