Friday, February 8, 2013

Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen (A Brief Review)

Poverty is complex. While many attempt to minimize factors and reduce root causes to the work ethics and morals of the poor, the pervasiveness of poverty in the United States is a multi-layered and systematic dilemma that transcends such naïveté. In David Hilfker's, Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen, [1] the misnomers and false assumptions are exposed and a thorough exposition is presented in efforts to educate readers and call all citizens to action. In essence, poverty alleviation is illustrated as a communal pursuit that requires informed citizens, elimination of stereotypes, and desegregation of neighborhoods in our nation, particularly our cities.

One of the primary failures of our population is to assume that poverty is an individual problem. In other words, when we promote the mentality that poverty is an experience solely caused by poor decisions, bad habits, and the lack of motivation to work by individuals, we ignore social and systematic factors that also contribute to and sustain economic insecurity. Hilfiker writes, "It is not surprising, of course, that a nation so strongly committed to individualism should so often search for the roots of poverty within the poor persons themselves" (xi). We must be lower pointed fingers at those who, although not completely void of personal responsibility, are caught in a broken social system of which each of us contributes.

When we consider poverty in the United States, we are reminded there is not one single root cause or generalized population at risk. That said, in efforts to combat poverty, Hilfiker is diligent to educate the reader so to become a more informed and responsible advocate and activist. Hilfiker reaches back into presidential administrations, especially those of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, and underscores the positive and negative social reform policies of the past that have contributed to urban poverty in the present (71-75). A primary intention is to expose myths about welfare, medicare, and medicaid, especially those that have been promoted throughout recent history concerning "welfare queens" and "free money" (87).

Urban Injustice also highlights the vast array of real contributing factors to poverty that are often overlooked. The lack of quality education, high costs of childcare, insufficient access to reasonable and affordable healthcare, declining environmental conditions that lead to poor health, increase in populations of people who are 'food insecure,' and families of those who are incarcerated, etc. remind the reader that poverty is multi-layered (32-34).

While poverty is not limited to a particular gender, ethnicity, generation, or geographic location, Hilfiker is quick to highlight that there are those who are at greater risk to no fault of their own. In other words, those who are born into contexts of poverty are more likely to become poor themselves versus those who grow up in contexts of affluence and luxury. Hilfiker reminds the reader that "poverty tends to be self-reinforcing" and a cycle difficult to escape or end altogether (26). It is also true that the gender inequality in our job market, whereby men are frequently paid more for the same position than women, leads to the "feminization of poverty" and women becoming at greater risk for economic insecurity (47). The same holds true for those who commit nonviolent financial crimes, e.g. shoplifting, in urban ghettos versus those who commit financial crimes as affluent executives, e.g. fudging expense accounts (36). This is not to suggest a need to be more lax towards one offender over the other; rather, we are reminded that an inconsistent and unbalanced judicial system may result in minimal financial consequences for one individual and the beginnings of generational poverty for another.

When contemplating the factors of poverty and effective strategies for alleviation, Hilfiker is adamant about the need to eliminate stereotypes and pervasive racism directed towards the poor and those who live in urban ghettos. He writes:

"In attacking poverty we certainly must confront the realities of 'ghetto-related behavior,' but we must not become confused about root causes. Mere survival within the 'surround' indicates enormous strength and resilience. Observe carefully in any inner-city neighborhood, and you will see many strong, resourceful, independent people who are not only keeping their heads above water but doing their best to strengthen the community as well. the problem is that these people are swimming against an overwhelming current of forces that constantly threatens to overpower even the strongest" (61).

There is a sure level of personal accountability that must be maintained within contexts of poverty, but reformations of social systems and the eradication of stereotypes are also crucial to poverty alleviation. When the poor are labeled as unequivocally undeserving and lazy, we marginalize those who are willing and able to be lifted out of the depths of poverty when aided and supported by social programs (71). Furthermore, it is imperative to develop social strategies that utilize the often-overlooked giftedness and resolve of the urban poor as a means towards long-term personal and neighborhood transformation.

A final layer within Urban Injustice regards Hilfiker's call for the on-going desegregation of communities, both racially and economically. Hifiker suggests, "there are ways of revitalizing neighborhoods without removing the poor" (117). Drawing on the work of Robert D. Lupton, he suggests intentional 'reneighboring,' whereby individuals work across racial, ethnic, and economic lines and move into, versus out of, communities susceptible to poverty for the sake of collaboration and revitalization. However, this approach must only be pursued as partnership alongside the local poor and as a means to share resources and insights versus manifest oppressive coercion and imposition. In church speak, this is the very nature and theological thrust of the incarnation, "The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood" (John 1:14, The Message).

Poverty is complex. Poverty alleviation is even more complex. David Hilfiker's, Urban Injustice, is a vital resource for anyone who seeks to walk alongside the poor in efforts to revitalize communities and alleviate economic injustice in urban contexts. However, Hilfiker's work is not only a resource for those who work in U.S. cities. Instead, Urban Injustice is also a vital resource for all those who long to understand the root causes of poverty, work against a continually segregated society, and expose the myths and stereotypes about poverty that inhibit the progress and transformation of individuals and communities caught within oppressive cycles of scarcity.

"Even if we lift people out of poverty, of course, much of the damage that has already been done by generations of impoverishment and oppression remains and there will be much left to do"

David Hilfiker, Urban Injustice, p.127

[1] I first stumbled upon this book when immersed within the ministry of Church of the Saviour and The Potter's House community in Washington, D.C. Here is the bio from Seven Stories Press website:

"Physician and writer DAVID HILFIKER, M.D. has committed his life to social justice in the practice of his two professions. In 1983, after seven years as a rural physician in north-eastern Minnesota, he moved to Washington, D.C., to practice medicine in the center of the city at Christ House, a medical recovery shelter for homeless men, where he and his family also lived. In 1990, he cofounded Joseph’s House, a community and hospice for formerly homeless men dying with AIDS. He lived there for three years, and continues to work there today."