Situations afflicting people living in the inner cities do not exist in anything like isolation, they are a knotted up twine ball of separate, though inter-related and self-reinforcing issues, that bear upon one another in a tightening manner, and make pulling them apart extremely difficult, if even possible. We often think of affordable, assessable housing, medical care, education and food, plus job availability and public safety as some of the anchor points of a liveable community. But the breakdown of any one of these ‘securities’ creates the downward spiral/domino effect of the breakdown of them all. Systems theory, as it is utilized in social work, is critically important here. [19th century attempts of the Dutch ‘knickerbocker’ families (well to do residents of East Coast cities such as Theodore Roosevelt’s father) to combat urban poverty and improve the living, working and social conditions of the city’s residents are one example of the realization that addressing one or two of these issues in isolation would not ‘fix’ the city.] Situations like incarcerated fathers, gang membership, drug trafficking, lack of economic opportunity, absence of affordable medical care, unsafe streets, terrible educational performance, and the accompanying despair (‘urban decay’ it has been called for around 200 years) are all direct results/fallout of each other, and self-reinforce.
All of this might seem completely obvious to virtually anyone, however the fact is we often attempt to mitigate suffering in urban centers by only addressing one of these issues at a time, and in isolation. So that, we say ‘we’ve got to do something about…’ (youth delinquency, drug addiction, gang culture, lack of economic opportunity, racial disparity, etc etc) when actually, these issues are so convolutedly intertwined that to attempt to address one without addressing all is a long slow drudge with continual set-backs, and an overall disappointing rate of success. Of course it is, gang culture is directly connected to incarceration of young men’s fathers, lack of job availability, crime rates pushing businesses to safer parts of the city, again, etc etc!
One of the difficulties herein is geographical place. Once an urban center has become a geographically large area of ‘decay’/extreme poverty/abandoned space, people become trapped in a spiderweb of issues due to the fact that they live there. There are actually plenty of jobs in other places, safe streets, social services, grocery stores (!!!), friendly neighbors – the kinds of places people walk home at night in the dark with no fear of crime or attack. There have been many occasions I have worked with this or that family in the midst of their difficulty, and thought to myself ‘if only I could get them to move to (fill in the blank). Some of the HUD housing attempts I have lived next to in rural towns, trying to provide urban families with an escape, have unwittingly re-created the dangers of the big cities the families left, by grouping them together, and their children have re-created the cultures they were familiar with from where they grew up, even though the scarcities those gang-cultures grew out of were no longer in effect in the new place. Much better, I decided after conversations with families who succeeded in escaping blighted urban neighborhoods, would be to help individual families relocate to a better place, and not place them in an apartment complex that ended up merely being a microcosm of what they just left.
But there’s the problem, or one of them. Blighted urban neighborhoods may be blighted, but they are still places with cousins, aunts, uncles, grandchildren, grown brothers and sisters, three to five still-living generations deep. Who wants to move away from everyone they know and love? It may not be ideal, but it’s their place.
So the choice becomes to attempt to rehabilitate urban areas suffering crime, disparity, poverty and absence of basic things like grocery stores. And there are some winsome, delightful stories of success. But they are relatively few of those successes, or we wouldn’t be talking about urban poverty. And the reason successes are so few is that the interrelated nature of all of these issues creates a situation that while you are working on one or two of them, three other issues are undermining all your work, with very little net gain at the end of the funding cycle.
And so. More people should consider, and more government and private funding and initiatives should explore, helping people successfully start over somewhere else, somewhere better. This doesn’t need to be the only alternative, it doesn’t need to be forced on people, it doesn’t need to mean all areas of suffering are depopulated and given up on. But it should, in a reasonable collection of poverty alleviation tools, be something tried and funded far, far more than it is. It is the urban equivalent of something hundreds of millions of people do every year – immigrate to a place with better opportunities and securities. It requires the same resolve that international immigration requires – leaving place and family and trying to give the next generation something better. I have known, and work with daily, many, many immigrant families who came from places experiencing the same suffering going on in our U.S. inner cities, and those families are thriving, flourishing, prospering, and happy. Organizations like World Vision do a great job, through partnerships with churches, helping refugee families get adjusted to a new life in the U.S., individual families adopting them and helping them with all the new resources they need. Something similar is certainly possible with families relocating out of devastated urban areas. Alongside development and restoration of our inner cities, everything I’ve observed leads me to believe that it’s worth considering.
…remove the chains that bind people.
7 Share your food with the hungry,
and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them….
Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities.
Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls
and a restorer of homes.
Isaiah 58: 7, 12