You Can’t Talk About American Poverty Without Talking About Race and Housing

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The view from my childhood home. Photo Credit: Jonathan Curtis

Americans like to talk about poverty without talking about race. It’s more comfortable to talk about the generic poor. But the reality is that Americans experience poverty in very different ways, and race is one of the key variables. Even though there are more poor white Americans than poor black or Hispanic Americans, white poverty tends to be more dispersed. Black poverty tends to be more concentrated.

This matters because scholars have found that when it comes to life outcomes, the important thing is not just how poor you are, but how poor your neighbors are. Poor kids in low poverty communities do better than poor kids in high poverty communities. Partly because banks, real estate companies, and the federal government created separate housing markets—a discriminatory one for blacks and a subsidized one for whites—poor African American kids are much more likely to grow up surrounded by poverty than are poor white kids.

Alvin Chang has a good overview of this today, drawing in part of Patrick Sharkey’s important book. As I was reading about how different white and black poverty are, it occurred to me that my own travels illustrate the difference quite well.

I grew up in a white community that was fairly poor. Its unemployment levels were consistently higher than the national average and its income rates were consistently lower. Now I live in a black community that is fairly poor. In fact, according the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey* the per capita income of my childhood neighborhood and my current neighborhood are very similar. But dig a little beneath the surface and you’ll see big differences.

Most obviously, my hometown was a rural area and my current community is an urban one:

This makes the experience of poverty different and indicates that the headline per capita income similarity is misleading because the cost of living is significantly higher in Philadelphia than in my hometown.

It gets more interesting. Consider the chart below. Despite similar incomes, my childhood neighborhood and my current neighborhood are actually dramatically different:

Data Where I grew up Where I live now
Per Capita Income $23,611 $23,435
Poverty Rate 13.4% 30.2%
Owner occupied housing units 73% 33%
Median value of owner occupied units $175,600 $64,600

As you can see, these two communities illustrate the racially distinct poverty dynamic described above. Poverty in my current community is concentrated. Most residents cannot afford to own homes. And there isn’t much value in those homes anyway. In contrast, where I grew up, even though incomes are relatively low, poverty is not particularly high, and most people own their homes and have significant wealth in them.

This, by the way, is part of what people are talking about when they use the word privilege. They’re not trolling you, dear white reader, or telling you you’re a bad person or that you don’t work hard. They’re just telling you facts of life that you didn’t set up or ask for. But you do have a choice to try to keep it this way or work against it.


* The Census data at the tract level comes with a high margin of error. Consider all these numbers rough estimates. They tell us a story in broad outlines but are not suitable for making fine-grained distinctions.

Searching for a Christian Sense of the Common Good

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I was seventeen years old when I started my sociology 101 class at my little community college in Garrett County, Maryland. I hated it, and I couldn’t quite figure out why. In fact, it took several years to become clear. The discipline of sociology studies groups, a category that I barely recognized. I couldn’t completely articulate it at the time, but what I knew in my bones was this: the world is made up of autonomous individuals making choices. What happens to those individuals depends on the choices they make. Hurrah for the individual! Hurrah for the market that judges justly!

Had my imagination been formed more by the Bible than by the fragmenting individualism of the late twentieth century United States, I would have had many intuitive connections to sociology 101. But I had managed to read the Bible cover to cover more than once and missed the point every time. What I didn’t realize is that the Bible is less a story about people than it is a story about a people.

The arc of the Christian scriptures doesn’t follow the journey of righteous individuals. It tells of God’s faithfulness to a group, culminating in the creation of a new kind of human community, the kingdom of God on earth. Throughout the story, the people of God are called to weave their lives together in patterns of mutual dependence.

When the prophet Isaiah declared, “pour yourself out for the hungry” (Isaiah 58), it was a demand placed on the community, not a suggestion for charitably-minded individuals. Yahweh called his people to repentance for their failure to take collective action. All of this was lost on me to such a degree that I literally didn’t know systemic injustice was a major biblical theme. I made that shocking discovery in 2005. Before that time, all that mattered was my salvation, my faith, my piety, my charity.

So I sat in my sociology 101 class, chafing against liberal academia and its efforts to divide people into groups and deny them their personal responsibility. I raged against politically correct talk of “disparities” and “inequality” and “systemic racism.” Individuals make their choices and have to live with them, I knew.

My radical individualism not only contradicted the communal emphasis of the scriptures, its practical effect was to eviscerate any notion of Christian public action or Christian concern for the collective good. In my zealous pursuit of personal piety, I declared vast domains of human life and flourishing no-go zones.

Do you see a social problem? Let me check my ledger. I’m sorry, that problem falls on the “individual responsibility” side of my ledger; Christianity has nothing to say about it.

Having made that claim, it doesn’t mean I don’t act in those public spheres. I simply do whatever I want, basically. In these spaces where my imagination and habits and heart ought to be captured by the values and practices of the Kingdom of God, there is instead a vacuous selfishness filled by the gods of capitalism, individualism, safety, comfort, race, nation.

Do my politics endanger you? I’m sorry, my Christianity lets me have whatever politics I want as long as I’m charitable in my personal life.

This is one of the dark sides of a certain radical evangelical tradition that has thrown off every hierarchy, every structure, every tradition. What remains is the individual alone before God, free to choose pleasing artifacts of the Christian past to enliven spiritual life, but not be governed by any of it.

At the core of this ungoverned Christian is the Bible and the feelings it provides. When alone before God with Bible open, he speaks to us. Don’t worry about your social location. Don’t fret about your bias. You came by that insight honestly, in fervent prayer. It’s good as gold.

So if in the privacy of your prayer closet God told you he’s a white nationalist, don’t let anybody tell you different. If God told you to support despicable leaders because it’s actually all part of his plan, stand firm! If God told you Roy Moore is a good man, don’t you dare hold his words and actions against him!

Unfortunately, this isn’t even satirical. For Trumpist evangelicals, the judgment and wisdom of Christians most affected by Trump’s cruelty count for nothing. Listening to the global church and Christians of color in the United States is absurd. After all, if God has told me to support Trump, who are they to tell me otherwise?

This kind of radical individualism twists Christianity into a bizarre inversion of itself. The message that Jesus saves is an invitation into a community. Instead, we’ve turned it into a cry of self-absorption.

Have You Ever Feared the State Will Take Your Children?

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The Carlisle Indian Industrial School, circa 1900.

Are you a parent? Have you ever feared that the state will take your children from you? How often do you have this fear? The answer might depend on your racial identity and how much money you make, not your parenting skills.

In the New York Times, Emma Ketteringham draws attention to the under-discussed class and race dynamics of child removal:

There is a misconception that the child-protection system is broken because child services fails to protect children from dangerous homes. That’s because the media exhaustively covers child deaths, but not the everyday tragedy of unnecessary child removals.

The problem is not that child services fails to remove enough children. It’s that the agency has not been equipped to address the daily manifestations of economic and racial inequality. Instead, it is designed to treat structural failings as the personal flaws of low-income parents.

In that framework, the answer is not affordable housing or transportation, meaningful employment, health care or access to healthy foods, as it should be. Why is the focus always on removing children to foster care and imposing parenting classes? This never-ending cycle traps generations of low-income families in a punitive system of state surveillance and foster care. Worse, it makes parents fear contacting child services when they need help caring for their children.

“Neglect” cases are often not what they look like on paper. Our clients are trying to raise their kids under tremendous economic and psychological pressures. Often they have faced significant challenges, like homelessness or incarceration. They love their children and cherish their identity as parents. But in court, they face the loss of what is most precious to them: their children.

Ketteringham is writing specifically about New York City’s system but I’m guessing her critique is more broadly applicable. I don’t know much about the foster care system but I hope you’ll indulge a few anecdotal thoughts from my own experiences in church, community, and foster care in recent years.

Alicia and I have known Christians who are fostering, Christians who are trying to get their kids back from the foster care system, and Christians who lost their kids, got them back, and are now on the other side of that awful ordeal. We also know parents who have never had their kids taken from them, but for whom the threat of it is daily background noise.

It came as a great shock to me when I realized that parents I respect live in fear of their kids being taken from them. What made it more surreal was the realization that this is normal for them. “Be careful, the state might take your kids,” is not an unimaginable foreboding; it’s a present possibility. I have lived my life as a parent without this possibility on my horizon. And it’s not because I’m a great parent.

Beyond anecdote, something I do know a little more about is the long history of child removal among Native American children as part of the United States’ settler colonial policies of cultural genocide. See Margaret Jacobs’ great book.

Most of us want to live in a society that seeks to protect children, even to the point of involuntary removal. Yet we must be aware of the dreadful history—and present—of unjust removal. When Alicia and I became foster parents, it didn’t feel heroic. It felt more like we were implicating ourselves in something messy and morally gray. We would do our best to care for a child, but we wouldn’t know—couldn’t know—whether that child should even be with us.

Republican-Voting Christians Need To Speak Up Now

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“People will die, but the rich will be so much richer! Ha ha!”

If you’re a Christian who votes Republican, your voice is desperately needed now. Call your Republican member of congress and tell them you oppose the GOP health care bill because it fails to provide for the poor and the sick. If you’re a Christian, these principles are more important to you than limited government.

The Republicans are trying to pass a health care bill that oppresses the poor and sick so that rich people can have more money. The Congressional Budget Office estimates 24 million people would lose health insurance coverage. The best estimates we have indicate that this would cause thousands of preventable deaths every year.

I’ve heard from Trump-supporting Christians who have been offended by my words during and after the election. They didn’t want to be lumped in with the people supporting hatred, racism, and oppression. This is an opportunity for those Christians to demonstrate their sincerity. Do they oppose this cruel legislation? Or do they put party politics above human decency?

Sincerity, good intentions, or ignorance do not absolve these Christians from responsibility. If they think this bill falls under the rubric of “complicated partisan politics” and so they can’t speak against it, they’re supporting oppression. Even if they sincerely believe the lies of the Republican donor class, they’re still supporting oppression. No one is making them tune in to the make-believe world of talk radio and Foxnews. No one is making them believe the self-serving lies wealthy people tell about the economy. No one is making them ignore evidence and sit in an echo chamber. These are the choices they make.

Many of them will respond, “But it’s not the government’s job to provide health care.” If that’s their belief, they have a responsibility to explain why people must die for the sake of their abstract principles.

In sum, if Republican-voting Christians can’t rouse themselves to oppose this inhumane legislation, they ought to step up and have the courage of their convictions. If you want to oppress people, own it and do it proudly.

Thoughts for Sunday

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Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor
    will also cry out and not be answered.

Do not exploit the poor because they are poor
    and do not crush the needy in court,
for the Lord will take up their case
    and will exact life for life.

Do not move an ancient landmark
    or enter the fields of the fatherless,
for their Redeemer is strong;
    he will plead their cause against you.

Proverbs 21: 13; 22:22-23; 23:10-11

Take Action: Save Reps’ Numbers In Your Phone

As the Republican Congress proposes legislation to oppress the poor and afflict the sick, your voice is needed. Do not stay on the sidelines. One small thing you can do is call your representatives. But how do you move from intending to do that to actually doing it? And not just doing it once in a fit of rage, but doing it consistently? Save their numbers in your phone. Are you with me? Here’s what you do:

  1. Find your senators here and house member here
  2. Click on their name to go to their website
  3. On their website there will be a list of their office locations and phone numbers. It may be under a “Contact” tab or “Office Locations” or something like that.
  4. Once you’ve found the list, save the phone number for their D.C. office and their local office in your area.
  5. Now, when you read the news or when the thought occurs to you, you can call your representatives very easily. Call them in D.C. and at their local offices. You’ll often get to talk to real live staffers. Make their jobs hard.

If someone knows an easier way to find contact information please let me know! But this is pretty easy.

Do not assume that your voice doesn’t matter. The situation is fluid and there is a group of Republican senators that is very nervous about repealing Obamacare without having a real replacement ready. Now is the time to lean on those senators, and on all of our representatives. You may want to save the phone numbers of key congressional leaders in addition to your own representatives.

What should your message to them be? Here in Pennsylvania, I have one Republican senator, so he is the key leverage point. I am not asking Senator Toomey to invest in Obamacare as such. I understand the politics of this. As a Republican, he will feel required to vote for at least a symbolic repeal of the law. That’s ok. My message to him is three-fold:

  1. My family and many others in our community depend on Obamacare. For some, this is a matter of life and death.
  2. Repealing the law without replacing it is unacceptable.
  3. Any replacement must absolutely prioritize the sick and the poor.

Let’s stand together and care for each other, especially when our leaders won’t.