Over the last two weeks, disturbing images of Baltimore’s civil unrest have flooded mainstream and social media.
For many, the images recall other past uprisings still fresh in our nation’s collective memory. Take Ferguson, or the Los Angeles uprisings of 1992, for example. Different locations, similar scenarios, and the usual suspect – police brutality against people of color. But the similarity between what has happened in Baltimore and in other places suggests an inconvenient truth: The unrest in Baltimore is not a sporadic accident. Rather, it is a dramatic example of what has gone wrong in our society for several decades—most notably, how we have failed to deal with residential segregation and the concentration of poverty which are the underlying causes of repeated unrest.
Despite the promises of the fair housing movement and subsequent policies addressing residential segregation and poverty concentration, each continues to persist in our inner-cities and has proliferated well into the suburbs. Current efforts to break up concentrations of poverty often involve the movement of families from high-poverty areas to more affluent neighborhoods through the administration of Housing Choice Vouchers. Although vouchers and the programs relying on them – like Moving to Opportunity – have yielded positive results for many families, moving families from high-poverty areas through vouchers cannot be our nation’s only answer to residential segregation.
First, such dispersal efforts face significant barriers due to political opposition and resistance from both displaced individuals and receiving communities. Leaving one’s neighborhood and support networks can represent a critical source of social and psychological hardship. In addition, vouchers are often difficult to use in low-poverty areas, due to the current shortage of affordable housing, some landlords’ reluctance to accept vouchers, and persistent housing discrimination. Therefore, the implementation of dispersal programs often risks re-concentrating the poor into low-income neighborhoods with very few opportunities.
The primary reason we cannot rely on vouchers alone, however, is simple: the problems that inner cities face are structural – rooted in institutions that restrict the resources and opportunities that are available to residents. Baltimore’s civil unrest is not really just a reaction against police brutality. It is a cry for recognition and social justice from marginalized communities who do not have full access to basic rights – including the right to their city – because they are locked in areas of concentrated poverty. Baltimore should serve as a wake-up call for policy makers, practitioners and advocacy groups who – in spite of their good intentions – still operate in an un-coordinated fashion and in separate silos.
There is no doubt that the revitalization of inner-city neighborhoods through housing construction and redevelopment represents a critical step to alleviate poverty concentration. Brick and mortar approaches alone, however, will not solve the problem.
Several actions would ensure that there are opportunities for self-development available to people residing in areas of concentrated poverty, including: (1) encouraging the development of job training centers and social entrepreneurship in inner cities; (2) retaining and improving existing affordable housing and protecting it from speculative private development; (3) raising minimum wages and providing access to better paying jobs; (4) encouraging a sense of hope and ownership to marginalized groups – especially among youth – by providing people of different ages the opportunity to make planning decisions in their own neighborhoods and institutions; (5) fostering healthier neighborhoods – by improving access to high-quality food resources, expanding recreational opportunities, and increasing protection against environmental hazards like lead paint, hazardous waste repositories, and landfills that are disproportionately present in low-income communities.
We, as a society, ought to stop trying to fix the symptoms of poverty concentration and instead attack its causes. How many more LA’s, Katrinas, Fergusons, and Baltimores do we need before we stop pushing the replay button as if these events were just another spectacle to watch on cable?