Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Fighting Poverty

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In response to my previous post, "Is Greed Good?" discussing the social benefits of free, unrestrained enterprise many people made very pertinent points about the contrasting reality of those that "immorally" get left behind. I've been thinking about it a great deal... I can't deny that a free market society doesn't equate automatically to a perfect meritocracy. I can't deny that the American dream isn't an ideal ubiquitously accessible to every child regardless of race or creed. I can't deny that in the real world, there are real people living in isolated communities, segregated frequently along racial lines, riddled with poverty, crime, unemployment, and inadequate access to basic services.

I have a policy suggestion. I'm no expert, so forgive me the basic impracticalities of my argument. There just has to be a better way to deal with the chronic difficulties that blight equality of opportunity in free market societies. Difficulties that, in my opinion, are unethical to ignore under the banner of convenient abstractions like "personal responsibility" and "welfare dependence."

I believe in individuals. A flourishing society is built bottom up, and not top down, like "supply side" theorists aggressively proclaim to be an absolute truth. When you empower an individual with an education, self-esteem, opportunity, freedom, and role models he/she can aspire to follow, you create an engine for economic growth and social progress that is unsurpassed. That is what makes the United States the most vibrant, diverse, thriving, and dynamic nation on the face of the planet.

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A friend of mine works for a company that is involved with trying to regenerate local government housing in the UK. Here in Britain we face different manifestations of the same societal symptoms: huge tenement, council owned housing estates isolating fractured communities that are descending into violence, poverty, and crime. I grew up on one such estate in London, although to be fair, our problems were comparatively tame compared to the drug dealing, gun crime, vandalism, and violent street muggings that some people have to deal with on a daily basis. After I left in 1995 things seemed to get a little worse.

My friend's company facilitates a scheme called "Resident Participation." Local government decentralizes the maintenance of its housing to resident committees (Co-Ops), who receive a large portion of the area's allocated budget, plus get extensive training, and have to meet a basic criteria: A majority of residents must vote to approve the scheme and a significant percentage must participate on a regular basis.

The results are extraordinary:
Resident committees employ their own staff to clean up their condom and needle ridden stairways.
They employ repairmen to be on hand 24/7 to fix broken plumbing or heating problems that afflict elderly pensioners in the winter.
They pay for a Concierge to control access to their estate.
They install CCTV cameras to move drug dealing or gang violence elsewhere.
They evict violent residents
They set up youth centers and play grounds to pre-occupy their children.
They develop IT training schemes to help some of their unemployed residents acquire basic skills to apply for decent jobs.

Click for an official and comprehensive review of the scheme
What resident participation shows is that the only people that can effectively confront systemic social problems are the individuals involved who understand the situation intimately. They know what its like for their kids to journey elevators stained with urine and empty beer cans. They know the unruly minority that terrorizes the law-abiding majority. They know the reasons why their teenagers turn to vandalism and gang violence, and they know exactly what kind of alternatives might lead them in a different direction. When you give individuals the responsibility, power and togetherness to improve their quality of life, suddenly you'll find they're prouder, more responsible, more capable, and invested with a personal incentive in what's at stake.... it's quite a stark contrast to an unelected bureaucrat or a local government official.

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I don't think the lesson from this scheme is specific to government housing, I think the reasoning behind its success is far more fundamental.

When John Edwards talked of "Two America's" there was a reason why he resonated. If we want individuals to take personal responsibility... and I know many people on both the left and right are angered by the ways that they think the poorest fail in this regard... we have to recognize that government has the opportunity to endow upon individuals the power to make a difference in their lives. Even if that difference is small, even it just amounts to a cleaner street, or a scheme for local kids... It means and promises more for the future that it was enacted directly by those who stand to personally benefit. And, it isn't just another socialistic government program... with Resident Participation the co-ops disconnected themselves from local government allowing them to raise money privately and transfer their housing stock to private investors, giving them much more flexibility to make further improvements. Clean, crime free streets means that house prices go up, it means that the area attracts shops, businesses, and jobs... it means that self esteem is raised, and kids have role models that aren't criminals to aspire to. But, what it really comes down to is that individuals have ownership of their community. They bear the responsibility and they have the knowledge and power to make a difference.

I'm not an expert, and I'm not saying a scheme like this can cure poverty. I just believe in progress for the sake of progress. When was the last time you heard a Senator talk about fighting poverty? Worse - when was the last time you heard a Democratic Senator talk about fighting poverty? Like I said in my previous post, free markets, and a liberalized economy doesn't mean we need to do nothing but hope enough scraps fall down from the most successful earners so that everyone who struggles can survive. Lifting people up helps stimulate the economy, too. Helping the long term unemployed get back into work helps stimulate the economy. Like I said... when you empower an individual with an education, self-esteem, opportunity, freedom, and role models he/she can aspire to follow, you create an engine for economic growth and social progress that is unsurpassed. In an age of "value" politics, it would be nice to see some politicians getting back to that old fashioned value of helping those less fortunate to help themselves. It seems like a Christian value under a considerably greater threat than the celebration of Christmas.

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Alice: In Wonderland or Not said...

It is a quandary most definitely. To empower by environment control of environment is probably a good idea in theory and probably does work on some level. It does go so much deeper than that though, so I still believe that we have to start at with the youngest of our poor now and not only give them and their families power over their environment but in some cases get them into a new environment, one where they are surrounded by success and high achievement and we need to maintain or invent social programs that would give a emotional and educational environment that would encourage and promote that success, make it an expectation instead of an exception.
Programs such as this may very well exist in this country I am not sure. I think if I remember correctly in the city of Baltimore and DC they there was at least the ability for people tp purchases renovated homes and town homes in neighborhoods that were trying to be saved. I know public housing in general at least here just doesn’t seem to work and I am not sure if giving people control over it in some way would work or not. Ownership seems to work quite well though so if what you are talking about is some degree of ownership instead of just control I agree.

Graham said...

You're right. It's difficult to know what is best.

"we need to maintain or invent social programs that would give a emotional and educational environment that would encourage and promote that success, make it an expectation instead of an exception."

I think this is something that we have to empower communities to create for themselves with funding and responsibility. It's hard for social programs to lift people up if on some level they don't lift themselves up.

Thanks for the comment Alice :).

M A F said...


As I learned of what is taking place in England a phrase kept passing through my head that you may be familiar with. It is an African saying, "It takes a village..."

When I read your essays I always find myself thinking about the politcal realities, the machinations that drive politics, and inveritably lead to the situations that currently exist.

Then comes the hard part, responses to the problems. What solutions are available, what solutions are practical and more importantly what solutions sell and how do you package them.

Years ago, a woman of liberal beliefs wrote a book which took from the African idea of "It takes a village." She was resoundingly criticized. While her solutions may have been sound, she was unable to package and sell her solution to the public. And of course the problems continued unabated, as the failed, yet marketable solution remained in place.

If she had only thought of the citizen as comsumers...

From my perspective, the way in which solutions to problems are employed varies greatly depending upon which side of the pond one lives on. Government supported programs like you spoke about in the UK are not so well recieved in the states.

I love the idea of creating employment for the tenants that live in public housing which invests them in their communities. You lived in the US. Such ideas would be labled as socialist/socialism and roundly criticized regardless of how beneficial it would be to the community as a whole.

Main opposition would come from the Republicans who would resort to the counter marketing slogan about
"tax and spend" programs that would bancrupt the US government, that they believe should be run like any good business and keep expenditures in line with profits.

What a wonderful idea. Let us all view government as a business. Business provide products that the consumer purchase with their hard earned dollars. If the government is to provide for its citizenry, then the citizen will have to pay from these products through higher pricies which means higher taxes.

This nation that produces products such as war, poverty, education, social security, (etc) for the consumers (the taxpayers) who need to realize that product innovation and new product lines cost money and will lead to higher prices and greater profits for the company (the government) to reinvest in itself.

Whether we want them, or feel that we need them, these are products which every customer-citizen will help pay for. For without one to help the other, neither program has reason to exist.

Of course, my solution is not perfect. I am just a liberal idealist.

Lisa said...


Aren't all liberals idealists? ;) I disagree about the Republicans being opposed to this, although I think a better strategy would allow more people to own the houses themselves instead of the government owning the property, as others here have mentioned.


I agree. :P This is NOT a socialist idea, and I wouldn't dare suggest that it was. I like the idea of creating incentive for people to get out of poverty and take pride in their communities. The trick is to find a program that will spark this incentive without creating dependence on the program itself. That could be difficult, based on past history. One of my favorite talk radio guys (no, not the guy you are thinking about) suggested something similar to this, but once again both political parties are behind the curve. :(

M A F said...


Many, maybe even most, but definately not all.

It is nice to see that you too have a little liberal idealist in you. After all in a country of 260+ million, everyone owning a home, how ever ideal is not possible particularly when taking into consideration the economic realities both in the states and elsewhere.

Lisa said...


The ideal for me is more ownership by individuals as opposed to government ownership. Perhaps you are right about the practical reality of everyone owning a home, but I'm sure we can get closer to that goal than we are now with the right combination of funding and incentives to those communities.

Eban said...


I now think that you are truly a thinking man in a liberal body, lol. If more people from the liberal/democrat/left thought like you we may be well on our way to finding the creamy center of our society. |I find myself lately wishing you were actually a citizen, then you and Leiberman, and Obana could reform the democrat party to the promise it once held.

I have been so busy lately. Sorry that I have been a bit scarce. Email me, I have tons of news for you. Check out the press release on the site, oh, and the challenge I made to Gervais to an all out, no holds barred fight. Loser leaves podcasting forever, lol. I even offered to let him use a bat.

Lots to talk about!

Eban said...

Sorry about the Grant above, I was talking to Grant Johnson on Skype while typing. I am such a bonehead sometimes, oy vey.

Chris Laurel said...

Republicans talk about personal responsibility, and that you should be able to control your spending and thus they make it nearly impossible for people to relieve themselves of their debts. But then they encourage us to spend money to save the economy and they loosen credit lending restrictions to people who can't afford it. Then the credit card companies send these people blank checks in the mail telling them to buy food and pay bills with their credit cards. Then people end up eating a bagel not for 50 cents, but $4. These same credit card companies are the ones who initiated "Bankruptcy reform." But it's their fault. Oh yeah, then Republicans argue against a minimum wage. And we don't wonder where this is taking us?

Republicans talk about personal responsibility, but they don't realize the arguments they use against drug legalization are the very arguments that can be used for repeal of the 2nd Amendment. And they aren't even for gun control. And they are very much for repealing rights in the Constitution. And they don't even follow the Constitution to do it. Sounds like personal responsibility is code language for "who gets the money?"


Graham said...

Hey everybody,

Sorry for the delay in getting back to you all. I've been a little self-absorbed in some things the last few days and I haven't had the opportunity to respond.


I love that. It does take a "village" and I really think finding ways to give people responsibility over their lives can make a huge difference. I remember once a few years ago when I couldn't find work for a myriad of reasons, when work came I worked so long and hard to do everything in my power to secure my circumstances. I feel that people generally are willing to do the same if they're just given a chance, training, and light at the end of the tunnel.

There's a lack of ideals in liberalism at the mo which bugs me a little. We have so much to offer the problems the country faces as a political party, so much more so than Conservatism, and supply side economics taken to extremes, lets hope someone emerges soon that can articulate that well.

Thanks for the comment Mac

Hey Lisa :)

We agree! Stop the press! Although, to be fair we agree more frequently than it might seem me thinks.

I definately agree its not a socialist idea, because socialism is about centralizing these kinds of programs while Liberalism and Conservatism is about decentralizing them (or in the case of the latter undefunding them and then cancelling them :P)

All I know is that is works and it makes a positive difference and it doesn't conflict with any other initiative, that's why I think it could get a lot of bi-partisan support. Interestingly it was introduced by Labour under the 70's in the UK, as part of community schemes, but it was actually brought to life by John Major's Conservative government, who were looking for different ways to regenerate public housing. Anyways....

Hey Eban,

I saw the site yesterday and the news... I also saw the label thing before and listened to some tunes. It's really amazing watching RFL grow. Very impressed and inspired really. I'm hopeful about the future of the Dems, but as you know I'm pretty sure it'll be Hillary as our figurehead. Maybe she can curb some of her rougher edges and win you over, Eban... although I think I can vaguely hear "No chance in hell" emanating from the general direction of Littlehampton, lol!

The Gervais challenge sounds funny.

Will email you a little later today my friend :).


Graham said...

That's pretty impressive Spamming Chris, lol!

Girl on the Blog said...

Poverty is a very serious and tear-jerking issue. The sad thing is that most of us Americans think of poverty as only being in Third World country's. But the truth of the matter is that poverty has left millions and millions of AMERICAN families at hardships door.

"Fear and hunger walk hand in hand with poverty, and last year 12.6 million American households -- 11.2 percent of all American homes -- were afraid they might not be able to put enough food on the table, according to the Census Bureau. That's up more than 1.6 million households from the year 2000." American Census Bureau

If the numbers and facts are out there... why isn't more being done? It irratates me to no end that I see commercials over and over again stating "help this or that country because of their poverty" what about our own people... what about our own fellow Americans... WHAT ABOUT OUR CHILDREN?????? You don't see any commercial about our poverty... now do you?

In order to really help others... we need to start helping ourselves!

Great post, Graham!

Graham said...

I couldn't agree more Girl :).

Also helping those abroad and helping those at home are not mutually exclusive endeavors. We can definately do both. I don't understand why people feel christian values are attacked by someone saying "Happy Holidays" and yet don't seem to mind that the last thing Christmas is defined by today is concern for those who are not in a position to help themselves. I'm not religious, and think of myself as an Atheist, but I was raised a Catholic and its just ironic that the real message of Christ seems to be completely absent these days. I don't think he'd really care if people weren't celebrating his birthday, or mentioning his name... I think he'd care more about some of the tragic circumstances some people face in the US and abroad, and how little that motivates us.

Of course, I'll be spending Christmas getting drunk and eating too much so I'm hardly one to talk, lol.

Thanks for the comment Girl :).

Lisa said...


I think you're making a legitimate point there. Christians need to be more interested in making a real difference in the world by practicing what they preach. Many of them don't care enough about that aspect of their faith, and that's tragic. Christianity should be more about reaching out to those who need our help, rather than divine fire insurance. There are not enough Christians who see their faith as an obligation to serve others. I believe that there are more than you might think, though. The problem is that some of our beliefs are more black/white than the views of the world we live in, and there's nothing we can do to change that.

I told you to take it easy on the alcohol. :P

Graham said...

Hey lisa,

From my experience most christians focus upon these things, and care about them. I'm not ragging on anybody. It's more a certain political leadership element and the religious causes they prioritize that seem to confuse me.

I think also a lot of grey area exists too with Christianity... it all depends on your interpretation. Homosexuals consider themselves faithful Christians, so do people who've had divorces, or committed adultery for example.

Hope you had a good weekend :).

Lisa said...


We will obviously disagree about this one...but I think some of those issues you could possibly be referring to are important ones to talk about. I don't want to get into it here, 'cause it would be totally OT, so if you REALLY want to continue this, send me an email. :)

On the weekend question...YES. :D

Graham said...

It's interesting definately, although I don't have a lot of expertise on the subject to say what is right or wrong, according to common sense or scripture. I just have a thing for spiritual progress that is individually arrived at by people... but that is just me personally, and I totally respect alternative viewpoints. I really like asking those big questions, questioning the belief systems that were instilled in me, and reaching my own conclusions... continuing to learn and search and grow and so on. It's very interesting for sure.

I'm glad you had a great weekend :).

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