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.

RESIDENT PARTICIPATION
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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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