See No Evil
Recently, Doug J highlighted a supremely depressing Washington Post article on resurgent poverty in America, and John flagged a recent Bill Moyers episode featuring Chris Hedges, who spoke about his new book, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, an in-depth examination of those blighted communities Americans have collectively abandoned to the most inhumane and exploitative forces of the “free market.” (I put “free market” in scare-quotes in hopes of furthering Dean Baker’s quest to show the in truth distorted nature of the US economic system.) If you watch Hedges’ appearance, you’ll see that a key motivation behind the creation of the book was to highlight what Hedges calls “sacrifice zones,” economically and culturally devastated regions that, for most of us, hide in plain sight.
I think it’s unlikely that these two phenomena — skyrocketing poverty and its effectively invisible locales — are unrelated.
You’ve probably heard before about how Americans are increasingly choosing to live only around people who share their political views. Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort is most responsible for spreading the word to a mass audience; no less an authority than former President Clinton endorsed Bishop’s work. But as you might guess, considering Clinton’st most high-profile comments about the book were delivered during an Aspen Ideas Festival colloquy, many people have used Bishop’s work as an excuse to kvetch about incivility in American politics. If only Michele Bachmann’s kids played on the same soccer team as Al Franken’s — then we’d all get along! Needless to say, this is indicative of that unique strain of frivolous narcissism that calls Aspen and Davos home.
More important than partisans of Team Jacob and Team Edward, respectively, choosing to live on separate sides of the county line is a recent study from Stanford that found Americans are segregating along economic as well as cultural lines. Here’s how The New York Times described its findings:
The findings show a changed map of prosperity in the United States over the past four decades, with larger patches of affluence and poverty and a shrinking middle.
In 2007, the last year captured by the data, 44 percent of families lived in neighborhoods the study defined as middle-income, down from 65 percent of families in 1970. At the same time, a third of American families lived in areas of either affluence or poverty, up from just 15 percent of families in 1970. […]
Much of the shift is the result of changing income structure in the United States. Part of the country’s middle class has slipped to the lower rungs of the income ladder as manufacturing and other middle-class jobs have dwindled, while the wealthy receive a bigger portion of the income pie. Put simply, there are fewer people in the middle.
But the shift is more than just changes in income. The study also found that there is more residential sorting by income, with the rich flocking together in new exurbs and gentrifying pockets where lower- and middle-income families cannot afford to live.
The consequences of this big sort are likely to be far more destructive and long-lasting than the death of bipartisan soirees:
Sean F. Reardon, an author of the study and a sociologist at Stanford, argued that the shifts had far-reaching implications for the next generation. Children in mostly poor neighborhoods tend to have less access to high-quality schools, child care and preschool, as well as to support networks or educated and economically stable neighbors who might serve as role models.
The isolation of the prosperous, he said, means less interaction with people from other income groups and a greater risk to their support for policies and investments that benefit the broader public — like schools, parks and public transportation systems.
I can’t tell you how often it is that, when debating anti-poverty policies with conservatives, I’m struck by just how abstract are the poor in my interlocutors’ minds. I don’t mean to imply that I’m a modern Orwell, down and out in Appalachia and Camden; I’ve lived in a pretty economically homogenous sphere for most of my life. But what I try to do to combat that sameness is use imaginative empathy. It’s not complicated; we’re taught from a young age that it’s something we should always endeavor to do. But it’s easier said than done — especially if one’s only exposure to economic injustice in America is reruns of The Wire.