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.






34 replies
  1. 1
    the Conster says:

    Well, you could do worse than The Wire for understanding some things about poverty. It wasn’t until I watched that show that I really grokked how difficult it is to eat healthily when there are no supermarkets and no cars readily available and just how much more difficult everyday tasks are in general which I understood theoretically, but that show did a tremendous service for suburban creatures like me.

  2. 2
    Belafon (formerly anonevent) says:

    We’ve talked about empathy here before, and how there’s a whole group – which we’ll call conservatives – who cannot actually feel anything unless it is happening to them. I see it around where I am, and I have yet to figure out how to get conservatives around me to see that.

    Edited to be clearer.

  3. 3
    Ben Franklin says:

    I will never understand the complacent masses whose purchasing power declines every year.
    Why do they vote contrary to their best interests? I would applaud if it were a benevolent motivation, but this seems to be mental laziness coupled with abdication of their responsibility as a part of the electorate.

  4. 4
    Bud says:

    While today I live in a very affluent area, I grew up in a solidly middle-class community. I recently visited my hometown and had reason to go to a neighborhood where many of my friends in High School used to live, located right next to an old Ford plant where their fathers mostly worked. I was shocked at the the deterioration – the crumbling houses, unkempt lawns and scattered debris of life strewn about the yards. The plant closed long ago, and those union jobs are gone for this generation. I wonder if the encroachment of poverty into what used to be comfortable middle-class communities is having any impact on people’s perceptions at all. It was easy for me to spot the difference, since I hadn’t visited that area for roughly 25 years. Perhaps the people who live there have simply adjusted to the new reality and don’t see how far they’ve descended.

  5. 5
    rlrr says:

    @Belafon (formerly anonevent):

    Conservatives see being empathetic as weakness…

  6. 6
    slim's tuna provider says:

    “It’s not complicated; we’re taught from a young age that it’s something we should always endeavor to do.”

    In my experience, it is quite complicated, and most people are not taught how to do it at any age. Those that are taught it are taught it extremely superficially and face constant messages to the contrary.

  7. 7
    Davis X. Machina says:

    @Ben Franklin:

    Why do they vote contrary to their best interests?

    They define ‘interests’ in non-economic terms. Not everyone is homo economicus, and even then, not all the time.

    There are plenty of people who will sell their children and families for good seats, and sit hungry in them, if they get to watch an edifying-enough moral spectacle, with a satisfying-enough story arc, if it has high production values. The cheering is louder than the rumbling in their stomachs, usually.

    The ancien regime lasted for a long time — and much of what it did was manifestly against the interests of most of the people who lived under it.

  8. 8
    Commenting at Balloon Juice Since 1937 says:

    One approach to combating poverty is to not concentrate it. Hence the trend toward ‘mixed income’ housing in urban revitalization plans. I really think there’s strength to this approach. The hard part is getting non-poor people to live near or tolerate the existence of the poorz. I live in a rural-ish area where there is significant economic diversity. I don’t mind having neighbors less wealthy because they have experiences that I don’t so I’m always learning from them.

  9. 9
    Ben Franklin says:

    @Davis X. Machina:

    And, to the ugliest of ends–show trials, mass executions and…….Bonaparte!

  10. 10
    Davis X. Machina says:

    @Commenting at Balloon Juice Since 1937: There used to be ethnic and transport constraints on how big a community was that tended towards more economically diverse neighborhoods. The doctors lived on Pill Hill, the longshoremen and their families in the Lower End, the guys who worked on the cars and for the gas and phone companies in between. But they had one library between them, maybe only two-three parishes. Everyone on the same trolly system, same water pipes, etc. Probably several elementary schools, but one high school, etc.

    Now you can work a distance from your house you couldn’t walk in an entire day, or cover in two hours on a trolly.

    This has caused a great religious sorting, too. Megachurches have catchment areas tens of miles across. You never have to sit in a pew next to someone different, and the diversity of religious thought in any one congregation tends to be much less.

  11. 11
    Ben Franklin says:

    @Davis X. Machina:

    And, to the ugliest of ends–show trials, mass executions and…….Bonaparte!

  12. 12
    Biff Longbotham says:

    One of the (many) troubling manifestations of this trend towards economic segregation is when prosperous communitees ‘secede’ from their counties by withholding taxes and privatizing public sector sevices. But they’re just out to save (their own) taxpayers money! So sorry if the poorer communitees in the area have to raise their property taxes to make up for the resultant shortfall! Proof, as if it were needed, that “Let them eat cake”, as a working policy of the haves towards the have-nots, is alive and well today.

  13. 13
    Chris says:

    @rlrr:

    Conservatives see being empathetic as weakness…

    This.

    It’s impossible to overstate how much simple, middle-school level macho stupidity factors into the conservative worldview. Empathy is for wimminz and fags.

  14. 14
    Davis X. Machina says:

    Yep. Loose talk about ‘revolution’ doesn’t always consider that the best revolution isn’t much better than the worst ancien regime for those who have the misfortune to be around for the transition.

    Piecemeal social engineering is the ticket.

  15. 15
    redshirt says:

    @Bud: Don’t fret – I’m sure they blame those “tax n’ spend Liberals”.

  16. 16

    I propose a hypothesis:
    One is almost certainly not Republican, even “… if one’s only exposure to economic injustice in America is reruns of The Wire.”
    Because Republicans don’t watch “The Wire”.
    Counterexamples?

  17. 17
    quannlace says:

    We’ve talked about empathy here before, and how there’s a whole group – which we’ll call conservatives – who cannot actually feel anything unless it is happening to the

    Ummm, everybody else is the Help. You know, ‘nail ladies.’

  18. 18
    liberal says:

    But what I try to do to combat that sameness is use imaginative empathy.

    This.

    I’ve had limited exposure to truly poor people in my life. But that minimal exposure anyone gets, plus elaborations on livig poor in books and other cultural instruments, should be enough for any reasonably intelligent human to understand what it means to be working class and living paycheck to paycheck, or even worse down-in-the-dirt poor.

    My own life is moderately stressful, balancing work and family (and watching the trainwreck that is the western world in the 21st century). Realizing “Holy hell—imagine all this, plus having to really worry about money!” really isn’t very difficult.

  19. 19
    me says:

    This post broke the layout. Close your div tags.

  20. 20
  21. 21
    Chris says:

    @Davis X. Machina:

    And most people know that, and most of those who don’t are afraid of the change. Which is why revolutions don’t tend to happen unless people have been kicked in the teeth for so long that they don’t even care anymore if the revolution results in dystopian anarchy or tyranny, because it can’t be much worse than what they’ve got now.

    (Hence the kind of states that breed revolution – monarchist France, Czarist Russia, Nationalist/warlord-run China, colonial Indochina, quasi-colonial Cuba, fascist/capitalist Central America…)

  22. 22
    Ben Franklin says:

    @Davis X. Machina:

    Heh. I’m reminded of the cult classic ‘Zardoz’ wherein Sean Connery speaks truth to the question; “why”

    ‘Revenge’

  23. 23
    Elias Isquith says:

    @me: Thanks. I was wondering how/what was going on.

  24. 24
    Davis X. Machina says:

    @Chris: Doesn’t stop endless cheerleading for a revolution, though, at least in some circles…

  25. 25
    Chris says:

    @Davis X. Machina:

    Eh. I think revolutions get a bad rap precisely because people who judge them harshly don’t consider the context and the lengths to which people have to be pushed before they finally snap. Or maybe I shouldn’t say “bad rap,” because they do objectively tend to lead to shitty outcomes – but quite unfair to the people who follow them.

    TL/DR: “Treat people like animals, you’re going to get bit.”

  26. 26
    Greed Is God says:

    @Ben Franklin:

    Heh. I’m reminded of the cult classic ‘Zardoz’ wherein Sean Connery speaks truth to the question; “why”
    ‘Revenge’

    Revenge is best served in a red diaper:

    http://www.seanconneryonline.com/zardoz13.jpg

  27. 27
    gene108 says:

    @the Conster:

    It wasn’t until I watched that show that I really grokked how difficult it is to eat healthily when there are no supermarkets

    One of the great shames of this country in not investing in mass transit. It puts a great stress on the poor to buy a car, maintain a car and buy insurance, in order to be able to commute to work.

    A good mass transit system would do wonders to get more people back into the work force, especially the poor, who stay on welfare or SSI or whatever because they can’t get a car and the price of gas being so high, means they’d wipe out whatever gains they made from being employed by their transportation costs, if they did get a car.

  28. 28
    Greed Is God says:

    How’d we reach this point?

    By exploiting the workers! By hanging on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dOOTKA0aGI0

  29. 29
    Bud says:

    @redshirt:

    Yes…and the gays, and the blacks, and the feminazis and everyone else who has absolutely no control over their economic destiny are the people who destroyed the financial security the middle class.

  30. 30

    […]  [x-posted] Share and Enjoy: Elias Isquith is a freelance journalist and blogger. He considers Bob Dylan and Walter Sobchak to be the two great Jewish thinkers of our time; he thinks Kafka was half-right when he said there was hope, "but not for us"; and he can be reached through the twitter via @eliasisquith or via email. The opinions he expresses on the blog and throughout the interwebs are exclusively his own. Cancel reply […]

  31. 31
    Gus says:

    @gene108: If you want to see lack of empathy in action, just wade into the muck of a comment thread dealing with expanding mass transit on your local newspaper’s web site. Lots of “I don’t take public transportation, therefore I don’t want to help pay for it,” not noting that people who don’t own cars are helping to pay for roads.

  32. 32
    Peter transplanted to VA says:

    @Bud:

    Bud,

    Sounds like we’ve had a very similar experience. I grew up in a middle class area, next to a large, reasonably well off working class area powered by the steel industry.

    That’s all gone now, and the loss of those jobs just radiates throughout society. One particular thing I note, and this is not by any means the worst effect, is the difficulty faced by people who in those days did not have the inclination for college. Instead of having at least a decent prospect of a job that could support a family, their options for work have been destroyed by the changes in the economy.

    This started a long time ago, and it continues unabated.

    Peter transplanted to VA

  33. 33
    daverave says:

    @Gus:

    The lack of empathy on pretty much ANY issue; e.g., healthcare, gun control, taxes, income disparity, etc., etc., is apparent in any comment thread in most public forums. Those people would be shunned in any functioning society.

  34. 34
    James E. Powell says:

    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 can’t tell you how often it is that, when discussing issues like education (I’m a teacher), or unions, or immigration with tote-baggers and other soi-disant liberals, I’m struck by just how abstract the lives of working people are to my interlocutors’ minds.

    Back when I was teaching in Watts, I was struck by how many of my friends, most of them born and raised in Los Angeles, had no idea where Watts was.

    There is also a big wad of blank in their brains when it comes to the lives of the people who watch their children, cut their grass, and clean their houses.

    The consumer capitalist culture sells economic segregation as one of the keys to happiness. One of the consequences of economic segregation is that it makes it easier for each segregated group to disregard the humanity of ‘those people.’

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