Matt mentions Hanna Rosin's brilliant investigation into Section 8. Rosin, who I've never met, is a friend of the room, not only because of piece's like this but because of her marriage to fellow Wash CP alum David Plotz. But I digress. Essentially Rosin shows that Section 8, which was created to disperse poverty and destroy the projects as centralized castles of despair, has also dispersed criminals and caused crime to rise in suburbs and medium-sized cities. In response, Matt writes:
I'm not 100 percent sure where that leaves us. Housing vouchers still seem like a better idea than "the projects" for various reasons related to economic efficiency and choice. And as far as crime goes, we seem to mostly still know what we know -- higher wages for low-skill workers, higher educational attainment, the presence of more police officers patrolling the street, throwing enormous quantities of young men in prison, fewer drug addicts, and reductions in the amount of lead poisoning all seem to lower crime.
I agree with much of this, but there was a subtle point in Rosin's piece which I think deserves more attention--all black poor people aren't the same. The real problem is that the poor attract more than their share of violent crime. Perhaps the most heartbreaking portion of Rosin's article was where she showed how Section 8 basically was destabilizing poor/working class communities where people weren't rich, but were basically handling their business.
I came away from reading that piece disturbed on so many levels, and it probably didn't help that I'd just finished reading an equally skeptical book, The Promised Land, which looked at the War on Poverty. A couple things emerged from reading both those pieces.
1.) Problems bloom when you look at the black poor--or the poor of any color--as this big mass of people who can't do shit, and thus don't ask anything of them. It seems insane, to me, to hand-out Section 8 vouchers with little to no screening, and little to no follow-up by caseworkers. To turn large numbers of poor people on communities which are the least equipped to handle them (stable working class/poor black communities) just seems morally wrong.
2.) Our criminal justice shit is an absolute mess. Let me talk about the velvet glove first. We have to change our approach to nonviolent drug offenses. Jail sentences for marijuana have got to go, and maybe even for crack-cocaine. But here's the catch--we have to bring the hammer down on violent crime. There is an utterly depressing story about a kid who's basically doing the right thing and is set upon by some gang members because he won't join there outfit. Perhaps because of my own story, I empathized deeply with that kid. We have to learn that there is a difference between a guy selling a crack on the corner, and a guy who's harassing innocent people because they won't help him sell crack on the corner. I know that those two people are sometimes the same, and in that case bang them on the head for the violence, not for the sale. I have no problem with you moving your product on my corner. But you don't have the right to pull out guns and endanger the life of my son. I don't accept that one necessarily leads to the other.
3.) We are looking for a short-cut "magic bullet" approach to fighting poverty, which cost us nothing and ask virtually nothing of tax-payers. If you're going to relocate people out of the projects, you've got to have staff to track them. You've got to have rules. You've got to give them the support they need. Furthermore, you can't allow them all to move into otherwise stable working-class communities. Some of the more upper-income neighborhoods are going to have to carry some of the weight. And this has to be a partnership. Section 8 will likely now be targeted as another failed liberal social program. But it looks to me like lazy thinking, and lazier stewardship.
4.) The piece is a superior work of journalism, and I'll take it over 100 diatribes by "public intellectuals" who are only public if by public you mean "think tank" or "university. Writers who want to tackle race need to stop jacking off in the office, doing NPR interviews and go out and do some field-work.
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