Commentary

Wilson: Foot soldiers will fail if they don’t address poverty’s root causes

CorrespondentMarch 28, 2014 

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“We’ve got to start somewhere.”

So said Mayor Bill Bell in the opening round of Durham’s latest assault on poverty. If that sounds like the War on Poverty revisited, in some respects it is.

Next years marks the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, of which the War on Poverty was an integral – and still controversial – part.

But the Great Society, modeled on Terry Sanford’s pioneering North Carolina Fund (which was a privately funded initiative) had little success dismantling what planners of the day called structural poverty.

That was what Bell was alluding to in his call for “foot soldiers” to fight poverty neighborhood-by-neighborhood, beginning with the most impoverished census tract in the city, 10.01 in East Durham. There, more than 61 percent of its 3,466 residents live below the federal poverty line.

The concept of structural poverty rests on liberal dogma from the 1960s: Poverty is the spawn of racial discrimination and exclusion from the dominant culture.

This has long struck me as a rigidly deterministic view of the impoverished among us, who are about as numerous today as they were in 1965.

In fact, one might wonder if much has been accomplished for the trillions of dollars expended in Great Society programs. Could we really buy our way out of poverty?

By the late 1970s, the answer from some social scientists was no. Poverty for them resulted from an individual’s faults, not his stars.

Of course, both poles in the debate represent the extremes, and as usual the real answer is in the middle ground. There is a role for both government (social and employment services) and fostering private anti-poverty initiatives (Durham Rescue Mission).

The root problem in Durham, as elsewhere, is the uncanny ability of poverty to reproduce itself – literally.

It is not a phenomenon confined to the black and Latino communities. Whites reproduce poverty, too, though at a lower rate.

The 2010 Census found 18.6 percent of the city’s 223,314 residents living at or below the federal poverty line, $23,850 for a household of four.

When you go inside the city’s poverty statistics, however, you immediately see where poverty reproduces itself: 45 percent of female residents 18 to 24 are impoverished. The figure for males in that age cohort is slightly more than 32 percent.

This is the cohort that drops out of high school, works for the minimum wage and falls prey to all manner of social pathologies, not least multiple children out of wedlock.

One more statistic: The poverty rate for households with no husband present is 56.4 percent. These are the poorest of the poor, true welfare cases bereft of hope and initiative to move upward.

Bell’s foot soldiers and the anti-poverty programs they devise are no more likely to succeed than past efforts with those who, for one reason or another, prefer the status quo – it does offer certainty, if little else.

It’s no exaggeration to say that a culture of poverty exists. Durham can and does make life better for some – decent housing, social services, schools attuned to the needs of their children – but not all. The city can’t afford it.

No, if there is a remedy for poverty, it lies in education, education, education. The culture of poverty too often disdains education, and until parents accept that all learning begins in a supportive home environment, this, our Gordian knot, will remain uncut.

Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.

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