Wednesday, May 21, 2008

learning from jane jacobs: the poverty trap

Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion, and Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, are both careful to differentiate between slums and low-income areas. While Collier and Jacobs' focuses of study differ (far-away nation-states vs. local ghettos) , they both arrive at the same conclusion -- certain geographic areas are caught in poverty traps that prevent the people therein from enjoying any improvement in well-being or opportunity without moving out. Unfortunately, I have only sparse, disjointed notes from the Collier book at the moment (a mistake I must rectify...), so this post will focus on Jacobs. And while I probably should ignore the easy Thomas Friedman diss, I can't help myself -- once again, the world is not flat, geography is still very important to billions of people.

Jacobs describes the American slum as "a human catch-pool ... that breeds social ills and requires endless outside assistance." Slums are notable by their "stagnation and dullness" and "[failure] to draw newcomers by choice."

Jacobs defines a slum as "an area which 'because of the nature of its social environment can be proved to create problems and pathologies,'" which is different than "'a stable, low-rent area.'" The difference is that citizens are able to "make and carry out their own plans right there" in low-rent areas, but not slums. Low-rent areas help their denizens improve their lot in life, and generally eventually become higher-rent areas, not so in slums.

In slums, high-achieving families are driven out (perhaps because of the unsafe streets, lack of available financing for low-income areas, etc.), acting to reverse natural selection for slums. Herein lies the poverty trap at work -- a negative feedback loop that prevents the area from enjoying the positive externalities of economic development.

I'm reminded of a shallow pool of standing water, breeding disease and poisoning those who drink from it. Except most pools evaporate or are washed away; in the slum, the forces that would purify the water source through dilution or some other manner simply leave -- the pool persists.

Part of this negative feedback loop is the lack of social fabric, which only gets worse over time as more and more people act without accountability. Normal state policing can never reproduce the social control a community needs, the community itself must (and indeed the non-slum does) provide a check on illicit behavior, generally without anyone noticing they are a part of this self-policing effort. No such internal check exists in slums. In fact, the opposite occurs; the city continues to act as a conduit for its denizens to cooperate, but to destructive, rather than productive ends. The narc, rather than the drug dealer, gets ratted out.

What are the constraints that trap slums? The most glaring is safety. Just as commerce across the seas has depended on safe seas, so does city commerce depend on safe streets. The analogy extends even further; just as sea trade amounts to a competition between productive forces of exchange and destructive forces of extortion for dominance, so does street life.

The productive forces (often taking the form of bodega owners or other local shops) must make the streets "lively enough to be able to enjoy city public life and sidewalk safety." Jacobs argues the key is to generate productive activity through the stimulation of commerce and cross-use to tip the balance of local power in favor of those who desire peace and commerce. The competition is complex, and the failure of good men and women in slums is a reflection less of their intention or ability than it is of the greater failure to comprehend the specific constraints that are preventing a community from concentrating productive individuals (e.g., is it isolated from the productive outsiders needed for development, does low-income housing push individuals out of the community who reach a certain level of success, is the entry barrier so high that it precludes entrepreneurial citizens or outsiders from establishing themselves?)

Tangentially, I've come to think that 'trap,' while a useful term, may be less so than 'constraint' for economic development discussion. Collier's book categorizes constraints under: conflict trap, natural resource trap, the trap of being landlocked with bad neighbors, and the bad governance trap. While these terms are proper descriptors, they are not as actionable as, say, the market access constraint. We can't do much about a nation-state being landlocked, but we can enhance market access. Or take the natural resource trap; sure it exists, but wouldn't it be more worthwhile to deal more explicitly with the specific constraints produced by these natural resources?

2 comments:

Alex said...

Overall, I think this post is excellent, especially for those (like myself) who haven't read Jacobs yet. However, I take great issue with your question, "does low-income housing push individuals out of the community who reach a certain level of success?" Frankly, I think this is plain wrong and backwards. Speaking for NYC alone, affordable housing has suffered from a lack of investment and support by the Mayor and HUD and from an all out "attack" of private developers (with the blessing of the mayor) who have forced low-income residents (the majority of whom are employed) from their homes by landlords eager to raise their rents in order to sell the newly vacant properties to developers. Here are some figures to illustrate my point: in the last decade and a half, NYC has lost 27% of its affordable housing stock (including Mitchell-Lama and Section 8). Median housing prices in NYC were $33,000 between 1990-1993 but reached $95,000 in 2005.
Moreover, since the civil rights movement in the US, and the economic gains (some) Blacks gained as a result, many people of color left their low-income neighborhoods in search of safety, opportunity, and a "better life."

All this is to say that affordable housing is not responsible for the "slumification" or continued "constraint" of the poverty trap that exists in many NYC neighborhoods, particularly in the outer boroughs. Overall, the people with the resources to develop a community you refer to don't move to those neighborhoods where they might have the greatest impact for many of the reasons you highlight here. However, a surfeit amount of affordable housing is not one of them.
Moreover, since the civil rights movement in the US, and the eonomic gains (some) Blacks gained as a result, many people of color left their low-income neighborhoods in search of safety, opportunity, and a "better life."

All this is to say that affordable housing is not responsible for the "slumification" or continued "constraint" of the poverty trap that exists in many NYC neighborhood, particularly in the outter broughs. Overall, the people with the resources to develop a community you refer to don't move to those neighborhoods where they might have the greatest impact for many of the reasons you highlight here. However, a surfeit amount of affordable housing is not one of them.

Publius said...

Alex,

I understand (and largely agree) with your point, and I'll restate what Jacobs means, in a more precise, and thereby accurate, manner:

City planners have a tendency to take neighborhoods that low-income (perhaps slums, perhaps not) and to convert all housing into rent-controlled, low-income housing.

The argument is as you said -- people can't afford housing, this will make it available.

However, to live in these low-income units you have to be low-income, and so if you attain even a basic level of success, you are pushed out of the building, and quite often the neighborhood.

Jacobs doesn't object to bringing housing within the reach of the poor. The problem is when the means by which you do so prevents successful people from being able to stay in the same building or neighborhood.

By making certain housing buildings (and again, it's often not just a building but an area, as you know) "low-income" you are ENSURING that there will never be high-income people in the area.

The healthiest housing areas FOR THE POOR are mixed-income neighborhoods, and efforts to provide low-income housing have undermined that process.

The issue of gentrification which is hinted at in the plummeting of affordable housing that you bring up is a real trend, but I think the terminology (such as gentrification) and the connotations that go along with it are highly misleading, and possibly destructive.

I'll leave that for another Jacobs post though.