“It’s complicated!” This is the phrase that comes to mind when I think of the plight of the urban poor.
When we look at urban areas across America, especially in the larger cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Detroit, and St. Louis, it is hard not to question how these communities have evolved into neighborhoods full of violent crime, drug abuse, and poverty. Many of us are fortunate enough to live outside of these areas, and it is hard for us to imagine that the people living in these areas really want change. However, poverty in the inner cities of America is complicated.
When we think about the poor that live in our urban areas, we usually find ourselves in one of two camps. The first camp is the camp of the liberals. The liberals tend to see the plight of the urban poor as being caused by social factors outside of their control. They cite things like the lack of jobs, resources, racism or other inequities. The second camp is that of the conservatives. The conservatives cite the breakdown of the family and character flaws as major reasons for poverty. While the liberals tend to think that the reasons for poverty in the inner city are more systemic, the conservatives see the reasons as being more personal in nature, like lack of discipline and lack of self-control. In my opinion both of these positions are true. It’s complicated.
In some cases, poverty can be the result of a systemic problem. For example, if there is a lack of jobs and resources available to a community, the community will struggle with poverty. All we have to do is look at the inner city neighborhoods around the country. In them, we see lack of jobs, lack of resources, and failing public schools. On the other hand, poverty can also be the result of bad personal decisions. Sometimes, it is not that people do not make enough money. It is that they do not manage money well. If people are not financially literate, then they may not spend money wisely or save. Bad spending habits and destructive habits like drug abuse often continue the cycle of poverty within a community. But there is another reason for poverty…calamities. It’s complicated.
For some people in these urban areas, their poverty is the result of a calamity. It could be the death of a spouse, a terminal illness of a family member, a house fire, or a host of any unforeseen setbacks. For example, when I was a youth pastor there were two, single black mothers who seemed to fit the Hood profile. They were single black mothers, one had one child and one had three, and both struggled financially. However, both women were widowers, and they were just trying to make it day to day. It is true that these calamities could happen to anyone, but the poor are extremely vulnerable to calamities because they are poor. The poor have no margin for error. They often have no savings, no insurance, and a low paying job, plenty of debt and bad credit. Calamities are always more devastating to the poor. It’s complicated.
So what am I saying? I am saying that the causes of urban poverty are often more complicated than we would like to think. First of all, calamities do happen to the poor, and calamities are hard to recover from if you are already poor. Secondly, there are systems in place that have contributed to the problem of poverty in the inner cities. And lastly, people living in urban areas are responsible for certain choices that have contributed to the cycle of poverty in their own personal lives and in their communities.
So the next time you are driving through ‘The Hood” or around it, and you think about the plight of the urban poor, just remember the causes of poverty in those areas are probably more complicated than you can ever imagine.