In one photo from Ferguson, Missouri—the third in a Boston Globe story on protests in the city over a fatal shooting by a police officer—several young black men are on a street at night, with one preparing to lob a tear gas grenade back toward police. In the background is a parking lot and a long, squat building with a lit sign: NATIONAL RENT TO OWN.
It’s a sign of everyday life in poorer communities like Ferguson, and it illuminates some complications to the idea that personal responsibility, a favorite phrase among Republicans, can significantly reduce poverty.
For many of my acquaintances in suburban Boston, getting a new washing machine or dining set means driving the SUV to New Hampshire, where there’s no sales tax. They wouldn’t dream of renting a couch, which means paying much more than its value in the best case (if a missed payment doesn’t result in repossession). But families without savings or access to credit, a disproportionate share of whom are African-American, have limited choices.
Besides rent-to-own companies, places like Ferguson are studded with check-cashing businesses (which, unlike direct deposit plans, take a bite out of a paycheck), pawn shops, and payday lenders with astronomical interest rates. (HBO’s John Oliver eviscerates the payday lending industry here.) The business model for all of these is to collect penalties for being poor.
Ferguson is part of a national pattern of escalating poverty rates in older suburbs. Only a few days before a white Ferguson police officer fatally shot an 18-year-old black resident named Michael Brown, the Brookings Institution highlighted the spread of “distressed neighborhoods” (defined as Census tracts with poverty rates above 40 percent) beyond inner cities: “Between 2000 and 2008-2012, the number of suburban poor living in distressed neighborhoods grew by 139 percent—almost three times the pace of growth in cities.”
In a quick follow-up, Brookings’ Elizabeth Kneebone provided some specifics on the St. Louis suburb:
Ferguson has also been home to dramatic economic changes in recent years. The city’s unemployment rate rose from less than 5 percent in 2000 to over 13 percent in 2010-12. For those residents who were employed, inflation-adjusted average earnings fell by one-third. The number of households using federal Housing Choice Vouchers climbed from roughly 300 in 2000 to more than 800 by the end of the decade.
Amid these changes, poverty skyrocketed. Between 2000 and 2010-2012, Ferguson’s poor population doubled. By the end of that period, roughly one in four residents lived below the federal poverty line ($23,492 for a family of four in 2012), and 44 percent fell below twice that level.
Before Ferguson provided a flesh-and-blood example of a community falling into an economic abyss, much of this year’s coverage of poverty in America concerned its political effects—specifically the efforts of the Republican Party to demonstrate concern for the poor at the same time it advocates for smaller government. Just one month ago (it seems far longer!), a congressional committee headed by Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan, the party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, released a blueprint for fighting poverty (“Expanding Opportunity in America”) that recommends, in so many words, additional policing of the poor. The Atlantic’s David Frum explains:
Ryan suggests that states experiment with a new approach to means-tested programs. Beneficiaries of those programs would be assigned a social-service provider. That provider — which might be a government agency, a nonprofit private-sector organization, or a for-profit business — would guide the recipient through the welter of government programs available. It would also set goals for the beneficiary, such as attending school or completing a drug-treatment program. The provider would reward good behavior and impose sanctions on bad behavior.
Case managers would cost money, which means that Ryan’s own party will probably run away from his plan. (If “midnight basketball” for at-risk urban youth was ridiculed by Republicans as a waste of money, imagine what the Tea Party would do with “free” financial advisors for welfare recipients.) Even if the Ryan plan is enacted, it won’t do much good without greater regulation of the check-cashers and payday lenders that thrive in neighborhoods shunned by banks. The government may also have to step in to provide capital to potential homeowners and entrepreneurs who don’t have savings or access to credit unless it’s at an obscene interest rate. (One idea: Turn the post office into a people’s bank.)
The New York Times’s Charles M. Blow writes, “The frustration we see in Ferguson is about not only the present act of perceived injustice but also the calcifying system of inequity — economic, educational, judicial — drawn largely along racial lines.” African-American families are still feeling the effects of job discrimination from decades ago, when white high school graduates were more likely to accumulate savings from a union job with health benefits and a pension (the kind of job that’s fast disappearing). Then there are the lingering effects of redlining, which kept African-Americans from acquiring homes in stable neighborhoods before they skyrocketed in value. (See Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations” for a detailed look at the practice, abetted by the federal government, of keeping the “contagion” of African-Americans out of middle-class neighborhoods.)
And Vox.com’s Matthew Yglesias writes that there are still systemic barriers to homeownership as a way of entering the middle class: "The roots of neighborhood-level segregation go back to Jim Crow and old practices of redlining. Nowadays, a more likely culprit is exclusionary zoning where in-demand suburbs enact rules banning multi-family homes and small lots, seeking to make it impossible for the poor to come live there.”
The counterproductive response to the protests (and sporadic looting) in Ferguson are prompting some overdue discussions about the militarization of American police forces, as well as the absurdity of an almost-all-white police force in a city that is two-thirds black. But the Ferguson tragedy is about much more than police tactics. The Los Angeles Times’s Tim Logan quotes a grassroots organizer in the St. Louis area who sees the bigger picture:
“This was a catalyst for something much deeper, the lack of economic opportunities and representation people have,” said Etefia Umana, an educator and board member of a community group called Better Family Life. “A lot of the issues are boiling up.”