Ferguson, Missouri, needs more than personal responsibility

Protesters at an Aug. 16 demonstration against the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. (CNS photo/Lisa Johnston, St. Louis Review)

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.”
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Joseph J Dunn
4 years 5 months ago
There are, no doubt, many factors contributing to the poverty in cities, and increasingly in near-suburbs. As the causes are multiple, the solutions must be, also. President Obama has often said that he would consider any thoughtful proposals, and many Democrats acknowledge Rep. Ryan's depth of understanding of the nation's budget, including how the budget gets spent. That depth of knowledge is reflected in "Expanding Opportunity in America." Many will find it to be a careful analysis of some current programs, footnoted to research conducted by impartial and competent groups including the Congressional Budget Office, the Pew Foundation, etc. Being about seventy pages long, it's an easy read. Whether one agrees or disagrees with some of the recommendations, it is enlightening. There are plenty of ideas for reforming current programs, so Ryan is far from relying solely on personal responsibility. Mr. Sullivan criticizes Ryan's suggestion (in Appendix II, page 68) that recipients of government benefits work with a case manager, who would "connect low-income families with efforts that encourage use of mainstream financial facilities (and)…seek out community groups that help families manage their finances." I'm having trouble understanding the critique, since the ACA promotes a similar approach to health care, encouraging employers to promote worker participation in health screenings, health information programs, etc. It seems to me that a case worker might help people avoid "check-cashers and payday lenders" that Sullivan rightly criticizes. There are three mainstream bank branches (PNC, UMB Bank and US Bank) within easy walking distance of the Ferguson Market. The neighborhood is hardly "shunned by banks." The need for supportive community structures is clear. Equally clear is the role of personal responsibility and initiative. Without such initiative, we would not have the benefit of Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, who grew up in the same neighborhood. To dismiss personal responsibility is to dismiss the achievement of Michael Brown, who completed high school and earned admission to college before his tragic death. In this hour when we are examining so many aspects of our society, let's be open to all ideas presented in good will.
Robert Sullivan
4 years 4 months ago

I agree that case workers may be valuable in educating recipients of government benefits on how to best manage household finances. My skepticism is that the Republican Party, dedicated to reducing the government workforce, will go along with Ryan on this idea. As you note, the ACA promotes a similar approach to health care. This is characterized by ACA opponents as "bureaucrats" interfering with health care decisions, and the idea of offering advice on how to plan for end-of-life issues was distorted as "death panels."


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