Social Activism? Alive and Thriving in Baltimore?

Dan Rodricks5:00 a.m. EST, March 4, 2014

Given all the excitement his papacy has generated, the approach of the first full Lenten season under Pope Francis resonates particularly with Catholics — even fallen-off Catholics — who prefer to see faith as social activism and not as Sunday pageant. Since he became pope last March, Francis has repeatedly called for a church of service and justice, and not one that is insular and obsessed with doctrine.

His calling out of corrupt financial systems that foster economic disparity has been ringing bells around the world, and not only among Catholics. His first Lenten message is about poverty and the Christian imperatives of charity and humility.

In Baltimore this coming weekend, Catholic Charities stages its 35th Annual Archdiocesan Social Ministry Convocation, with its themes of “care for the Earth,” “care for the poor,” and “listening to Pope Francis.” This is workshop training for people who believe acts of charity, delivered close to home, are what make the church relevant and effective: working with immigrants, the poor, the addicted, the hungry and the homeless.

That’s the stuff of Jesus.

That’s what Francis is talking about — faith as ministry, and ministry that leans toward social justice.

It’s a call to action to all Catholics, including those of us who complain about the church’s outdated rules — the celibate priesthood, the prohibition against female priests, for instance. Francis’ call is an empowering message. It means you get to save the world if you want to, a little piece at a time.

I’ll come back to this in a minute.

Before I go on, a few words about the state of the world as Lent arrives. It’s kind of hard to ignore the buildup of grim news:

Civil war and the murder of civilians in Syria, atrocious human rights violations in North Korea, long knives in a train station in China. February was a horrendous month in Iraq — 703 people dead, more than 1,300 wounded, the vast majority of the casualties civilian. They haven’t seen violence on that scale since shortly after the U.S. invaded Iraq to make it better and the world safer.

Humans keep making a mess. Humans keep resisting peace and progress.

And now we have the outrageous rattling of a Russian sword in Crimea.

Whether driven by politics, ethnic hatred or just macho-man madness, certain humans keep finding ways to compound problems, inflict pain or destroy the lives of others.

So you’re standing here on the ground, in Baltimore, or some place in Maryland, or any place on the map of the world, and you ask yourself: What can I do?

Maybe there isn’t much you can do about Vladimir Putin, or about the war in Syria, or about the way things are in North Korea or China, or any place where people suffer.

You can have an informed conscience, of course, and you can speak out about the man-made horrors.

And you can write checks to humanitarian organizations. There’s a lot you can do, I suppose, from your desk, or on Facebook.

But here we are, approaching Ash Wednesday and the first full Lenten season with Francis in the Vatican, and his message is pretty clear by now.

“I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets,” he said last year.

I have heard many people express delight and excitement at that message, and that includes many friends and relatives who have been dismayed and even broken-hearted about the Church’s direction for a couple of decades, arguably two of the worst in its history.

Now they hear a fresh, liberating voice that speaks truth to power and that calls for the church to hit the bricks.

And that’s great. But a year into Francis’ papacy, what are we really willing to do?

That convocation I mentioned: It’s all day Saturday at Seton Keough High School. There will be Catholic volunteers there who have been serving Francis’ message all along, saving a little piece of the world at a time. They’re veterans of social ministry.

“Francis’ concentration on mercy and compassion are the bedrocks of Catholic social teaching, and it’s nice to have them reinforced for those of us who have been plugging away for years,” says Lisa O’Reilly, a member of the convocation’s planning team. “But we would like to see those who haven’t been involved, who want to answer Francis’s call.”

There are workshops on housing the poor, treating drug addicts, helping prisoners and their families, helping low-wage workers, promoting fair-trade practices, getting parishes engaged in environmental causes, helping immigrants negotiate the new country.

“The Church is in a new place these days,” says O’Reilly. “Everyone is wondering just how [Francis’ papacy] impacts the present membership. I think more people want to come back to the church, on the strength of Francis’ message. The question is, are they energized enough to go out and do it?”

Here’s your chance, brothers and sisters: 8:15 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Seton Keough. Walk-ins welcome.

Dan Rodricks‘ column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of “Midday” on WYPR-FM.

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ShelterForce: 2nd in Series of 50 Years of the War on Poverty

There is No “Culture of Poverty”

Posted by Josh Ishimatsu on February 5, 2014

“At the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family.”

– The 1965 U.S. Department of Labor Report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action

This is the second in a series of posts that I’m working on to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one of the architects of the War on Poverty and assistant secretary of labor under President Johnson, is popularly identified with the concept of “the culture of poverty.” While he did not coin the term, Moynihan certainly did more than most to put the idea into national consciousness, particularly in the direct association between the culture of poverty and black urban life.

But this post is not about him. It’s about how the concept of the “culture of poverty” and how Moynihan’s vision of it shapes many of our deeply held, unstated perceptions/assumptions about poverty.

And about how many of these assumptions are wrong.

The Culture of Poverty
In 1962, in his influential book about poverty (said to have inspired Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and named one of Time magazine’s top 10 works of 20th century non-fiction), The Other America, Michael Harrington introduced mainstream America to the concept of “the culture of poverty.” In 1965, then U.S. Department of Labor Assistant Secretary and former Harrington drinking buddy, Moynihan modified/expanded upon Harrington’s version of culture of poverty concepts and applied them more explicitly and specifically to African Americans in a report entitled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.”

Moynihan argued that “three centuries of mistreatment” had led to a “tangle of pathology”—crime, promiscuity, lack of education—that created a near inescapable cycle of poverty and disadvantage. At the heart of this tangle—the fundamental cause of it all—was the “deterioration of the Negro family.”

Moynihan wrote: “In essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is to [sic] out of line with the rest of American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole…”

Moynihan intended that his report would be a call to action for the nation to do more about addressing what he saw as the root causes of poverty.

The title of the report, after all, includes the words “The Case for National Action.” And Moynihan wrote that it was the responsibility of the federal government and its citizens to do more to eliminate poverty, “strengthen the Negro family” and set right “three centuries of injustice.”

However, from when the internal report leaked to the public, Moynihan immediately was the subject of intense criticism from his left flank—from civil rights advocates, feminists and anti-poverty activists who accused him of racism, sexism, victim blaming, etc. In the years following, as conservatives appropriated the report’s broken family/tangle of pathology vocabulary (while ignoring its national call to action), the term “culture of poverty” came to stand more and more for the idea that poor family values and government dependency had created poverty and that a return to “traditional family values” was what was needed to eliminate poverty, not more government programs.

Poverty Is About Jobs, Not Culture
The intersection of work, family and the economy has changed drastically in the past 50 years. More women work. Divorce and children born outside of marriage are far more common. Non-Hispanic white families of today have rates of single-female headed households and of children in unmarried households, etc. that are comparable to the rates of African Americans during the 1960s. But non-Hispanic whites still have the lowest poverty rates of any major racial/ethnic group.

White society and economic conditions did not collapse because of increased matriarchy. Of poverty populations, both Hispanics and Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) have higher rates of married family households than non-Hispanic whites but both populations have higher poverty rates than non-Hispanic whites. For families in poverty, roughly 60 percent of AAPI families are households headed by married couples. For the general poverty population, roughly 30 percent of families are headed by married couples. And despite this, since the recession, AAPIs have been the fastest growing racial/ethnic group in poverty. Marriage, “intact families,” or a hypothetical cultural value placed on marriage and family structure are no silver bullet against poverty. As we have a better understanding of the many forms that families can take and as the poverty population becomes more multicultural, the causal link (at a moral/cultural level, at least) between marriage/family structure and economic outcomes seems weaker and weaker.

If there is any correlation between marriage and poverty, it is about jobs. Families with two or more wage earners (who do not have to be married and do not have to be different genders) are more likely to be able to move out of poverty than a family with only one wage earner. This makes sense in that poverty as a cold, hard statistic is primarily measure of income. Two incomes means the likelihood of more money. Two potential wage-earners means a level of insurance/ability to weather hard times if one job is lost. But this is not something that is necessarily about marriage or is something inherently about “a culture of poverty.”

There are plenty of poor people with good values and who work hard who have been and will be poor their entire lives. There are plenty of people who have had crappy home lives and whose lives are desperate tangles of pathologies but who have been and will be rich all their lives. Poverty is about income. Poverty is about jobs and job quality. Take my personal story as an example. I was raised by a single mother. My mother and father were never married, I never knew my father and my family never knew any support from him. But we were never poor. This is because my mother had a union job as a nurse at a public hospital. Not to take anything away from my mother’s personal strength or the strength of her values or of the values that she instilled in me, but poverty is about jobs and who happens to be lucky enough to have a good one (or about who is lucky enough to be born with rich parents, but that’s another story). Poverty is about scarcity, not about marital status. And because there will never be enough good jobs for everybody to have one, we know that there will always be poor people. Ascribing after-the-fact cultural causes to this inevitability obscures the real issues.

Moving Forward
The War on Poverty was initiated during heady times—urban unrest, the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, etc. The time period was also saw the birth of poverty as an official government unit of measurement and the concept of poverty entering more widely into mainstream parlance. Our deeply held, mostly unstated, beliefs about poverty (and especially about poverty and race) stem from this time period, from this crucible, whether we were alive then or not. Most of us, I would wager, still think of American poverty as largely urban (more specifically, urban Northeast and rustbelt Midwest) and black. But the demographics of poverty have changed and the geography of poverty is also changing.

But regardless of the changing composition and distribution of the poverty population, much of the current debate about the legacy of the War on Poverty is rehashing old conflicts about race, about the role of government, about culture and values—a big clash of visions and mythologies that was never fully resolved in the 1960s. In this context, Rand Paul can use the bankruptcy of the City of Detroit as a backdrop to comment upon the failure of “big government” to address poverty—to sound the dog whistle of race and the supposed intractability of the culture of poverty—all the while putting out a kinder, gentler GOP rhetoric around race, poverty and tax cuts.

In the mainstream, slightly-left-of-center-world of policy wonks, whether we fully acknowledge this to ourselves or not, also continue to work from outdated and racist paradigms of race and poverty, tending to think of poverty in terms of cultural deficits while making policy prescriptions for parenting classes, school accountability, financial education, etc. Not that these are bad programs, per se. Many of these programs are worthy and are worth the investments we make in them. But we shouldn’t be putting the burden of “solving” poverty on such programs nor should we be transmitting the message to people that there is something inherently wrong with them (or their culture) for happening to be poor.

Moving forward, I believe we need a deeper, more nuanced national conversation about race and poverty. I also believe we need a broader, large-scale recommitment to economic equity and economic justice. To do both of these well, we need to revisit and re-examine all of our unstated, unconscious (racialized) beliefs about poverty and culture.

(Photo from the National Institute’s of Health Library CC BY-NC-SA)

About the author more »

Josh Ishimatsu is Director of Capacity Building and Research for National CAPACD.

Is there truth to renter stereotypes?

This is  borrowed from a NeighborWorks Blog written by Pam Bailey.  NeighborWorks America is a network of 240 organizations dedicated to community revitalization and growth.

Is there truth to those renter stereotypes?

By Pam Bailey, NeighborWorks America blogger
The national “ethos” that values homeownership over renting has a long history. On Dec. 2, 1931, for example, President Herbert Hoover said in an address to the White House Conference on Home Building and Homeownership, “[There is] the high ideal and aspiration that each family may pass their days in the home that they own…There can be no fear for a democracy or self-government or for liberty or freedom from homeowners, no matter how humble they may be.”

white paper from the National Multi-Housing Council observes that today, its members encounter so much preference for homeowners that, “When an apartment community is proposed… local activists respond with NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) complaints so frequently that some have suggested a better acronym might be BANANA (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone).”

Every renter is different, of course, just as are homeowners. So some renters – whether they live in an apartment building or single-family house — don’t take care of their living environment or interact with their community as much as is ideal. (The consensus seems to be that a critical determinant is whether the planned stay is temporary or longer term.) As for impact of rental housing on property values, it depends on a lot of factors, such as the number of units, the characteristics of the tenants and the nature of the owners and management. But the facts don’t support broad generalizations.

Most studies in this arena have focused on clusters of rental housing — such as apartment complexes — and on lower-income tenants, rather than on scattered, individual rental homes. But the findings offer plenty of caution about buying into negative stereotypes related to either quality of community living or property values.

For example, the Joint Center for Housing Studies found several years ago that apartment residents – who represent the highest-density renters – are almost twice as likely to socialize with their neighbors as homeowners, and are just as likely to belong to structured social groups and to closely identify with the town or city in which they live. (The one area in which apartment residents significantly lagged homeowners in this study was voting in local elections.) It’s true that other studies have produced data suggesting that homeownership is associated with a better social environment, such as a lower crime rate, improved educational achievements among children and greater involvement in neighborhood organizations. However, these studies typically don’t control for confounding factors such as chronic unemployment. The bottom line: The picture is clearly mixed, with data available for arguments on both sides.

Most renters (42 percent) live in apartment buildings, followed by 34 percent who choose single-family homes.

As for property values, a Boston study by the MIT Center for Real Estate concluded that, “the introduction of large-scale, high-density mixed-income rental developments in single-family neighborhoods does not affect the value of surrounding homes. The fear of potential asset-value loss among suburban homeowners is misplaced.” A presenter to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies’ Revisiting Rental Housing summitagreed, writing, “The fear that housing density will hurt property values seems to be primarily based on anecdotes. By contrast, most research has come to a different conclusion: In general, neither multifamily rental housing, nor low-income housing, causes neighboring property values to decline.”

Bernadette Orr, director of community building for NeighborWorks America, observes, “Most of our groups that work at the neighborhood level deal with these stereotypes and the resulting challenges in one way or another. That’s why our groups have gone in the direction of helping to support neighborhood associations instead of homeowners associations.”

Of course, anecdotes of the negative consequences of “the renters” abound. Even some of the nonprofit housing professionals interviewed for this series had such stories to tell from their own neighborhoods. Whatever your point of view or experience, however, renters are here to stay. The demand for affordable rental housing – homes or apartments – is growing. According to aDecember report from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, American households are increasingly turned to the rental market for their housing. From 31 percent in 2004, the renter share of all U.S. households climbed to 35 percent in 2012, bringing the total number to 43 million by early 2013.  And they aren’t just young adults just out of college; a third are between the ages of 35 and 54.

So what can be done to bridge the divide between renters and owners? The next two installments of this blog will explore innovative solutions from member organizations. Check back daily to read the rest of the series, or sign up (see box, right) to receive new posts directly in your inbox.