Places In Need: the Changing Geography of Poverty
Scott W. Allard
New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2017
Clutching our health cards and anti-nausea medication we Canadians look south at a noisily declining Trumpistan. Where, we wonder, just as the hurricanes seem set to pressure wash a lot of bad suburban development off of the sunbelt like so much graffiti from a school wall, is the empire going? What is the underlying state of daily existence there?
Places In Need is easily one of the tools to pick up when you are ready to construct an understanding of American socio-economic and spatial reality. What a job that will be, too. Poverty has been having its way with American communities of every type for decades.
This is nowhere more the case than in the suburbs, older inner ones and the younger sprawl zones alike. It has taken time to understand the transition the suburbs have gone through from exemplars of progress and prosperity into something much different. There’s little excuse now for the persistence of magic thinking about suburban economics.
Scott W. Allard is well established in his role documenting the relationship between being poor and where you are in America. In this latest book he marshals statistical analysis and direct observation. The result is a work of gravity with a not inconsiderable moral centre that inevitably asks, ”what is to be done?”
It will become even harder to look away from America in the coming decades as it grapples with inequality and social division. The first chapters in Places In Need describe suburban poverty and really leave no doubt we are not in a fake news zone here.
Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and Chicago are the focal metro areas of the book. Dozens of US communities are mentioned. Suburban poverty tracks to many places and some of the phenomena from these places are evident in Canada. Early passages on Chicago in particular can be applied to the Greater Toronto Area and Vancouver with little modification.
Chapter six of Places In Need runs the suburban paradigm against social programs designed to combat poverty. The author mounts a defence of these programs and asks that they be adapted, improved.
Poverty has doubled in American suburbs since 1990 (page 99). It is quite racialized as well with striking depth and concentration. All that extra space out there means support is hard to get to. Automotive expenses push hard against personal budgets supported by low wage employment. Public officials in suburban areas are seen failing to acknowledge the extent or event he existence at all of poverty in their jurisdictions. Maps and census data as well as the author’s interview work back up the description. that still seems unexpected to many, i.e. that great social difficulty in America is not confined to rural areas or inner cities.
At this blog we are getting impatient with descriptions. We’d like to see more about solutions though Allard does justice to what we are going to need to rethink the changed geography of poverty and how to respond. Pentagon spending and fossil fuel subsidies weren’t mentioned. Nor did we see anything much about a universal basic income, regulatory approaches to real estate development, infrastructure spending (especially on public transit), immigration reform, minimum wage legislation or support for education.
These things comprise social democracy and that is, in our opinion, the way you resist poverty and elevate the nature of a place best. Americans need to understand this to get out of their suburban poverty and Canadians to keep from going any deeper into it.
Congress for the New Urbanism has produced a report on the spatial hardship of living in sprawl. Lower income people often find themselves pushed outward to places where transportation drains their resources when it comes to community participation, shopping, access to employment or public services. CNU should be commended for adding greater depth to their general critique of placemaking with this document. Seattle/Tacoma is the focus of the report but it’s general assumptions are applicable beyond there.
Nearly a week was required just to get a basic description together of the damage done by Hurricane Katrina to New Orleans, Louisiana in 2005. Assessing Hurricane Harvey won’t be any easier. If Katrina is the template we know that lower income and racialized groups will be bearing the brunt of this, big time.
An item from Thursday’s Washington Post is a good starting point regarding this multi-layered event and its consequences.
Climate change meets sprawl at the synthetic waterline along the Gulf of Mexico. Perilous developments these days for the Houston Ship Channel and places like Rockport, Texas, seen in the image above from a Google Maps screen shot. Turning away from the spectacle of Hurricane Harvey’s wet trek into Texas is just about impossible.
A changing world asks questions about the way we build communities and operate their economies. America’s fourth largest city is also a source of the fossil fuels that helped make sprawl and climate change possible. Business as usual this time next year?
Sometimes a single statistic stops us in our tracks.
A woman in Texas is ten times as likely to die due to pregnancy than a woman in Sweden or Spain. This morbidity is right at the top of the ”developed” world’s list. Among other things, it defies the experience of countries where maternal mortality can be zero in certain years.
Between the Niagara River and Route 266 in Tonawanda, New York sits the blocky red hulk of the Huntley Generating Station. For most of a century it brought the power to a series of major industrial customers that gave the town and the region much if its economic life. And a robust life it was.
Until it wasn’t. Like many towns throughout the American rust belt, Tonawanda is fully compelled to face a mixed new post-industrial reality. While not easy it looks like the town, directly north of Buffalo, has the beginnings of an interesting and powerful template for moving itself forward into an economy after coal-fired electrical plants and manufacturing. It’s always very nice to find positive stories and this seems to be one worth considering.