Fred R. Harris, Lynn A. Curtis, ed. Locked in the Poorhouse: Cities, Race, and Poverty in the United States. Lanham and Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000. x + 188 pp. $24.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7425-0904-7.
Reviewed by Amanda I. Seligman (Associate Professor of History and Urban Studies, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)
Published on H-Urban (August, 2001)
Two Societies, More Separate, More Unequal
Two Societies, More Separate, More Unequal
In March 1968, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known more popularly as the Kerner Commission, issued its report on the riots that had swept many of the nation's cities during the summer of 1967. Most famously, the report concluded that the United States "is moving toward two societies, one black, one white-separate and unequal." Although the report received enormous public attention, its observations and recommendations went largely unheeded by national policy-makers. Official disregard of the Kerner Commission's recommendations began almost immediately, with President Lyndon B. Johnson's successful efforts at dodging formally receiving it. Even though the report released by the Kerner Commission was in some ways milder than the earlier "Harvest of American Racism" draft prepared by commission staff, Johnson declined to send Commissioners a set of thank-you notes prepared for his signature, noting that he would "be a hypocrite" if he did.
To serious observers of the American urban scene, then, it will come as little surprise that a study commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the report's release laments the road not taken. The Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation published Locked in the Poorhouse and its companion volume, The Millennium Breach in 1998 in order to instruct American policy-makers on the continuing need for, and possible approaches to, the large-scale urban interventions of the sort called for in chapter 17 of the Kerner Commission report. The editors of Locked in the Poorhouse, a member of the Kerner Commission and the president of the Eisenhower Foundation, gathered a panel of social scientists and legal experts to comment on the state of American cities thirty years after the Kerner Commission's recommendations. Locked in the Poorhouse describes the results of the federal government's failure to offer significant intervention on behalf of the nation's urban poor.
In the three decades since the Kerner Commission reported, the conditions that underlay the outbreaks of 1960s rioting have gotten far worse. The essays in this slim and readable volume document the increasing poverty (especially among children of color), chronic unemployment, and incarceration rates that have come to characterize urban areas. The book's final chapters also recommend policy initiatives that have the potential to change these conditions. The authors of the essays are careful to note that poverty in the United States is neither an exclusively black nor urban phenomenon (p. 50); they are also cognizant of the fact that during the last three decades, a substantial number of African Americans have consolidated their position in the ranks of the nation's middle and upper classes. The contributors are, however, deeply alarmed by the consequences of the increasing isolation of the urban poor in racially and economically homogeneous neighborhoods. For example, the essay on "The New Urban Poverty," by William Julius Wilson, James M. Quane, and Bruce H. Rankin, summarizes the devastating effects of concentrated poverty in Chicago neighborhoods: poor people who live in high poverty neighborhoods experience lower rates of informal social control, neighborhood cohesion, institutional effectiveness, and peer group orientation, and higher rates of social isolation and crime than their counterparts in low- and medium-poverty neighborhoods do.
Concentrated poverty has become such a persistent urban phenomenon, in fact, that two of the essays suggest that we should understand it as matter of public health rather than as a purely economic or social characteristic. The essay by Gary Sandefur, Molly Martin, and Thomas Wells argues that the "analogy" (p. 34) of public health helps to explain the persistence of poverty in a society with chronic urban unemployment. An assumption that poverty is a public health issue, then, might lead to policies that effectively help people cope with the structure of the national economy. Elliott Currie's essay on "Race, Violence, and Justice since Kerner," on the other hand, treats public health in quite literal terms, arguing that urban violence, HIV/AIDS, and drug use amount to a "permanent emergency" (p. 95) in American cities. In short, these essays collectively argue that the urban poor at the end of the twentieth century have become Locked in the Poorhouse in a way that their counterparts in 1968 were not. The conclusion to Paul Jargowsky's essay--the observation that "we are no longer moving toward two societies, one white and one black...we are moving in the direction of the kind of society that builds walls topped by broken glass, a society with permanent, deep, and bitter class divisions," (p. 93)--encapsulates the analytic thrust of the entire book.
Lest their grim conclusions lead to continued inaction in federal urban policy, the editors include a program for changing these conditions. The final chapter of the book, a summary of The Millennium Breach, lays out a "Policy for the New Millennium," a series of seven recommendations for federal action costing an estimated $56 billion annually. Some of these proposals echo the Kerner Commission's call for creation of new public and private sector jobs, while others, based on the Eisenhower Foundation's experience of policies that "work," are of more recent genesis. The chapter also recommends that the policies "should be implemented as much as is feasible by the indigenous inner-city nonprofit organizations that are responsible for much of what works," (p. 133), language that recalls--without exactly reproducing--the War on Poverty's call for the "maximum feasible participation" of residents of poor neighborhoods. In addition to these large-scale policy recommendations, several other suggestions are embedded in this book. William L. Taylor's essay on "Racism and the Poor" argues that integration and affirmative action, "the mainstays of what little antipoverty policy the nation has had over the past three decades," are policies that have succeeded in creating "conditions in which many minority citizens have been able to lift themselves out of poverty" (p. 119). Lynn Curtis's conclusion also calls on liberals to develop the kinds of media savvy that "naysaying think tanks" make one of their primary occupations in order to counteract the feeling of the "average, middle-class, suburban American...that nothing works" (p. 145).
Locked in the Poorhouse is a clear and concise summary of the present state of American urban poverty. The major omission in its analysis is an explanation for the shifting sands of federal urban and poverty policy in the three decades since the release of the Kerner Commission report. Two of the essays, for example, mention the abolition of the nation's major welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), and its replacement by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the culmination of President William J. Clinton's promise to "end welfare as we know it." An essay that placed the demise of AFDC and the ascent of TANF in the context of how Americans in the late twentieth century regarded the role of government would have been an excellent complement to the essays that were included. Nonetheless, Locked in the Poorhouse does lay out a roadmap for the historians who take up the challenge of describing what happened in American cities at the end of the twentieth century and suggest what policy-makers can still do to change that course.
. Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, The New York Times Edition (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1968), p.1.
. Bill Barnhart and Gene Schlickman, Kerner: The Conflict of Intangible Rights (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999), pp. 206 and 216.
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Amanda I. Seligman. Review of Harris, Fred R.; Curtis, Lynn A., ed., Locked in the Poorhouse: Cities, Race, and Poverty in the United States.
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