Social justice

2009 04 07
Recently read: More Than Just Race

William Julius Wilson. More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City

At the heart of this book is a distinction between structural and cultural causes of enduring inter-generational poverty and social marginalization. Structural causes include our institutions and our social and economic policies, in so far as they impact the life prospects of the less advantaged. Cultural causes include those collective understandings and behavioural scripts shared by members of some group which arguably play a role in perpetuating the lower status and achievements of that group.

Liberal and conservative opinion in American political cultural has tended to put practical and rhetorical emphasis on one or the other of these causes of poverty, with liberals favouring structural explanations for enduring, inter-generational poverty and conservatives favouring cultural ones. Liberals tend to argue that conservatives’ preference for cultural explanations end up “blaming the victim,” with conservatives responding that liberals miss an important dimension of the dynamics of poverty. These debates have been particularly sharp when they focus on the fate of black Americans in American society, and the reasons for the continued marginalization and poverty of significant numbers of them.

Wilson wants to reintroduce culture as a respectable explanatory factor in the story of poverty and marginalization in black communities, albeit only one among a complex and interacting set of causes. But as a black liberal scholar and a veteran of these debates, he’s well aware of the rhetorical and substantive risks of doing so. So in spite of his stated aim of reintroducing culture as part of the explanation for poverty, much of his book reads as a sharp rebuke to the many attempts to use cultural explanations to explain the social and economic marginalization of black men.

When Wilson finally gets around explaining how cultural causes might play a role in comprehensive explanations of poverty, it’s clear that it’s often by mediating the impact of structural causes of poverty, and that the best social science available suggests that culture is of much less importance than structural causes. Some of the most interesting passages in the book debunk popular attempts to draw a connection between culture and poverty in the black community. In the end, however, Wilson sees real value—substantive and rhetorical—in acknowledging the limited ways in which culture matters in the perpetuation of poverty and marginalization. In Obama’s rhetoric about race, especially in his remarkable March 2008 speech (“A More Perfect Union”), Wilson finds these two themes of culture and social structure brought together in an analytically effective and rhetorically persuasive combination.

This is a good and worthwhile book. There are a number of points in the book at which Wilson might have signaled his main themes more clearly, since they sometimes get lost in the blizzard of qualifications, counterarguments and on-the-other-hands. Wilson’s prose style is also a bit dryly academic, which may unfortunately get in the way of the wide readership his book deserves. Although Wilson is very interested in reintroducing cultural explanations for poverty, in the American context the most valuable thing about this book will be its vigorous and cogent defence of the relevance of structural causes and its equally effective rebuttal of lazy cultural explanations.

Howls of outrage (3)

2009 02 27
Follow up: 2017 and 2023 Caton Ave.

I went out to 2017 Caton Ave last night to observe a meeting between the tenants at 2017 and 2023 Caton Ave and two of the five owners of the building, Asher Alcobi and Ami Blashkovsky. The previous day, the tenants had protested outside the real estate office co-owned by Asher Alcobi, and that morning, with the help of Michael Grinthal at South Brooklyn Legal Services, they had filed an HP order against the landlords (an action to enforce the housing code). That morning, a three quarter page story about the building’s problems and the protest, had appeared in the Daily News.

The meeting was well attended, and ran from about 8pm to 9:45pm. About 25 tenants crowded into the lobby of the building, which was noticeably cleaner than I had found it on Wednesday. They were joined by Latrice Walker, a representative from the office of Congresswoman Yvette Clarke’s, and for part of the meeting by New York City Council Member, Mathieu Eugene. Michael Grinthal and tenant organizer Aga Trojniak from the Flatbush Development Corporation were also present.

Considering the level of anger and frustration among tenants, the meeting went surprisingly smoothly, for the most part. Much of the credit for this has to go to Samantha Paige, a tenant in 2017 Caton who led the meeting in an efficient and productive way, and to Alcobi, who struck a conciliatory tone on behalf of the landlords. Paige went through a list of demands that the tenants had presented to Alcobi in his office on Wednesday. These included, among other things, a qualified superintendent for the building (which has not had a super for at least six months), that work be done by qualified, licensed tradesmen, and that problems be dealt with in an efficient, responsive, and timely way. Paige volunteered, with another tenant, to coordinate efforts to ensure that tradesmen would have access to individual apartments. Paige made it clear that the access issue was a practical matter that tenants could deal with effectively later, and kept the meeting focused on the list of demands. As a conciliatory gesture, she also stressed that tenants would need to do their part to assist in keeping the building clean and safe, and emphasized some sympathy with the landlord’s perspective a businessman.

After Paige finished, Alcobi spoke. In a rather quiet and understated way, Alcobi is clearly a gifted public speaker, and he handled the situation about as deftly as I can imagine anyone doing it. After thanking Paige for acknowledging his own perspective, he moved on to his main concerns. These included trash in the hallways, and what he described as illegal washing machines in apartments that he blamed for some of the leaks. At this point, Latrice Walker pointed out that whether the washing machines were illegal or not depended on whether they were permitted by individual leases. No one at the meeting, including Alcobi, actually knew off the top of their respective heads what the leases said, and Alcobi was forced to moderate this point.

There followed a lengthy back and forth as the tenants attempted to tie each of the demands to a date by which Alcobi would commit to fulfill the demand. Some of the deadlines were easier to fix than others. The issue of a qualified super was especially thorny, with Alcobi protesting that it was difficult to find a qualified super in short order, and tenants pointing out that they had already been waiting six months. The tenants insisted that Alcobi find a super by the next meeting with him, which was scheduled for March 18th, but Alcobi wouldn’t commit to the date, though he said he would try to find someone.

After the meeting broke up, I spoke with Alcobi briefly. I recreate the conversation from memory, because Alcobi told me that he wasn’t comfortable being taped. I asked him if he was pleased about the meeting. He said he was, but made clear that he didn’t appreciate having a different, and unrelated, business picketed the other day. (Alcobi is a part owner of the building, and a part owner and founder of Peter Ashe Real Estate.) I said that I could understand that, but that I had spoken to a number of tenants and heard a lot of horror stories. “This is a building with a lot of problems,” he told me. “A lot of problems.”

I asked Alcobi if he was pleased with the management company he had hired to handle the building’s affairs. Even with someone from the management company standing beside us, Alcobi wasn’t willing to go this far.

“I’m putting a lot of pressure on them to do things right,” he said. “Let me just say that.”

“So would you say that they’re on probation now?”

“No. Close watch. Not probation.”

He told me that firing the management company would hardly solve anything, since this would just lead to significant delays as an entirely new team worked to get up to speed. Alcobi stressed to me that he was only now learning about the seriousness of the problems in the building.

Given the general incompetence of his management company and what tenants had told me about their style of communication, I can readily believe that Alcobi hasn’t been receiving candid and regularly updated accounts of the state of his property. Still, I wasn’t convinced by the “shocked, absolutely shocked” pose Alcobi struck in both the meeting and in conversation with me. Alcobi has been contacted directly by tenants and tenant organizers repeatedly over the last few months. He arranged a meeting several months ago between tenants and management in which the management committed to fulfill a number of tenant requests that were subsequently ignored. Even if Alcobi had not conducted any active follow up on the progress of the repairs following that meeting, the steady stream of complaints to his office should have tipped him off that something was amiss. It isn’t as if the tenants suddenly jumped up one day and started to picket the man’s office in a fit of pique. They’ve been working fruitlessly for months to get basic repairs done on their apartments.

In any case, how much Alcobi knew on Wednesday morning about the condition of his property is sort of a moot point now. It is certain that he knows now, and that he’s given a commitment to fix the problems. I’ll revisit this issue in a future post to let you know how all this turns out.

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2009 02 26
Annals of Rabble Rousing: 2017 Caton Ave versus the landlords (bonus celebrity photo edition)

Some days you just feel like everything has come crashing down on your head. Olisa Holder felt that way on Monday, when a good chunk of her ceiling fell down on top of her, sending her briefly to the hospital. It sounded like freak accident to me, but I couldn’t find anyone in Holder’s building at 2017 Caton Ave in Flatbush, Brooklyn, who was willing to express surprise about it. The building and its sister building, 2023 Caton Ave, have a joint 600 violations (“and counting,” residents like to add) and a whole lot of very angry tenants. After years of fruitless attempts to convince the landlords to take the building and its maintenance seriously, they’ve recently launched a higher profile campaign for real change in their building. I went to the property yesterday to speak with some of the tenants, and then tagged along with them to the Upper East Side, where they protested outside Peter Ashe Real Estate, at 63rd and Lexington Ave. (Asher Alcobi, the President of Peter Ashe Real Estate, co-owns the building, along with Ami Blashkovsky, an agent at Peter Ashe Real Estate, and three others. The property itself has nothing to do with Peter Ashe Real Estate.)

Much more below the fold (including bonus celebrity photos!).

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Howls of outrage (7)

2007 07 31
Caveat Brooks-Reader

Today David Brooks writes:

Edwards would create a million housing vouchers for working families. These would, he argues, ”enable people to vote with their feet to demand safe communities with good schools.” They’d help people move to where the jobs are and foster economic integration.

The problem with his approach is that past efforts at dispersal produced disappointing results. Families who were given the means to move from poor neighborhoods to middle-class areas did not see incomes rise. Girls in those families did a little better, but boys did worse. They quickly formed subcultures in the new communities that replicated patterns of the old ones. Male criminality rose, but test scores did not.

I wonder which studies he submitted to the NYT fact-checkers to support this claim? Here’s what I’ve read:

This has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) through its Moving To Opportunity (MTO) experiment, in which it was found that residents moving from poverty-stricken neighborhoods into more affluent areas saw positive health results. The MTO program was an ambitious experiment by HUD, building on the famous Gautreaux litigation and the emerging concept that deconcentrating poverty is the most efficient way to improve the lives of the poor. The Gautreaux families were dispersed throughout the Chicago area and when freed from the harms of concentrated poverty, they were much more likely to be employed, their children did better in school, and they were generally safer. (Myron Orfield, “Segregation and Environmental Justice” (pdf), Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology 147 (2005).

But Brooks tells me otherwise. What ever shall I believe?

UPDATE: Thanks to Aaron in the comments for pointing to this post by Ezra Klein in which Klein praises this Brooks column. Klein points to this set of studies on the Moving to Opportunity program that seems to confirm some of Brooks’s worries. It does appear that the results from Gautreaux were more promising in many ways than were those for MTO. Indeed, MTO was inspired by the successes of Gautreaux, which are listed summarily by Orfield in the quotation I provided in the original post.

The researchers are still unsure, but they suggest that the differences between Gautreaux and MTO may be the result of the fact that Gautreaux was a court-ordered deconcentration of poverty for certain designated families, whereas MTO involved families chosen by random assignment.

In any case, there are three follow-up points I’d like to make.

First, the results of MTO are still good. It’s not that girls do so much better and that boys regress. The finding is “that boys in the experimental group fared no better or worse on measures of risk behavior than their controlgroup counterparts.” And while the experimental groups do not seem to have fared better economically–something that is truly puzzling–all studies point to a general enhancement of mental health for participants. The researchers that Klein cites conclude, “These adult mental health benefits may have important spillover benefits, particularly to children, since children have been found to have more problems in school and more behavior problems when their mothers are experiencing mental health problems.” The moral is that it is not at all clear that the benefits associated with Gautreaux and MTO, especially the mental health benefits, would be inferior tools in the fight against poverty when compared with the face-to-face counseling that Brooks favors. There does not seem to be enough data to compare these, so the results of MTO and the promised results of projects like the Harlem Children’s Zone do not seem capable of making the case for Obama and against Edwards.

Second, Gautreaux and MTO relied on the use of housing vouchers to re-situate participant families, and it is likely that if more sweeping legislation were to be drawn up, it would involve an expansion of the Section 8 housing voucher program. However, a recent case in Maryland County Court may work its way up the judicial ladder–or spawn similar rulings in other states–and undermine the voucher program. Ruling that Montgomery County cannot force a landlord to accept the vouchers, County Circuit Judge Durke G. Thompson wrote “Simply put, the county cannot force the landlord to enter into a contract with the federal government where the landlord is unable to negotiate the terms. That is beyond the scope of the county’s power.” If the conservative courts, especially the Supreme Court, gets ahold of this case, it could be curtains for what Brooks is labeling the Edwards plan.

Lastly, there is something that Edwards has that Obama does not, and that is a freedom from Robert Rubin and the Clinton wing of the Democratic party. Rubin (among others) advised Clinton to shove NAFTA down the throats of Clinton’s base before tackling health care–thereby emptying labor unions’ lobbying coffers even before the fight for universal health care began. There have been reports of Obama’s connections to Rubinomics, including his support for the new centrist Hamilton Project. It is not at all clear whether Obama is willing to use the power of the federal government to invest in poor communities and, even more importantly, move toward a full employment that puts the breaks on trade agreements that undermine poor and middle class American families.

Despite entering the fray of inter-Democratic party politics, Brooks’s line is the standard conservative line: blame the “culture of poverty” that pervades Black communities and impedes economic success. This is why he likes the face-to-face aspect he claims to find in the Obama-preferred Harlem Children’s Zone. But this culture of poverty argument was put decisively to rest by Algernon Austin and Jared Bernstein in response to similar causal arguments forwarded recently by Bill Cosby. Austin and Bernstein write:

Black poverty fell 10.6 percentage points from 1993 to 2000 (from 33.1 to 22.5 percent) to reach its lowest level on record. Black child poverty fell an unprecedented 10.7 percentage points in five years (from 41.9 percent in 1995 to 31.2 percent in 2000).

The “culture of poverty” argument cannot explain these trends. Poor black people did not develop a “culture of success” in 1993 and then abandon it for a “culture of failure” in 2001.

What really happened was that in the 1990s, the job market finally tightened up to the point where less-advantaged workers had a bit of bargaining clout. The full-employment economy offered all comers opportunities conspicuously absent before or since.

Right now, if you want to bet on an economic policy that would support movements toward sustainable full employment–the Clinton boom of the 1990s, while reducing poverty, was generated by the stock market bubble which eventually burst to the detriment of many–then you bet on Edwards. Even without the tools used in Gautreuax and MTO, Edwards’s policy bag includes major economic policy tools that make conservatives like Brooks, and neoliberals like Rubin, shudder. The ills of poverty cannot be successfully fought with location-specific programs such as those favored by conservatives like Brooks. In fact, this is precisely why conservatives like Brooks favor such policies. They want to blame Black culture and take the focus off grander economic causes. Then, when face-to-face counseling for those in poverty fails to eliminate the ills of living in concentrated poverty, they can throw up their hands, having already dispatched the arguments in favor of more radical and sweeping measures.

While I’m still more confident that Edwards is more willing to buck the Clintonite/Rubin anti-populism in favor of moving toward sustainable full employment, there are heartening developments in the Obama camp. So I’m remaining open-minded. Obama is still very much a work in progress. But until he commits fully to rejecting Rubinomics–which means rejecting the austere and ineffective policy menu that Brooks claims to find in Obama’s proposals–I’ll stick with Edwards.

Howls of outrage (5)

2004 06 15
I can’t shut up about the Chafetz review

First I reviewed a book review by Josh Chafetz. Then I couldn’t help getting another dig in. Before the men in white suits come to take me away, just let me make two more points. They are both tucked mercifully below the fold.
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2004 06 15
Footnote on Chafetz on Frank

Yesterday, I wrote about Josh Chafetz’s review of Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter with Kansas?. I just had one remark to add to that post:

If you’re a graduate student (as Chafetz is) and the New York Times offers you a book review, you bloody well take it, regardless of the book, it’s area, or whether that area has anything to do with anything you (supposedly – you’re a graduate student, after all) know about.

At the same time, if you write a book (as Frank did) arguing that many poorer mid-Westerners support a political party that essentially exploits them economically, and attempting to examine the phenomenon, I think you have a right to be angry when the New York Times assigns your book to someone who cheerfully admits in the course of the review that he doesn’t know anything about the economics of your central claim, and instead spends most of the review dilating on the theme of condescension in your book.

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2004 06 14
Chafetz on Frank

Josh Chafetz of Oxblog reviewed Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? in the New York Times Book Review this weekend. I haven’t read Frank’s book, so I’ll remain agnostic on it, but it’s still possible to make a remark or two about the review itself.
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Howls of outrage (2)

2003 12 23
[Kaus on economic inequality]

Mickey Kaus writes:

Economic inequality’s clearly growing, because the rich are rapidly getting richer. What I resist is the idea that the average worker is getting poorer in absolute terms–a notion now pushed by Paul Krugman in The Nation as well as by Uchitelle. Arguing in this fashion that capitalism doesn’t “deliver the goods” is a mug’s game. It’s the one thing capitalism does! The New Left knew that. The Newer, Hack Left seems to have forgotten. Have Krugman and Uchitelle been to Best Buy and seen all the average families buying big-screen TVs? Casual empiricism suggests that the vast majority of citizens are also getting richer, just more slowly–i.e. not enough to stop the rich-poor “gap” from widening. That gap creates lots of profound problems, but the progressive immiseration of the citizenry is not one of them. I suspect honest analysis of the statistics will erase all doubt on this point. …] …

The basic point about absolute gains is surely right (I mean, if you compare present buying power in any social class with past buying power in any social class), however much Kaus usually seems to muck up the details. What are the other problems raised by social inequality? Here are a few:

a) How much of the absolute gains in the worst off are tied to social inequality anyway? Obviously some measure of income inequality creates incentives whose eventual effect is to raise the position of the worst off, or at least most people. That’s not Regeanomics – even Rawls agreed with that much. The problem is that the argument doesn’t tell you how much income inequality is needed to raise the position of the worse off, and at what point it fails to have the right sort of effect. What drives me nuts is people moving uncritically from the (perfectly obvious) point that some degree of income inequality is necessary, to the (often patently stupid) conclusion that their preferred degree of income inequality is justified.

b) Suppose we’re convinced that absolute gains for everyone are connected with a high degree of income inequality. Is that enough to clinch anything? No. We still don’t know if there aren’t other ways altogether of boosting absolute wealth among the worst off, ways which don’t involve some of the more odious aspects of (gross) income inequality.

c) Are we really taking into account the long term effects of a decline in social mobility? What does it say about the long term health of a political culture when it (arguably unnecessarily) trades absolute gains for everyone for a social structure in which a poor child has a far weaker chance of becoming a Senator or a President than a wealthy child? I think that in the long run this is very likely to have extremely corrosive effects, not all of which are easily measurable. But they’re real nonetheless. In other words, just how much is a TV worth, anyway?

Now, none of this is to belittle absolute gains in wealth, when there are absolute gains in wealth. But I think these are some of the concerns that loom largest – or at least ought to – in discussions of wealth distribution. I don’t think it’s fair of Kaus to ding Krugman for failing to say what everyone knows about absolute gains in wealth. (Actually, he seems to say that Krugman claims that people are worse off in absolute terms. I might be wrong, but I don’t remember Krugman ever saying that.) Krugman, at least, knows where the serious questions are, and I’m glad he’s asking them.

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2003 06 28
Affirmative Action

A few thoughts about affirmative action:

I’m glad that the Supreme Court has decided that some form of affirmative action is constitutionally kosher. But before we celebrate a victory for the forces of goodness, we might reflect on how unfortunate it is that so much of the debate about race and inequality in this country focuses on this one issue. Admission to law school, or even to undergraduate programs, takes place very late in the game: by this time in their lives people have already been shaped by all kinds of important social forces.

I worry that the focus on affirmative action in universities takes our attention off the fact that affirmative action is really a sop, a sort of ad hoc device that cannot hope to address the pervasive inequalities we seem to hope it will. For every minority admitted to an elite institution there will be a great many others who are deprived of a proper education in public school, to take only one example. If you were serious about dealing with these broader social inequalities, you might consider a serious measure, such as delinking property taxes and the quality of education children receive. Unless you do this, or something similarly radical, you have little hope of dealing justly with all the other people who never get near an elite institution.

Speaking of elite institutions, I haven’t gone over the case particularly carefully, but my understanding is that Michigan’s undergrad admissions flunked the court’s test because assigning points for race is too much like the quota system that was rejected by the court in Bakke. In contrast, the law school’s admissions policies passed muster with the court because they used the word “holistic” and claimed that race had no specific, uniform, policy-wide, role in the process. Sometimes it influenced the admissions panel, the law school told the court, and sometimes it did not.

The main thing to notice here (unless I’m just mistaken about the case) is that the “holistic” approach is far more expensive. As N. Lemann pointed out in his excellent book, The Big Test, most schools rely on standardized testing and point systems for economic reasons. Since I’m not completely sure about the law here, I’ll put this point in the form of a question rather than a claim: Won’t the practical effect of this ruling be to wipe out affirmative action in poorer schools, i.e. the vast majority of schools, while throwing liberals the bone of affirmative action in the view elite institutions which can afford it? Or have I simply misunderstood the issue? Anyone?

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2003 06 27
A letter to Paul Krugman

Too busy to post today, but I did write a quick note to Paul Krugman:

Hello, a quick note from a fan.

You often suggest that Republicans tend to rule in the interests of the rich. I wish this were so, since the rich tend to have many interests in common with the poor, even when they don’t realize it.

I think it’s more accurate to say that the Republican party tends to rule in the short-term interests of the rich. In the long run, of course, the rich are also hurt by policies which harm the environment, or leave the labour market insufficiently educated – even if wealth provides some insulation from these consequences.

It would be even more accurate, alas, to say that the Republican party tends to rule in the short-term interests of the rich, taken one group at a time. Things would be much better if the Republican party stepped back from the fray, and thought about how to maximize the short-term fortunes of the rich as a whole. As it is, satisfying interests groups one at a time may often lead to lower benefits for the rich overall. When a particular group of the rich gets bought off by the administration, it may well have negative consequences for other groups of the rich, which are not compensated for by their own special packages.

Keep up the good work!

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