Baltimore: A community feeding on its own children…
(CUSA) – A community is the source of our culture. A dysfunctional community is still a source of culture but brings disorder not only to its own citizens but to the broader society. Place matters.
The community has a responsibility and Baltimore has been failing its citizens for a long time. —Ed.
When someone asks you where you are from, you reply with the name of the place you live. You do not reply with a generic, “I live in a large city.” No one lives in a city. No one lives in a town, or a suburb or a village. We all live in a specific place. And that place determines much about us, whether we like it or not.
Where am I from? It’s a place where people tend their gardens, growing vegetables and flowers. It’s a place with many churches, where Saturday mornings are filled with t-ball and soccer games, and where the pharmacist at the drugstore remembers not only your name but your medication. The main street boasts a popular Mexican restaurant owned by two brothers, and a brew pub.
That scene I just described could be in Brooklyn or Boise or Belle Plaine, Iowa. Yet, each place is unique, with its own character and flavor and history. It’s the reason we travel; we wish to learn about a place this is like but unlike our own. Each place should be where people not only live, but flourish.
A place is where people are invested. They create homes, send their kids to school and dance lessons, own businesses, shop locally, plant gardens and cooperate in community enrichment. When one belongs in a place, one becomes a citizen.
With the ruins of Baltimore fresh in our minds, one is left to wonder how people of that place could torch businesses and destroy their home. The answer, I believe, lies in the difference between being a citizen, and being a client.
For too many of the poor in today’s America, life is essentially that of a client. The government cares for their needs: housing, food, education. Spending one’s life as client creates an entitlement mentality: “I am here to receive. I am owed something. I depend on others for my needs and desires.”
In his essay, “Place and Poverty” (from the book, Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America, Encounter Books, 2012), William A. Schambra decries national anti-poverty programs. Not only do they not work, they make things worse. His Georgetown students are outraged at this; we need more programs, not fewer, they believe. Schambra then tells them about Cordelia Taylor.
Mrs. Taylor, in her hometown of Milwaukee, opened a neighborhood-based home for the elderly. With private funds, grants and sweat equity, she purchased several homes, connected them with ramps, and planted gardens.
Then the neighborhood kids started hanging around, drawn in by the ready companionship of their elders. Mrs. Taylor figured, since they were there, the children could use help with homework, and then someone in the neighborhood volunteered to teach the kids martial arts. Taylor noticed many neighboring families trying to stretch their food budgets, so she began to teach classes on gardening and preparing meals.
Mrs. Taylor’s elder-care-homework-club-gardening-tutorial is not a government entitlement program. It is organic and place-driven. It depends on the people in the neighborhood for its very existence, and trying to duplicate it exactly in another place would likely not work. It belongs to the place where it grew.
Our country needs locally “grown and owned” responses to poverty. Again, we look to Baltimore. For a poor child (especially boys) in the United States, Baltimore is the worst place to live if one wishes to escape poverty. According to Emily Badger at the Washington Post:
Every year a poor boy spends growing up in Baltimore … his earnings as an adult fall by 1.5 percent. Add up an entire childhood, and that means a 26-year-old man in Baltimore earns about 28 percent less than he would if he had grown up somewhere in average America. And that’s a whole lot less than the very same child would earn if he had grown up, 50 miles away, in Fairfax County.
Harvard economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren have released a study regarding poverty, children and place. One result of their study is their belief that places act upon the people there, or as Badger puts it,
It’s not simply that successful families chose to live in Fairfax and unsuccessful ones pick Baltimore. Baltimore itself appears to be acting on poor children, constraining their opportunity, molding them over time into the kind of adults who will likely remain deeply poor.
At National Review, Thomas Sowell reflected on the recent violence in Baltimore and the deeply entrenched poverty that seems to be a factor in the rioting. Sowell refuses to blame racism; rather, he looks at personal responsibility, or what could be termed “investment in place.”
You cannot take any people, of any color, and exempt them from the requirements of civilization — including work, behavioral standards, personal responsibility, and all the other basic things that the clever intelligentsia disdain — without ruinous consequences to them and to society at large.
Non-judgmental subsidies of counterproductive lifestyles are treating people as if they were livestock, to be fed and tended by others in a welfare state — and yet expecting them to develop as human beings have developed when facing the challenges of life themselves.
People who are “tended” are not citizens; they are clients. They do not work; they do not enjoy the fruits of their labor. They do not learn behavioral standards; they receive the largesse of the government regardless of their morals and virtues. Personal responsibility for one’s own property and the property of others is not a priority; should something disappear or be destroyed, it will simply be replaced by those who provided it in the first place. This is a tragic way to treat human beings.
Pope Francis has said that poverty disfigures the face of humanity. When people live in an atmosphere of poverty, as a client of big government, they are robbed of dignity and the ability to create their own opportunities. Vincent Boote, of Wheaton College, eloquently states:
More than calling people to responsibility, we have to ask how to empower those who feel powerless and left out, putting the slogans of pundits aside and asking how to love our neighbors by helping them (to use language of Pope Paul VI) become artisans of their own destiny.
To be an artisan and a citizen, one must have both the tools to create and the knowledge of belonging. Anything less is the making of an American tragedy.
Elise Hilton holds a M.A. in world religions. She teaches and speaks on religious education, spirituality and religious liberty issues. She is married, with five children. This article is republished with permission from the Acton Institute.