I went to school at the University of Chicago – I will soon write a post about that fascinating enterprise. Our campus lies in the great neighborhood of Hyde Park, which is surrounded on three sides by Chicago’s giant Southside ghetto and on the fourth side by Lake Michigan. While in school from 1969 to 1973, I travelled extensively in the ghetto: on foot, on bicycle, on busses, on elevated trains. A few days ago I again traversed the ghetto – this time east to west as I have done many times, driving to Midway Airport on the southwest side of the city.
On this trip, as on all my prior such trips, one thing came to the forefront of my mind: nowhere else in the world, that I have travelled, have things changed less over the intervening 40 years. At least nowhere that is inhabited by humans, nowhere that is urban. (The virtually uninhabited Big Bend country has not changed much, either.)
Compare my hometown, Anderson, Indiana, which I also visited this week. It has gone from 27,000 General Motors workers to zero. It has gone through the closure of the driving force behind the local economy – virtually a total shutdown. And yet Anderson still lives and breathes. It is gradually finding new employers and new residents, and over the long term will likely be fine. It may have been through hard times, but it did not stagnate. Families and friendships remain intact.
Or compare the various cities in Mexico where I try to spend a week each year. These cities probably had per capita incomes at or below those of the Chicago ghetto in 1969. But today those cities have wealthier citizens than in 1969, better clothed and better educated. The Southside of Chicago, in large part, does not.
Or compare the immigrant communities of Vietnamese boat people in many American cities in 1969 – upon arrival, they were no better off than the residents of the Southside. Today many of their children and grandchildren are in college.
On the other hand, when I drive through the Southside, I see liquor stores, street corner churches, burned out buildings, empty lots, and faces marked with despair or worse. The same as I saw 40 years ago. I see failed schools, the same as 40 years ago. I see broken families, the same as 40 years ago. I see neighbors killing neighbors, the same as 40 years ago. The only difference is that now more and more of the dead are children, something that was less common 40 years ago. But as tragic as the deaths are, it is the death of hope that is most tragic: it affects tens of thousands of people, and all their descendants.
I cannot accept that this lack of progress is because these people are poor, because they are Chicagoans, because they are African-Americans. None of those suggestions makes logical sense to me.
This situation is not unique to Chicago – check out Detroit, parts of New York and Philly, and many other cities.
But no matter what the cause – or cure – this collapse of important neighborhoods in our great cities, and the fact they are not getting back up on their feet – is one of the great tragedies of our time and of our nation.
As politically incorrect as it might sound, my own observations and comparisons lead me to believe that the real culprit in all this is misguided sympathy. It is people trying to give handouts to people who are less well off, handouts that do nothing to change the situation. The same people have been running government funded and operated schools on the Southside for many years, and while there may be small signs of progress, any progress is not fast enough and does not affect enough people.
In the 1950s and 1960s highly educated urban planners determined that the rickety slums were not good for people, that residents would be better off in newly built public housing. Virtually all of these have now been torn down, as they ended up being worse, and even more crime infested, than the dwellings of the past.
Feeling sorry for the residents of the ghetto appears to me to not only have done no good for them, it appears to me it has made things worse.
On a broader scale, look at the billions of dollars invested by the so-called “first world” in helping Africa. Smart people with lots of degrees came up with all the ideas. Big foundations and governments funded them. None of this made much difference. (See the excellent book, White Man’s Burden by William Easterly. The opening pages alone are worth the price of the book.)
Look at the one group in the United States that has perpetually been under the care of the government – Native Americans. Their communities, their schools, even their businesses have been operated under the auspices of bureaucrats. And yet they have probably shared less in the American dream than any other group. We took their land away from them 200 years ago, then we piled insult upon injury by trying to manage their lives for them. Now the main thing we “give” them is the right to operate casinos. What could be sadder?
On the other hand, all those boat people and other immigrants to the US from around the globe, all those poor people in Mexico – or Southeast Asia or Estonia or South Korea – have gotten at least a piece of the economic rise in America and the world.
I realize there are no easy answers. And that we have dug a deep ditch. My only goal is to see these folks get a better shake in life’s deal. But I must be wary of any kinds of handouts or help or “welfare” if it only leads to things getting worse, or even things staying just the same. The loss of hope is the worst fate of all.
It is time leaders and voters begin to focus on truly doing good rather than trying and hoping to do good, and as a result doing lasting harm. Doing away with laws which prevent the construction of affordable housing, doing away with rent controls, and opening up the school system to competition and innovation would seem to be great places to start. Less top-down planning and more entrepreneurial thinking.