Friday, June 8, 2012

Poverty and segregation: birds of a feather

Posted By on 06.08.12 at 04:01 PM

Ignoring the misery of the poor is easy because of our separateness
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  • Ignoring the misery of the poor is easy because of our separateness
"It’s incredible that we tolerate for a minute the reality of 6 million of us living on food stamps alone," Laura Flanders observed last week in a Nation blog post. (Nationally, the average monthly individual food stamp benefit is $134.) "I suspect it’s because we’re experiencing a new kind of segregation," Flanders wrote. "Somehow, neither policy makers nor opinion makers seem to know enough poor people well enough to feel them, living and breathing."

Flanders is right that segregation is central to our apathy about poverty; it isn't really six million of us subsisting on food stamps. But segregation isn't new, nor is it limited to policy makers and opinion makers. It's a way of life, in Chicago and many big cities. As we showed last year, most of our city's African-Americans still live in 21 community areas whose aggregate population is a stunning 96 percent black. The vast majority of Chicago's high-poverty census tracts are in these areas.

Then there's our public school system. To look at the percentage of white kids in Chicago's public schools—nine—you'd never know that the city is 45 percent white. The racial segregation of our schools is economic segregation as well: 87 percent of the students in the public schools are from low-income families. With such a concentration of poverty in classrooms, trying to solve the schools' problems with a longer day or more rigorous testing is naive.

We're also segregated, racially and economically, where most of us work. And our residential and economic separateness lead quite naturally to segregation when we eat out, and go to movies, plays, concerts, and ball games. White people often don't even notice how pervasive segregation is, since, for the most part, we're not the ones being harmed by it.

Becoming aware of how segregated we are won't by itself change things. But it's a necessary first step.

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