Oh, no, poor people in Cary!

My hometown of Cary, NC (Containment Area for Relocated Yankees) comes in for a lot of criticism for being a bunch of snobby, elite, white people.  Not true!  Okay, not true, at least in my part of Cary, as I’ve written about when discussing my kids’ schools.  But, alas, it looks like some Cary-ites in the wealthier western part of town cannot even stomach lower income folks living near them.  From an Op-Ed in today’s N&O, this is just pathetic:

This week’s decision by the Cary Planning and Zoning Board to recommend that the Town Council deny a rezoning request by Habitat for Humanity of Wake County is disappointing. Through its connections with a local church, Habitat Wake acquired 2 ½ acres of land and planned to build 23 townhomes but needed the land rezoned. Some neighbors complained and Habitat held several community meetings to hear their concerns.

After the meetings, Habitat Wake amended its plans and proposed nine detached single family homes. The neighbors continued to complain about flooding and property values and this week the Planning and Zoning Board made a recommendation to deny Habitat’s request. While the board’s recommendation is not binding, it is a strong recommendation nonetheless. It would be a short-sighted move by the Town Council to deny the request, particularly since their recently approved Cary 2040 Community Plan calls for more affordable housing…

Next, let’s look at the policy. Local zoning laws can either be barriers or aids to development. Zoning laws that restrict where and how housing can be built are especially controversial. As advocates, we often hear local support for affordable housing, as long as it is “not in my backyard”. NIMBYism is difficult for even a respected and conscientious developer like Habitat to overcome. Local governments must take leadership and really examine where their zoning decisions are restricting housing based out of fear rather than health and safety concerns.

Habitat Wake went through a great deal of effort to be responsive to neighbors. It was transparent about the quality of its building methods and how homeowners are chosen. It is the responsibility of the Town Council to honestly weigh factors like bias when considering the zoning request. Kevin Campbell, President/CEO of Habitat Wake commented, “Throughout this process, we have held the legitimate development concerns of the surrounding neighborhood in high regard. We reduced density from our original proposal by 65 percent. We eliminated attached housing units from the proposal based on concerns about compatibility. Twice we adopted plans that were suggested by neighbors only to have that support dropped leading us to the conclusion that there is perhaps an underlying concern about welcoming the future residents to the neighborhood.” [emphasis mine]

As I wrote in my email to Cary’s mayor, let’s not have our town actually live up to the ugly stereotype about us.  Also, of note.  Literally the next street over from mine is Habitat homes.  Good by me, obviously.  It’s just a nice, little, neighborhood with somewhat smaller homes than the rest of the area.  Literally zero problems in 15 years.  But, who knows, maybe it’s been keeping my own property value down because bigots are freaked out by having lower-income people nearby.  Then again, bigots would not be happy in my neighborhood.  Anyway, this is only one side of the story, but it’s a pretty damning side.

The science of self-perpetuating poverty

This essay from Christian Cooper in Nautilus is so, so good.  I’m disappointed I’ve only seen it shared by one person.  Really strikes me as a must-read.  Cooper summarizes a lot of the evidence from epigenetics of how poverty literally changes human biology in negative ways, which, of course, make it that much harder to escape from poverty.  In other words, poverty is like a disease.  And, of course, hits upon so many of the myths of the American dream.  Really good stuff.  A bit:

Now, new evidence is emerging suggesting the changes can go even deeper—to how our bodies assemble themselves, shifting the types of cells that they are made from, and maybe even how our genetic code is expressed, playing with it like a Rubik’s cube thrown into a running washing machine. If this science holds up, it means that poverty is more than just a socioeconomic condition. It is a collection of related symptoms that are preventable, treatable—and even inheritable. In other words, the effects of poverty begin to look very much like the symptoms of a disease…

This science challenges us to re-evaluate a cornerstone of American mythology, and of our social policies for the poor: the bootstrap. The story of the self-made, inspirational individual transcending his or her circumstances by sweat and hard work. A pillar of the framework of meritocracy, where rewards are supposedly justly distributed to those who deserve them most.

What kind of a bootstrap or merit-based game can we be left with if poverty cripples the contestants? Especially if it has intergenerational effects? The uglier converse of the bootstrap hypothesis—that those who fail to transcend their circumstances deserve them—makes even less sense in the face of the grim biology of poverty. When the firing gun goes off, the poor are well behind the start line. Despite my success, I certainly was. [emphases mine]

Why do so few make it out of poverty? I can tell you from experience it is not because some have more merit than others. It is because being poor is a high-risk gamble. The asymmetry of outcomes for the poor is so enormous because it is so expensive to be poor. Imagine losing a job because your phone was cut off, or blowing off an exam because you spent the day in the ER dealing with something that preventative care would have avoided completely. Something as simple as that can spark a spiral of adversity almost impossible to recover from. The reality is that when you’re poor, if you make one mistake, you’re done. Everything becomes a sudden-death gamble.

Now imagine that, on top of that, your brain is wired to multiply the subjective experience of stress by 10. The result is a profound focus on short-term thinking. To those outsiders who, by fortune of birth, have never known the calculus of poverty, the poor seem to make sub-optimal decisions time and time again. But the choices made by the poor are supremely rational choices under the circumstances. Pondering optimal, long-term decisions is a liability when you have 48 hours of food left. Stress takes on a whole new meaning—and try as you might, it’s hard to shake.

The standard American myth of meritocracy misinterprets personal narratives like mine. The accumulated social capital of American institutions—stable transfer of power, rule of law, and entrepreneurship—certainly create economic miracles every day. But these institutions are far more suited to exponentially growing capital where it already exists, rather than creating new capital where society needs it.

Cooper concludes by briefly discussing at least some of the policy implications:

We should leverage the lessons of the science of poverty rather than ignore them. Poverty alleviation programs like conditional cash transfers, for example, reward parents or caregivers with direct payment for taking actions, like ensuring school attendance or arranging for preventative care. They encourage stress alleviation and long-term planning that is far upstream of doing well on an exam—they provide exactly the kind of certainty that the poverty-stricken brain needs. In a paper released in June of 2009, Lia Fernald and Megan Gunnar showed that such programs lowered salivary cortisol levels and reduced lifetime risk for a range of mental and physical disorders.12 There should be more programs like these: For example so-called whole-child policies, which focus on the long-term development of children starting from birth while reducing uncertainty during the first three years of childhood development.

Now, now all of what Cooper relies upon is definitive science at this point, but it is highly suggestive.  And any open-minded, empirically-minded person should be well aware of the psychological and sociological (if not biological) ways in which poverty is clearly self-perpetuating through generations.  It is high past time to take these insights seriously and think more deeply and comprehensively about what public policies can best reduce and mitigate poverty.

One thing I can absolutely tell you– demanding that the poor simply pull themselves up by their bootstraps and pulling away needed social welfare programs as “a hammock” are sure as hell not part of the solution.

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