Scratching By: How Government Creates Poverty as We Know It

By Johnson, Charles | Freeman, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Scratching By: How Government Creates Poverty as We Know It


Johnson, Charles, Freeman


The experience of oppressed people is that the living of one's life is confined and shaped by forces and barriers which are not accidental or occasional and hence avoidable, but are systematically related to each other in such a way as to catch one between and among them and restrict or penalize motion in any direction. It is the experience of being caged in: all avenues, in every direction, are blocked or booby trapped.

-Marilyn Frye, "Oppression," in The Politics of Reality

Governments-local, state, and federal-spend a lot of time wringing their hands about the plight of the urban poor. Look around any government agency and you'll never fail to find some know-it-all with a suit and a nameplate on his desk who has just the right government program to eliminate or ameliorate, or at least contain, the worst aspects of grinding poverty in American cities-especially as experienced by black people, immigrants, people with disabilities, and everyone else marked for the special observation and solicitude of the state bureaucracy. Depending on the bureaucrat's frame of mind, his pet programs might focus on doling out conditional charity to "deserving" poor people, or putting more "at-risk" poor people under the surveillance of social workers and medical experts, or beating up recalcitrant poor people and locking them in cages for several years.

But the one thing that the government and its managerial aid workers will never do is just get out of the way and let poor people do the things that poor people naturally do, and always have done, to scratch by.

Government anti-poverty programs are a classic case of the therapeutic state setting out to treat disorders created by the state itself. Urban poverty as we know it is, in fact, exclusively a creature of state intervention in consensual economic dealings. This claim may seem bold, even to most libertarians. But a lot turns on the phrase "as we know it." Even if absolute laissez faire reigned beginning tomorrow, there would still be peopie in big cities who are living paycheck to paycheck, heavily in debt, homeless, jobless, or otherwise at the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. These conditions may be persistent social problems, and it may be that free people in a free society will still have to come up with voluntary institutions and practices for addressing them. But in the state-regimented market that dominates today, the material predicament that poor people find themselves in-and the arrangements they must make within that predicament-are battered into their familiar shape, as if by an invisible fist, through the diffuse effects of pervasive, interlocking interventions.

Consider the commonplace phenomena of urban poverty. Livelihoods in American inner cities are typically extremely precarious: as Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh writes in Off the Books: "Conditions in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty can change quickly and in ways that can leave families unprepared and without much recourse." Fixed costs of living-rent, food, clothing, and so on-consume most or all of a family's income, with little or no access to credit, savings, or insurance to safeguard them from unexpected disasters.

Dependent on Others

Their poverty often leaves them dependent on other people. It pervades the lives of the employed and the unemployed alike: the jobless fall back on charity or help from family; those who live paycheck to paycheck, with little chance of finding any work elsewhere, depend on the good graces of a select few bosses and brokers. One woman quoted by Venkatesh explained why she continued to work through an exploitative labor shark rather than leaving for a steady job with a well-to-do family: "And what if that family gets rid of me? Where am I going next? see, I can't take that chance, you know. . . . All I got is Johnnie and it took me the longest just to get him on my side."

The daily experience of the urban poor is shaped by geographical concentration in socially and culturally isolated ghetto neighborhoods within the larger city, which have their own characteristic features: housing is concentrated in dilapidated apartments and housing projects, owned by a select few absentee landlords; many abandoned buildings and vacant lots are scattered through the neighborhood, which remain unused for years at a time; the use of outside spaces is affected by large numbers of unemployed or homeless people. …

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