September 10, 2005

Column 2005-9-8 Commentary

In his latest column, self-declared conservative David Brooks proposes a massive program of governmental social engineering: the displaced poor of New Orleans, many of whom have lost everything, should be resettled in better-off neighborhoods around the U.S. How Brooks reconciles this proposal with his conservatism is unclear. Not that I'm complaining. Or rather, I am complaining, for several reasons. First of all, I don't think it's overly cynical to wonder about the difficulty of getting better-off communities to accept an influx of poor blacks. I'm also somewhat suspicious of Brooks's motives in moving so rapidly to the question of what is to be done now, and, what is more, addressing the one situation that was probably unavoidable: large numbers of poor refugees. This may well simply be reflexive cynicism on my part, and Brooks's naivete has been well documented, and if this were all this column would be fairly non-objectionable.

However, the column also suffers from Brooks's usual refusal to accept that poverty is not simply a product of societal bad habits. To Brooks, a society falls into poverty because its members get used to dropping out of school, having kids young, and committing crimes. After all, everybody around them is doing it, right? The obvious solution is therefore to move the poor people to richer neighborhoods where nobody drops out of school, becomes teenage parents, or commits crimes: once they see that doing those things is not a good idea, they'll be fine. There is certainly some merit to this argument, but it would be incredibly simple-minded to assume that this argument encapsulates the problem of poverty. The main problem here is that poverty tends to cause these behaviors, rather than vice versa. For instance, many people commit crimes because they are poor and need money. People drop out of school because they are poor and need to work a job instead. This is Brooks's biggest blind spot (which is a very bold statement, as he has no shortage): he sees only cultural explanations for everything and refuses to accept that economics may also play a role. He is incapable of recognizing that one of the reasons past programs along these lines were successful is because not only the cultural but also the economic influences were changed. The poor people were given better housing. Their kids went to better schools. Their new neighborhoods were better protected than their old ones. And all of this has nothing to do with culture and everything to with money (and, partly, race, but let's not get into that now). And this is, really, the most frustrating part of this column. In one way, this is a really good idea. New Orleans is likely to be uninhabitable for months, so most people won't be able to go back anyway, and this proposal would probably help them a lot. But in the bigger picture, this is, in many ways, an abdication of responsibility. After all, even Brooks would have to admit that the entire poor population of the United States cannot be resettled in richer neighborhoods. However, we can attempt to improve their lives by replicating the advantages they would receive in richer neighborhoods -- better schools, better housing, etc. -- where they actually live. That is the real way to defeat poverty, not resettlement programs that depend on a vast natural disaster to give them impetus. In the final analysis, Brooks deserves credit for proposing this idea: sadly, his prejudices make it impossible for him to go beyond it to an actual poverty-fighting program.