Owen Fiss writes with elegance, moral urgency, and conceptual clarity. I agree with his premise–that wealthier Americans owe poor residents of poor ghettos a chance to pursue the American dream, whether because all Americans should have such a chance or because they are in the ghetto partly because the rest of us are not. I mostly agree with his strategy of offering all ghetto residents “an opportunity to leave” backed by real resources of money and appropriate attention. But I do not fully agree, for two reasons.
First, absent a revolution in most Americans’ preferences with regard to the race and class of their neighbors, Fiss’s proposal is politically hopeless. He knows that, and his essay can be read as a “what if” thought experiment. That is a worthwhile exercise, if only because it pushes readers to devise more feasible proposals. Nevertheless, a proposal with no foreseeable chance of enactment does little to benefit the people it so eloquently seeks to help, so it seems appropriate to explore slightly more realistic solutions.
The difficulty of Fiss’s proposal can be illustrated by reactions to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s experiment with the Moving to Opportunity program. In his brief discussion of this small relocation program, Fiss does not point out the enormous political opposition it aroused in communities targeted to receive relocated families. One example: according to the Baltimore Sun,Sen. Barbara Mikulski, an outspoken liberal, “spearheaded a congressional effort to kill [the] program, [which] has become a lightning rod…. Residents and politicians in … Baltimore County have attacked it, saying the program will push crime into their neighborhoods.” Congress eliminated the second year of funding.
HUD was politically inept in Baltimore, but the opposition lies beyond the reach of better political tactics. The idea that all ghetto residents might find a home in middle- or upper-class neighborhoods is almost certainly a nonstarter.
My second reason for demurring is substantive rather than political. Many ghetto residents might prefer to remain in improved communities rather than to move. Fiss (and I) might disagree with their reasons–distaste for integrated living, fear of the unknown, inertia. Or we might endorse reasons such as pride in a black community, historical roots, friendships, love of urban living. But ghetto residents’ reasons for preferring to remain in an improved community are immaterial, because they are none of our business. Part of what it means to pursue the American dream is the right to choose where and how you want to live regardless of whether others approve your choice. (We don’t have movements urging the use of public funds to enable suburbanites to leave their sterile and morally corrupting split-level colonials.) In short, what ghetto residents really deserve is the right either to move or to stay in a community worth staying in.
That line of reasoning suggests a somewhat different use of Fiss’s $100 billion per year. Let us accept his caveats about that figure and cut it in half, or in thirds. So how should we use $30-50 billion a year? I would devote up to half to Fiss’s proposal to give families the opportunity to move out. Gautreaux and MTO show that most such families benefit enormously, as do receiving communities. But still, we cannot immediately extrapolate from those results to “the more the better.” Neither side will benefit if too many families move too quickly into the few communities that will accept them; that would simply split a few large ghettoes into many small ones, which would improve matters but not as much as Fiss intends. Furthermore, Gautreaux and MTO show that families need substantial help in making the transition. It is likely that as we move further into the population of potential movers, we will find more and more families that experience great difficulties in moving and could even disrupt the program for others. So move some people, into as many communities as possible, with extensive services to help movers and receivers make the most of this new chance. Spend, say, $20 billion a year.
What about the other $20 or so billion a year? For both political and substantive reasons, it should be devoted to improving the lives of the majority of ghetto residents who will remain there, at least for a while. I propose to split the funds evenly between jobs and schools. A few millions would take ghetto residents to the jobs that now exist in the suburbs, by dramatically improving public transportation or by providing van service regularly and frequently. The vans could also carry meals, tutors, social service workers; there are many good uses to which a willing, but captive, audience could put an hour or two a day. A few billion should be spent on high quality day-care facilities at the job location, whether within a single large corporation or at a spot near many smaller employers. Here too other amenities should be available–a pediatrician, tutors for parents, social services, and so on. Perhaps some employers could sponsor charter schools on or near their premises, so parents and children could continue to be near each other all day (and, not so incidentally, out of the ghetto).
An additional few billion could be used if necessary for subsidies to private employers (broadly defined to include nonprofits, community service groups, even faith-based charities) to enable them to hire as many ghetto residents as possible. I would allocate as little as possible, albeit as much as necessary, to public service employment. Public service jobs have a terrible reputation among Americans, despite their purported willingness to be generous in paying for “a handup rather than a handout.” And there is in fact a lot of room for waste, corruption, and sloth in a regime of public service jobs. So they should be reserved for the small minority of ghetto residents who are not employable in the (broadly defined, subsidized) private sector.
I would spend the remaining $10 billion a year on schooling. Despite the stunning array of proposed and implemented educational reforms, we really know only one thing about how to improve education for poor children: teach them with middle-class children or likemiddle-class children. Moving ghetto residents to middle-class communities as Fiss proposes takes care of the first route. We need to figure out just what middle-class children get in their schooling in order to follow the second route. Surely knowledgeable teachers, decent buildings, reasonably-sized classes, current textbooks, functioning computers and science labs, good playing fields, an assumption of safety and order are all necessary. Perhaps half of the billions reserved for schools should buy these resources and, more importantly, amply reward the small number of people who know how to sustain and replenish them. In short, I would take seriously educators’ desire to be treated like professionals: give them the resources they need to practice their profession, pay them very well if they do it well, and subject them to at least some of the discipline of the market if they won’t or can’t do the job reasonably well. That is largely how we middle-class readers of Boston Review earn our living and choose our doctors and lawyers; children in ghettos deserve at least as well.
The other educational boost that middle-class children get and poor children in ghettos often lack is the kind of close personal attention that encourages success, halts failure before it goes too far, and opens emotional, cognitive, and vocational doors. I would devote the remaining $5 billion or so of schooling funds to ensuring this attention to each child in a ghetto. The “I Have a Dream Foundation” could be a model. It provides much of what middle-class parents provide–a guarantee of a college education if the child does well in school and frequent attention from an adult who cares for the child, takes him or her to museums and beaches, runs interference when the child gets into trouble, and otherwise looks out for the child’s interests. The IHAD mentor cannot substitute emotionally for a parent, of course. But the combination of personal care directed toward educational success and a school system that has both resources and incentives to promote success will do a lot for ghetto children, even those who lack good parenting. Money is necessary, though not sufficient, to attain these goals.
If Fiss relaxed the caveats on his estimate of $100 billion a year to move ghetto residents into middle-class neighborhoods, I would have no trouble budgeting more than $40 billion. The next items on my list would include physical amenities in the ghettos such as housing and playgrounds (ensuring that both have grass and flowers) and better, not just more, policing. Other readers no doubt can add to, or even substitute items on, this wish list. But my basic point should be clear: ghetto residents deserve the same right as the rest of us to decide among decent options on where to live, and we have a responsibility to contribute the resources they need to do so. Fiss would encourage most or all to move out of the ghetto; I would encourage some to move while enabling others to sample the suburbs eight hours a day or to bring suburban amenities and opportunities into their own neighborhood. Owen Fiss and I do not, however, fundamentally disagree. If only the political debate in our nation revolved around such a relatively minor dispute over implementation!