How Visible is Poverty in the U.S?

written by naehblog
January 8, 2014

Today’s guest blog post was contributed by David Levine. Mr. Levine is works for a human services agency in the Washington, DC area.

This past August a South African couple, Julian and Ena Hewitt, ventured into the impoverished township of Mamelodi to live for a month. They and their two small children took up residence not in a four-star hotel, but in a 10-by-10-foot shack with a tin roof. Their heat came from a paraffin stove and a pit latrine sufficed for a toilet. They had no running water and existed on bucket baths. They lived perilously close to the drunkards brawling outside their shack and the criminals seeking money for their Nyaope hits (a kind of low-grade heroin whose use has reached epidemic proportions in South Africa).

In their blog “Mamelodi For A Month,” it was their empathy and engagement in the lives of the invisible poor that made their journey into Mamelodi poignant. They were keenly aware of the gaps in income that existed between them and the Mamelodi residents. (The Hewitts were not naïve “poverty tourists,” as one commentator suggested.) Rather, they knew that the invisibility of poverty existed throughout their country. Theirs was a journey to bring that invisibility of poverty into the light. As Ena Hewitt noted in the blog, “How do we build stronger bridges rather than higher walls?”

I came to wonder whether their journey has an American counterpart. Does her question hold true in the U.S.? What would an affluent middle-class family find by living for a month in East Baltimore, West Philadelphia, Roxbury, Harlem, or Compton? Doing as the Hewitts had done, such a family would probably find that our impoverished inner-city communities are invisible to the majority of Americans.

My wife and I recently drove through Detroit. Unlike the Hewitts, we didn’t move into one of Detroit’s poor neighborhoods. We didn’t live on the narrowed income of one of its resident households. In other words, we never made the Hewitts’ journey into an impoverished community to live. Instead, we drove along Jefferson Avenue in eastern Detroit, looked around, and stayed inside the safe confines of our car.

As uninspiring as we were—and perhaps a shade cowardly—we still took in what was around us. We saw an imbedded poverty touching dozens of neighborhoods. The poverty was deep and wide. We easily spotted the homeless with their shopping carts. We had avoided looking at this reality for years. We saw enough to make us think that we, in fact, lived in a glass house. 

Boarded-up stores and the shuttered Continental Tire factory shared the street. The few businesses still open —barbecue places, barbers, soft-cloth car washes, and check cashing stores—had bars on their windows and doors. One empty brick building had a hole in its side as though it had been struck by an incoming mortar round.  A few months before we arrived, a crime spree resulting in five homicides in 24 hours had started at a street corner just to the north of us.

Before long we came to the 2.5 million-square-foot Jefferson North Chrysler plant, where Jeep Cherokees are manufactured. It was hulking and clean-lined; it looked like an alien growth in the neighborhood. We could not spot a single pedestrian within range of the plant. Poverty ran up against this hugely profitable plant. Or, looked at differently, the huge profits of this plant stopped at its gates: nothing in its vicinity seemed to have been changed by its presence. Where were the vaunted economic benefits and promises of such industrial development?

We continued driving along Jefferson Avenue and finally reached Grosse Pointe Park. The crossing point into Grosse Pointe Park is as sudden and demarcated as the checkpoint between North and South Korea. We soon drove by multimillion dollar homes set back from Lake St. Clair. Lakeshore Drive meandered past marinas and beachside gazebos and eventually carried us pass the driveway of what was the home of Edsel Ford, one of the scions of the Ford Motor Company.

According to the most recent 2010 US Census, the median household income in the Grosse Pointe Park zip code is estimated to be almost four times higher than that of the neighborhoods along East Jefferson Avenue. Crossing into Gross Pointe Park is where the invisibility of poverty begins. It was easy to forget the poverty that lay behind us on the road. What the Hewitts found in South Africa was the invisibility of poverty, but they made it visible. They gave Mamelodi shape and substance for the majority of South Africans. We can do the same here. We can shine a light on our own poverty and homelessness and make it visible. 

Photo by Bill on Capitol Hill.