There is a growing class of people in the City of Memphis. No one likes talking about them but everybody knows they are there. I’ve defined this group as the sub-poor.
For the last eight years I have operated a nonprofit that helps those in need. So I feel I may know a thing or two about this topic.
From the outset I want to distinguish between poor and impoverished. As I have noted in earlier post, being poor is a state of mind while poverty is the inability to state your mind. Let me give you a personal example. My dear father passed away when I was a teenager leaving my mother with three children to raise. Instead of going on welfare my mother took on extra work cleaning office buildings at night. We never had a great deal, but I never felt poor, because I was not. I went to school everyday in clean clothes, there was always food in the refrigerator and our utilities and phone never – and I mean never – were turned off. My mother instilled into us the need to respect three things: the law, her and above all else God. But as I pointed out I serve those who are truly impoverished. These are people who may have lost everything, people due to unforeseen circumstances have fallen on hard times and people who have made a wrong turn and only need a little guidance and support to get them back on the right track. These people give purpose to my life.
These unfortunate souls are not the ones I speak of. I’m speaking of people who have no desire to improve themselves. They relish in their ability to manipulate and deceive. Lying and cheating is a way of life. They are quick to give way to their basic urges and slow to learn from their mistakes. They blame everyone but themselves for their situation. Like clans we are seeing these groups grow into their own subclass. In Memphis this group is predominately several generations African American. You could trace these families from slavery, to sharecropping to the projects and now in and out of our criminal justice system. The sub-poor live within the black market. I recall a conversation with a city official as we discussed the demolition of several dilapidated, crime-ridden projects. The official (and I reframe from using his name because he never agreed to have his comments spread across my blog.) was bewildered by a problem he was encountering. He said, “Reginald these residents are angry with us for tearing down these projects. They keep saying fix them up don’t tear them down.” I was not surprised in the least that he was encountering resistance. The City promised to give these residents vouchers so they could pick where they wanted to live and not have to be crammed together in these housing units. I told him the reason these people don’t want to leave is that they are “hooked-up.” The black market was alive and well in the hood. You want drugs just go to the red house on the corner. You need a pair of Levi jeans all you need to do is go next door. This guy Berry has a living room full of jeans he is selling for five dollars. Where he got these jeans no one knows or cares. What the City was doing was breaking up a well established black market system. The City officials argued that by dispersing these residents it will help them integrate among the rest of the citizens of the City. Let me tell you now for many of these people they assimilate not integrate within a community. The intentions of the City were noble, but this is why I have always argued about the importance of civicness. If many of these neighborhoods were stronger they would have been able to withstand the changing population, but because many of these residents have long since given up and retreated into their own homes they were in no position to deal with the influx of previous residents of public housing. Without the on-the-ground support the streets are being taken over by the sub-poor criminal elements and those who feel comfortable living within such an environment. In fact many who came from these projects but were not directly involved in crime quietly supported this change in their new neighborhoods. A mother who has a minimal wage job can turn to her drug selling son for support. People who would never call on the police for help are pleased by the return of a protective local gang. Those who like to sit on the porch to drink and gamble are happy to see their disapproving next door neighbor move.
In every social class the American Dream offers a way up if you are willing to make certain sacrifices. If you are poor you can become middle class; if you are middle class you can become upper middle class and so on. Each move up the rung mostly requires the act of doing more: more willingness to take chances, more education, more work, or more assimilation. The problem with this system is that for the sub-poor the next rung up is to be poor. In other words they must give up their illegal life style and start over from scratch. From their perspective the question is why? If by selling drugs, stealing, prostituting or engaging in other illegal activities can earn them an income equal or greater than what they would earn though “honest work” why should they conform? For you or I the long term benefits are clear but for this subclass that lack an appreciation for delayed gratification such sacrifices are not desirable.
Most of the sub-poor know our judicial system is broken. It’s overburden and under funded. In the utopian world crime will be nearly eliminated because of the achievement of the 3-Prongs of Criminal Justice: assured capture, assured conviction, and assured appropriate punishment. We are a long way from that ideal world, but we can start. Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons wants to spend more money to increase the number of prosecutors in an effort to loosen the bottle next in bringing criminals to justice. This is all part of the 15 strategies under Operation: Safe Community, an anti-crime initiative that has become the buzz word for fighting crime in Shelby County like Blue Crush has become for Memphis. The truth is that these initiatives will be nothing more than a band aid on a growing socialized criminal element unless we are willing to invest the dollars necessary to make a real change; I for one and willing to make this investment.