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Published on: April 5, 2011
Life Beyond Blue: Faith and the Inner City

There are two big mistakes most Americans make about our inner city problems:  we believe that the troubles of the inner city are mostly about race, and we believe that they can be solved without God. The failure of the blue social model to solve the problems of the underclass in America’s inner cities was […]

There are two big mistakes most Americans make about our inner city problems:  we believe that the troubles of the inner city are mostly about race, and we believe that they can be solved without God.

The failure of the blue social model to solve the problems of the underclass in America’s inner cities was one of the great tragedies of the last thirty years.  Hundreds of billions of dollars were spent; tens of millions of lives remained blighted, and a culture of violence, degradation and despair has taken hold among some of our society’s most vulnerable and needy people.  Generations of children are growing up in gangs; our scarce financial resources are being consumed by a grotesquely overbuilt prison system; whole segments of our population are unable to cope with even the simplest demands of modern life.

It is not that a generation of anti-poverty spending and affirmative action did not have some good results.  The United States now has a larger, stronger, better educated and better off Black middle class than ever before.  Many of these better off Blacks are leaving the inner city,  just as whites in past decades fled the high taxes, high costs and high crime of the city for better schools, better homes and lower taxes elsewhere.  America needed to do something to address the consequences of slavery, segregation and discrimination; what we did wasn’t always enough and some of it misfired — but I am proud that we tried, and proud of the progress, however incomplete, that this country has made toward the goal of a truly race-blind society.

There are some who blame all these problems on the culture of welfare and entitlements.  Those can cause problems, but the tragedy of inner city social meltdown is not just an American problem and we can’t just look at American history and policy to understand what is going on.  In Mexico, South Africa, Russia, Brazil and many other countries the mix of large cities and rootless young people without the academic or personal skills needed for success creates a dangerous social stew.  Introduce the illegal drugs business into those settings, and you get the too familiar mix of gang warfare, drug addled youth and organized crime bosses who make Al Capone look like Little Lord Fauntleroy.

Mugshot of Al Capone (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

If we look at the situation globally, it becomes clear that this is not simply an American problem.  It is a problem in the Arab world and in Latin America.  Increasingly, there are signs that some immigrant communities in Europe are headed in this direction.  It is a problem in sub-Saharan Africa.  Thuggish neo-Nazi youth groups in some Russian cities are showing signs of this kind of social and moral breakdown.  In the Philippines and Indonesia there are alarming signs of a growing underclass in large cities.

Restless, violent and poor urban communities have been with us for a long time.  What often seems to happen is that poor people migrate to the cities in hopes of more exciting and rewarding lives.  Historically, some of the migrants “made it” to find good jobs and new lives — like Dick Whittington, the boy who, legend tells us, ran away to London in the middle ages and ended up becoming Lord Mayor.

But many of those migrants found sadder fates; cities were not very healthy places, and the combination of poor sanitation and sewer facilities, bad diet and poorly preserved foods, poverty and violence meant that many cities had to constantly draw on the countryside to keep their populations up.  In the last 150 years, the flow to the cities increased with the mechanization of agriculture and improvements in transportation — and developments in public health meant that more of those migrants lived and had children, even if they failed to find the kind of upward mobility they hoped for.

What this means, not only in the United States, but in cities around the world, is that we now have something new: vast urban conglomerations whose populations include second, third and even fourth generations of people who know nothing but the city — and lack the opportunity and ability to earn their way out of the slums through normal, legal channels.  Most first generation migrants to the city have strong family structures and work ethics shaped by the hardworking rural communities from which they come; their children and grandchildren grow up in the cities.  Often, these successor generations lose the discipline and structure their parents and grandparents brought from the countryside and at the same time they fail to acquire the skills and the habits that make for success in the city.  It is these people who form the heart of what Marx called the lumpenproletariat, urban people who live disorganized lives in a criminal or semi-criminal environment.

Today in the US and even more elsewhere, this lumpenproletariat is a serious social problem.  The wasted urban landscapes of this increasingly globalized phenomenon offer some of the saddest sights in the long history of human misery.  Drug addicted young women desperately sell their bodies in the age of HIV; their unwanted, uncared for children grow up as best they can.  These inner city infernos are more than a tragedy and more than a nuisance; increasingly in the United States and abroad they are a danger.  Drug lords and terrorists have many interests in common and in more than one place they are merging; the vast flow of illegal funds fuels a global trade in weapons, a global corruption of the police and border guards, and facilitates the smuggling of money, people and goods on an immense scale.

The links between the drug trade, the gang culture of the urban underworld and violent religious extremism are troubling and deep.  The revenues of the central Asian heroin trade have fueled terrorist movements from Pakistan and India into Russia and beyond.  The radical religious figures who from time to time have tried to build a base in American prisons and inner cities have already created “home grown” jihadis in a handful of cases.  The social conditions of the inner cities create cohorts of young people vulnerable to the message of radical religious groups; the gang culture trains them in violence.  Around the world these angry, alienated and violent groups — often found among socially marginalized minority communities — represent one of the gravest social dangers and vulnerabilities we face.

There is not much energy in the United States today to take on the problems of the inner city.  That is understandable; the ghetto has been the graveyard of good intentions of the last generation.  Billions were spent, and things just got worse.  With Blacks abandoning these urban wastelands for the suburbs and the south, it’s easy to see why so many of us would rather build new prisons, murmur the Serenity Prayer and accept those things we cannot change.

This would be a mistake.  Morally, whatever we feel about the violent gangs, neglectful parents and drug dealers, the vulnerable children in these cities have a just claim on our compassion.  And the danger that alienated young people could drift into terrorist activity, while it should not be overblown, is real.

There are things that government can do and some policies — like improvements in police methods — have made things better.  Promoting an economic recovery to increase employment opportunities for marginal workers in the US — and policing the border to prevent illegal immigrants from competing for the new jobs — will help.  Developing alternatives in the criminal justice system so that fewer non-violent offenders serve long sentences in prison and using vouchers and charter schools and other methods to broaden educational opportunity would help.

But technocratic fixes and government policy however wise and inspired cannot fix everything that is broken in the inner cities of the United States and abroad.  Drug addiction, cycles of violence and abuse, the prevalence and attraction of street gangs and the appeal of religious extremism are not the kinds of things that bureaucrats can do much about.

Many (not all, I hasten to say) of the most vexing and persistent problems of the poor are human problems first and foremost.  I don’t say this to blame the poor for their own poverty; it is easy to see how social conditions, poor employment prospects and external pathologies contribute to the creation of a generation of young men who aren’t ready for the responsibilities of fatherhood.  It is easy to see how growing up in an environment in which two parent families are rare could make young women think that having children outside of wedlock is just the way things work.  It is easy to understand how young single mothers without guidance or role models, without economically useful skills, could be overwhelmed by the emotional and financial stress of single parenthood.  Without strong families, healthy community organizations, and the guidance of role models and caring adults, it is easy to see how children and teenagers can be fooled into thinking that the images generated by our pleasure-seeking and irresponsible commercial entertainment complex define the meaning of life.  I make no claims that if I had grown up in an inner city environment that I would make any better choices than anybody else.

But the hard truth is that unless someone reaches the lost generations in our inner city with powerful, life transforming messages, the dysfunctional cycles of violence, poverty and destruction will continue.  The people in our cities need the power to change their lives — and that kind of power, for most of the people most of the time in history, comes through transformational encounters with the power and the presence of God.  That, historically, is also where we have to look for many of the individuals who are ready to dedicate themselves to the lives of difficult service that our inner cities demand.

If we cannot bring the power of faith to bear on our suffering cities, we will not help most of their inhabitants become the effective parents, breadwinners and citizens we need.  I do not say we will get nothing done without faith — but without the kind of transformational power that has historically helped Americans face challenge and change we are unlikely to make substantial inroads on the psychological and personal devastation in our wasted urban landscapes anytime soon.

In a society like ours, where church and state are separate, there are limits to the government’s ability to address spiritual ills.  I am glad those limits exist; I am glad that church and state are separate in this country.  But the very fact that our government must restrict itself to non-religious programs and activities means that many of the most important factors affecting the health of our society ultimately rest outside government and what it can do.

The spiritual poverty of the generations of young people growing up in a drug and violence saturated anarchy is one of those problems that government just can’t solve.

I’ve been spending a lot of time with an old friend lately: the Reverend Eugene Rivers of the Asuza Street Church up in Boston.  I’ve known Gene since we were both taking classes at Yale back when mammoths ruled the earth and Richard Nixon was in the White House.  Gene was studying European intellectual history while looking for ways to minister to lost inner city youth; I was moping about the intellectual decline of liberalism and trying to figure out what if anything the Bible had to say to the Baby Boom.

Reverend Eugene Rivers

Since then we’ve continued on our trajectories; Gene reading and organizing, me mostly moping and writing.  We’ve kept in touch because we share some core beliefs and concerns.  While neither one of us would hold ourselves up as an ‘achieved saint’ or the perfect role model for American youth, we both think that God lives.  Neither one of us is unsympathetic to many of the concerns of “modernist” theology and we don’t live in a cave into which word of modern hermeneutical and critical scholarship has never filtered, but we both think — and feel — that the God of Abraham can still be seen in that burning bush, that the One who spoke to Moses, the prophets and the apostles still speaks today.

What I’ve learned from Gene lately is a new appreciation of the importance of the Black church in the redemption of the inner city.  Specifically, I’ve been learning about the importance of the Pentecostal churches.  Historically, the Pentecostal churches in the United States as elsewhere are strongly rooted among the poor.  In the favelas of Brazil, the “informal settlements” of South Africa and in the squalid slums surrounding emerging megacities like Nairobi and Lagos, as well as in America’s inner cities, Pentecostal churches, many in storefronts, are often the most active, the fastest growing, and the most connected to the aspirations and the needs of the communities they serve.

If we are serious about changing lives in the inner cities, we need to think about strengthening the capacity of these churches.  (In highlighting Pentecostal churches I don’t want to scant good work done by other churches and by non-Christian groups including mosques, but in the US as in many other countries the Pentecostals stand out.)

The pastors and lay leaders of these churches know their neighborhoods and have an ability to reach those in need in ways that government bureaucrats can’t.  They can reach out to the children of prisoners and to others whose families have largely dissolved; they can reach addicts and they can find ways to bring community pressures against the drug sellers.

In the United States today we have wealthy congregations which can’t find missions that fully engage the talents and resources and abilities of their members — and we have poor congregations surrounded and even overwhelmed by needs they don’t have the resources to meet.  This is not just about money; it is about leadership, experience and know-how.

Hundreds and thousands of American churches have developed international mission programs to address poverty and acute social needs abroad while witnessing to the power of faith.  Can’t we do more here at home?

Teams of volunteer professionals could help public school teachers set up charter schools in partnership with churches that combine education, after school programs and mentoring for at-risk children.  Others could support efforts to organize day care, senior care and other programs that serve the needy in ways that combine public support, private philanthropy and volunteer energy.  Suburban congregations (including synagogues and mosques) could form congregation-to-congregation partnerships with inner city churches and mosques.

None of this will solve all our inner city problems completely.  But whether you are a diehard Great Society blue social model enthusiast or you are a penny-pinching, welfare-hating red state libertarian, you probably know that the problems of the inner city cannot be solved by civil servants and government programs alone.  Finding ways to bring the talents and resources of America’s faith communities to bear on the problems of the neediest among us is something that both left and right should support.

Evangelical preacher Rick Warren says that he doesn’t want to be known as right wing or left wing; he wants to be the whole bird.  Whether that’s a realistic aspiration for Rick I leave for others to decide, but the problem of our underclass is a problem that ought to concern both wings.  It’s just possible that if more of us spent more time like Gene Rivers with the poorest and neediest among us, we might find it easier to keep our political arguments from being so hot and so ill-tempered — and life in the United States might just improve.

show comments
  • Old Whig

    The problem with “the lost” urban youth is easily addressed. Stop the Drug Prohibition and the War on Drugs i.e. legalize personal use.

    We know from an empirical fact that prohibition increases organized crime, gang warfare and the recruitment of urban young into criminal activities.

    Had it not been for the utterly mistaken Prohibition 1919 we wouldn’t today have problems in the US with organized crime, the Mafia was created by it and solely by it.

    The violent drug gangs in the Arab world, afgamistan and Latin America are caused by the US Drug on Wars and as a consequence a high demand for illegal drugs.

    For those that think it would cause a lost generation of drug addicts, not so. We have an empirical study done in Portugal. Portugal had Europes largest drug problem, especially heavy drugs. They had no choice but to decriminalize. It has been a huge success, less drug use among the young withno spike in use, crime is way down etc.

    So adressing one moralistic legislations failure, The War on Drugs, with a moral solution seems like an oxymoron. We need less moral legislation and less moral solutions.

  • John Barker

    According to Arne Duncan,80% of American schools will soon fail to meet the standards of No Child Left Behind; many of them will be in the fourth or fifth year of inadequate progress. Most of the deficient schools serve minorithy populations whose needs and problems are those of the inner city. These schools and their staffs are vulnerable to closure and unemployment. No Child Left Behind has made teaching minority children a high risk occupation. The national standards being developed will make school success even more difficult without offering any proven way of educating youth at high risk for school failure. Who will teach the children now?

  • Merina Smith

    You’re my favorite columnist–sensible, compassionate and wise. I agree with all of this and feel the need to find a way support inner city churches. I wish there were some sort of coordinating organization to effectively channel time and money to this worthy cause. When you find one, please write about it.

  • Richard Aubrey

    Saw a note elsewhere from a guy who does maintenance in public housing. A woman wanted to know why her furnace kept going on and off.
    He had a tough time explaining the function of the thermostat and she was getting upset, thinking something was being taken away from her.
    A neighbor commented that hers works fine. It’s on all the time and if the apartment gets too hot, she opens a window.
    It would be hard to imagine someone so ignorant as an adult, but we’ve managed to create such unfortunates by virtue of infantilizing them, on the way to building blocs of dem voters.

  • Michael Geer

    The problem is Money Is Their God, and their god has failed to deliver them. Money isn’t the answer. Money is one of the most, if not the most corrosive elements Man has ever encountered. Money cannot repair defects in education, character or morality. It exacerbates the defect until it self destructs.

  • Russ

    Nicely written Prof. Meade. You probably mope less than I do, too. :)

    One aspect that’s effective about churches is not only that they carry a powerful message into places where such messages are sorely required. They also organize people. And given that the primary failure of the Blue Model hasn’t been the aspirations (that everybody should get a chance, even if they’re dealt a poor hand in the beginning), but the utter failure of technocracy to achieve those aspirations.

    Church membership, being entirely voluntary, eventually finds the best solutions precisely because it involves little to no bureacracy, and absolutely no coercion. Working-class urbanites live in an environment where coercion is the management tool-of-choice, they’re up to their eyeballs in it, and they’re frankly sick of it.

    Huzzah for the priests, pastors, and ministers.

  • David Justus

    This concept is attractive to me, I like to believe in the transformational power of faith, but is their really any evidence to back up the idea that this approach could deal with urban blight?

    Obviously some individuals are transformed by faith, but some people escape the ghettos or go to London and become mayor. Are their any historical examples of religious revival restoring a decayed urban core? If not, how is this solution any different from the wishful thinking that inspired many of the blue state programs.

  • WigWag

    Professor Mead’s comments about historically black churches and churches hewing to the Pentecostal tradition are fine as far as they go, but the Professor fails to acknowledge the potential downside of the approach he advocates.

    Whether in the United States or elsewhere in the world, there is a strong tradition of conservative religious movements providing social and educational services to the downtrodden and neglected in society. Many of these religious movements focus on faith not only as a route to personal salvation, but also as one of two cornerstones of a healthy society; the other cornerstone is disciplined personal behavior.

    Louis Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam preach the importance of faith, abstinence, and conservative personal values that Professor Mead endorses. In fact, the Nation of Islam is barely distinguishable from the Pentecostal churches that Professor Mead promotes, in terms of helping the poor reshape their lives starting from within. Does this mean that the Nation of Islam plays a positive role as opposed to a negative role in American society?

    When Jeremiah Wright is not damning Israel and Jews or blaming the United States for instigating the 9/11 attacks, he spends alot of time professing the personal values that Professor Mead supports to a largely African American congregation. Would Mead praise Reverend Wright?

    Few groups have done more in the Muslim World to provide a social safety net or promote conservative personal values than Hamas or Hezbollah. These groups are popular in great measure because of the free schooling they provide, the affordable health care they make available and the strict code of personal conduct that they advocate. In short, they recommend a code of personal conduct that is not that different from the one that Mead tells us that the Pentecostals endorse. Should we be praising Hamas or Hezbollah?

    As Mead mentions in this interesting essay, the troubles of the inner city are not limited to the United States. As many European nations have experienced an influx of Muslim immigrants from Turkey, Morocco, other places in North Africa and South Asia, the problems of inner city American are now being recapitulated in the welfare states of Western Europe. The one group doing more than any other to advocate the personal code of conduct that Mead believes lies at the center self-improvement and upward mobility is the Muslim Brotherhood. Does Mead believe that the Muslim Brotherhood is the solution to Europe’s problems with its Muslim immigrants?

    In suggesting one element of a solution to the crisis of inner city America, Mead says,

    “Teams of volunteer professionals could help public school teachers set up charter schools in partnership with churches that combine education, after school programs and mentoring for at-risk children.”

    If we encourage Pentecostals or other conservative Christians to set up religiously oriented charter schools or private schools, don’t we have to encourage Muslims to set up charter or private madrassas?

    I am sure that Professor Mead is aware that government subsidies for religious oriented schools are ubiquitous in Western Europe (where there is no First Amendment to limit the interactions of Church and State). In the Netherlands, for example, Christian schools have a long history of providing education even to Dutch students whose families are secular. With the advent of Muslim immigration to Holland, Muslims were afforded the opportunity to set up their own religiously oriented schools. After all, what choice did the Dutch Government have? It couldn’t subsidize Christian schools without being willing to subsidize Islamic schools.

    The result of this same experiment that Mead now suggests we import to the United States was described eloquently by Ayaan Hirsi Ali in ber marvelous book, “Infidel.” Hirsi Ali documents how schools that promote conservative social values amongst Muslims in the Netherlands have actually promoted more racial and religious segregation, have hampered integration and have actually made the problems typically associated with poor, inner city populations worse not better.

    When Hirsi Ali was a member of the Dutch legislature, she actually tried to rescind the provision in the Dutch constitution permitting the government to subsidize religious education. The reason she did this was simple; experience proved that it made the social maladies of the inner city lumpenproletariat” in the Netherlands much worse, not much better. This harmed all of Dutch society.

    It’s not that Professor Mead doesn’t make some good points. I just think that he should be careful what he wishes for.

    After all, it might come true.

  • http://radical-moderation.blogspot.com/ TheRadicalModerate

    Two major comments:

    First, there will be a natural point for intervention in inner city neighborhoods in the US, because US cities are undergoing a re-gentrification that will expel the poor from the inner city into suburban slums, similar to the structure of European cities. I’m not fond of the idea of performing social engineering willy-nilly, but I’d guess that the data collected from Katrina, which also expelled an entire inner city and sprinkled it around at lower density, ought to be instructive.

    Second, your argument seems to be that the institutions of faith, rather than faith itself, are the mechanism by which these neighborhoods can be strengthened. I don’t buy that–seems to me that the only people you can reach that way are the ones that have already drunk the Kool-Aid, and they’re typically not the problem.

    The only way that religion transforms a neighborhood is if the residents practice the mental hygiene the religion. As an atheist-leaning agnostic, I was nonetheless brought up with Calvinist/Enlightenment mores, and so I’m a reasonably functional member of society (at least on most days). If those mores can be retroactively instilled through faith, good. But it’s important to distinguish between the benefits of faith, religious practice, and religious institutions.

    Maybe those without good ethical habits are highly susceptible to the acquisition of faith, and that acquisition naturally leads to good habits. If that’s the case, then I agree that institutional evangelism can make a big difference.

    But I’d want a Plan B in case that turns out not to be true. We know that humans naturally want to believe in something larger than themselves. Unfortunately, Government is a popular surrogate for those that can’t quite make it over the threshold for God. I think you’ll agree that that’s a particularly lousy Plan B. I don’t know what Plan C is, but it’d be nice to have one that had a reasonable chance of working.

  • Sardondi

    “The failure of the blue social model…was one of the great tragedies of the last thirty years.”

    Only 30? “More like 50 – at least as far back as LBJ’s “Great Society” of 1964, et seq.

  • Jim.

    Mead is simply amazing.

    If there is anything like a fault here — and the same observation can be made of God and Gold — it is that he doesn’t draw enough specific connections between Christian practices and ethics and real-world outcomes that have shaped our nation’s history for the better.

    They’re there for the finding, and these days Christians can use eloquent speakers who can set that truth before a scornful culture. God’s servants have done that throughout the past, and our generation has the same sort of need.

  • kitman3

    here is the real problem
    America, read the facts outlined below, it is our history and may be our future.
    The Ten poorest cities and percentage of population below the poverty level:
    1. Detroit , MI 32.5%
    2. Buffalo , NY 29.9%
    3. Cincinnati , OH 27.8%
    4. Cleveland , OH 27.0%
    5. Miami , FL 26.9%
    6. St. Louis , MO 26.8%
    7. Chicago, Ill. 26.4%
    8. Milwaukee , WI 26.2%
    9. Philadelphia , PA 25.1%
    10. Newark , NJ 24.2%
    U.S. Census Bureau, 2010
    What do the top ten cities (over 250,000) with the highest poverty rate all have in common? THE DEMOCRAT PARTY, HEAVY UNIONISM
    Detroit, MI (1st on the poverty rate list) hasn’t elected a Republican mayor since 1961.
    Buffalo, NY (2nd) hasn’t elected a Republican mayor since 1954.
    Cincinnati , OH (3rd) hasn’t elected a Republican mayor since 1984.
    Cleveland , OH (4th) hasn’t elected a Republican mayor since 1989.
    Miami, FL (5th) has never had a Republican mayor.
    St. Louis , MO (6th) hasn’t elected a Republican mayor since 1949.
    Chicago, Ill (7th) has never had a Republican mayor.
    Milwaukee , WI (8th) hasn’t elected a Republican mayor since 1908.
    Philadelphia , PA (9th) hasn’t elected a Republican mayor since 1952.
    Newark , NJ (10th) hasn’t elected a Republican mayor since 1907.
    Reason: The people in these cities elect Democrats and belong to unions because of their socialistic agendas and it is clear it is not working. Their failure is a burden on us all. Barack Obama is no different, he is and he backs the very things that led to the demise of these cities.
    In the history of our federal government:
    * 5 Representatives have been expelled. All 5 were Democrats.
    * 14 Senators have been expelled. All 14 were Democrats.
    * 21 Representatives censured. 16 Democrats, 5 Republicans.
    * 7 Senators have been censured. 4 were Democrats, 3 were Republican.
    * 2 Presidents have been impeached. Both were Democrats.
    Progressisim = Totalitarianism

  • Bonfire of the Idiocies

    Of course, you are right. Everyone’s perspective changes once they realize this life is not AN end or THE end but simply a means to a larger end, a step along the way. But a very large segment of society, especially its biggest mouths (the media and the “intelligentsia”) is sure that this view is wrong and is opposed (at the top of their lungs) to even considering it, let alone propagating to anyone. The biggest battle will not be with those you are trying to save – the drowning man will grasp at anything, even a sword – but with the culture itself.

  • mac

    Sorry, Mead, but your argument is garbage. The lumpenproles do it to themselves. They WANT things that way. There is plenty of opportunity out there. Most of them just would rather fornicate irresponsibly, use/sell illegal drugs, and commit crimes rather than do something so mundane as go to school, perform adequately, stay out of jail and get a job.

    [rant deleted — ed]

  • http://powerandcontrol.blogspot.com/ M. Simon

    Prohibition Finances the Gangs.

    Prohibition is a Government Program.

    In the medical field the understanding is:

    People take pain relievers to relieve pain. Which is why enforcement, such as it is, has very little effect on demand.

    The NIDA says addiction is a genetic disease (in part):

    Addiction Is A Genetic Disease

    So let me ask you. Can police fix a genetic problem?

  • Floridan

    @kiman3: “Miami, FL (5th) has never had a Republican mayor.”

    Well, Miami’s current mayor, Tomas Regalado, is a registered Republican. Of course the elections are non-partisan, so I guess technically your assertion may be correct.

    Misleading, but correct.

  • Dave

    I grew up in a family with many children. By today’s standards, we were poor as church mice, but our parents insisted that we at least finish high school and find a job. With that encouragement, we’ve all had successful careers and made our own way in the world. I witnessed government intervention at work when a neighbor of ours with even more children, faked a back injury,quit a good paying job,and then claimed a disability he did not have. The family has been on the government dole for many years since – welfare assistance, home has been remodeled by government including new bathroom,siding and roofing, on and on. Today, I only know of one of the surviving children that has made a living without government assistance. You see, they learned how to game the system early on and the knowledge is being passed on to succeeding generations. Just a note, all the characters in this true story are white. I just wanted to say I understand how people, black or white, can become dependent upon government assistance. Unfortunately, I feel that this is a prime example of the results of too much assistance. Look at our inner cities. What a shame to see the destruction of neighborhoods that were once beautiful areas in which to live. Even more of a shame is the destruction of human souls while in the process of “helping” them. All in the name of buying votes, I’m afraid.

  • nadine

    Walter Russell Mead makes many good points about the necessity to transform the old Blue Model with life-transforming messages that preach hard work, delayed gratification, personal responsibility, etc.

    Unfortunately, the only people ready to listen these days are independents and to the right of center. The old Democratic party has been hijacked by the radicals who want a large dependent class of victims because that is their meal ticket. At least until they run out of other people’s money. Which is almost upon us now. But the signal requirement for being a Democrat today is denial of basic economic reality.

  • Tom Holsinger

    I agree with both Mr. Mead and Wig Wag here, to the extent their solutions overlap. I agree with Mead that regeneration of black urban neighborhoods must be spiritual, and with Wig Wag that it must come from within rather than without. The most government can do is remove the government’s own obstacles to such regeneration.

    We’ve tried government assistance here, and the results prove the truth of President Reagan’s comment that the statement, “Hi, I’m from the government and I’m here to help”, are the ten most dangerous words in the English language. It may be, though, that Wig Wag did not expect to agree with Reagan.

  • Dave Henshaw

    It’s amazing to me how uninformed the vast majority of people are.

    In the time of Noah God destroyed all humankind, save Noah’s family because “all men’s thoughts were evil continuously.”

    Today’s lawlessness should be no surprise because we’ve had several thousand years since the time of Noah to sink lower and lower into a state of Godlessness. No amount of social welfare can cure the human heart.

    Not to worry. God will soon bring this period of human history to an end and judge all things righteously .

  • mnemos

    I’d like to feel as optimistic as Prof Mead, but I have some reservations. The principle problem I have relates to:

    “But whether you are a … blue social model enthusiast or you are a … red state libertarian, you probably know that the problems of the inner city cannot be solved by civil servants and government programs alone.”

    Actually blue social model enthusiasts often do believe the problems of the inner city just need more money, civil servants, and government programs, regardless of what common sense and looking at the facts would tell them. And many blue social model enthusiasts believe that faith is the root of all evil. That combination is why so many blues react so violently to suggestions that there are other solutions to teen pregnancy besides abortion. To them it sounds like pushing religion. It is easier to pretend everything is due to racism than to face the idea morality might exist.

    The second problem relates to the first. It is nice to think that the energy that suburban parishes use to help the poor in other countries could be focused on our inner cities, but it doesn’t work like that. An example is the Sisters of Charity in NYC trying to open a homeless shelter and being rejected for not having an elevator (back in the 80s). The same money that could setup, build, and staff a school in a slum in Peru wouldn’t even pay for the first court case raised by the NEA to keep non-union members from helping in the classroom.

    It’s not pleasant, but part of the problems with the inner city aren’t from lack of resources, but from blue model folks who feel they need to be in control and fear the possibility that a less centralized solution might work. It’s not a secret that some of the worst American cities are one-party towns where maintaining control is much more important than solutions.

    I’m not saying that red libertarians are correct either, but they don’t get in the way of inner city solutions so much.

    Regardless… it is easier in Peru since the problem is money and resources. In the USA it is defense of foolish ideologies that are the heart of the problem, which simple money can’t address.

  • teapartydoc

    Like faith without works, works without faith are dead. This was essentially the understanding of the basis of good government in morality and religion understood by the founders of this nation. It was, by the way, also the formula for success of the early Roman republic (read Polybius), and just about every other republic that has flickered like a candle in the wind for the past two thousand years, or so. No one lasts all that long once they have stepped out of the light, and we won’t either. But you know, that just seems to be the way things go. Human nature doesn’t change. THIS is the only true thing about denial of American exceptionalism.

  • Fred Unger

    “he doesn’t want to be known as right wing or left wing; he wants to be the whole bird”

    Classic and wise

  • M. Riordon

    A very long article with lots of abject bull [editorial deletion]- you said it all here: “Without strong families (which thanks to liberals don’t exist)… it is easy to see how children and teenagers can be fooled into thinking that the images generated by our pleasure-seeking and irresponsible commercial entertainment complex define the meaning of life.” Black America has been totally screwed by the Liberal America that claims to protect them.

  • Just wondering?

    Makes me wonder?

    Is the life of an African-American child, being lived out in 21st century Detroit actually better than that same life lived out in 1940’s Detroit?

    Better neighborhoods? 1940’s
    Better schools? 1940’s
    Better family life? 1940’s
    Less alcohol addiction? 1940’s
    Less drug addiction? 1940’s
    Less incarceration? 1940’s

    And on and on and on……

    Yes, their was more segregation and more discrimination, but in real-life terms I wonder
    If you would really call this progress?

    For many millions I think the answer is no!

    I’m not so sure?

  • Sean

    This article just takes for granted that people can always opt for a life of crime. But while the article makes reference to Al Capone, it doesn’t follow thru the obvious conclusion.

    Just as Al Capone was a product of alcohol Prohibition, today’s inner-city gangs are a byproduct of the insane War on Drugs.

    So you want to solve the problem? Legalize it. Problem solved.

  • Anthony

    For me, the crux of WRM’s exposition infers that inequality is societally corrosive – Latin America, Africa, Arabia, America, Russia, etc. Subsumed in inequality is not only material difference but also spritual vacancy which allows crime spikes, terroists, gangs, drugs, and other pathologies of social disadvantage to normalize. I think Adam Smith said “no society can be flourishing and happy of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable”, a condition common to places cited in WRM’s exposition.

    So,fundamentally the human position vis-a-vis this world issue ought to acknowledge the inequality root of ‘social problem’and appreciate that,though physcial space matters, the corrosive effects of inequality transcend geographical limits and impact us all.”To feel much for others and little for ourselves; to restrain our selfishness and excercise our benevolent affections, constitue the perfection of human nature” speaks directly to WRM’s call for transformation via faith and community regarding the crisis impacting many of our inner cities. It appears that the major problem facing the 21st century is the social problem.

  • Luke Lea

    Big cities have always had their lumpenproletariats. You see it in London in the 16th century. See, for instance, Peter Ackroyd’s fine biography of Thomas More which I’ve recently been reading:

    http://www.amazon.com/Life-Thomas-More-Peter-Ackroyd/dp/0385496931/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1302271018&sr=1-1

    The problem is that so many more African-Americans seem to be in this group percentage wise — about seven times the white rate if I am not mistaken. Since this seems to be a constant in every state all across America you have to wonder if faith-based initiatives are really the answer?

    I wonder if small-town rural environments might be a better one. Does anyone know how rural poverty compares to its inner city counterpart? At least out there the land and housing is cheap and you have enough room to raise a garden. There won’t be drug dealers on the corner if you don’t have a corner. Or maybe I am mistaken about this.

    There is also the question of whether African-Americans can make it on their own in an industrial society? Not all of them of course but a very large fraction. I think most of that fraction would do a lot better if, instead of relying on food stamps and Medicaid, they had access to old-fashioned manufacturing jobs.

    But of course we don’t live in an industrial society anymore — thanks in big part to Nafta and Gatt. If we put up tariffs once more we might have a resurgence in manufacturing. If it were centered in rural, small-town America that could be a boon to inner-city blacks — assuming they got assistance (maybe from white church groups?!) to migrate.

    Otherwise, if we dismantle the welfare state (which Walter sees as inevitable) I see no hope for the black urban underclass no matter what else we do. They’re screwed.

  • casual

    Nice thoughts and good intentions, but no sale, Prof. Mead.

    Your proposal to improve the situation amounts to government schools and “public support” in partnership with statist religious organizations and mosques?

    Take another close look at those inner cities. On the south side of Chicago the only institutions which exist are government schools, government offices, churches and mosques. This very “partnership” has been tried and failed spectacularly.

    The government strangles the very activity upon which successful third-world anti-poverty programs are based. Successful third world anti-poverty programs teach individuals skills which they can put to work immediately, like starting a street stand selling crafts or food or building shoe-shine boxes to earn money. In other words, entrepreneurial capitalism. Urban governments in this country shut down any “business” without a license immediately unless they get their cut, upfront in fees and on a continuing basis with taxes.

    The loss of liberty and incentives to succeed resulted in the degradation of morals and religious faith in these urban areas, not the other way around.

    Organized religion may provide the keys to the next world. The key to eliminate poverty in this world is free market capitalism. Console yourself with the knowledge that free-market capitalism is a reflection of mankind’s fundamental free will granted by God.

    Good luck with your partnership, and keep hope alive, because you will need plenty of it when you produce more of the same.

    I say we try something new: free will and capitalism. Get the state (and religion partnered with the state) out of the way.

  • http://watchingtea.wordpress.com Walter Tyler

    WigWag makes a very good point here concerning the potential problems posed by Islam in inner cities.

    I know that most Christian pastors and Jewish rabbis who have grown up in the US have come to an ecumenical understanding – we all worship the same God, just in different ways – and then proceed to apply that same ecumenism to Islam as the third religion of The Book.

    However, Islam is not a religion properly, it is a political movement shrouded in false religious clothing, taking bits of Arab pagan mysticism, Judaism and Christianity and synthesizing them into a wholly man-made theology/polity. And its ultimate goal is not salvation of the soul, but world-wide domination to the exclusion of the great religions. They do not have an ecumenical world-view, though individual imams may pretend to say so when they are in the minority in a particular locale.

    Ministers who are interested in tending to the inner city people must first come to know fully just what Islam is all about, not from talking to “fellow” ministers of the Moslem faith, but from studying the Koran, watching and learning what Moslems do in contrast to what they say, and shed their charitable posture towards Islam.

    If a “Christian” cult leader such as David Koresh were to set up shop in the inner city, would they welcome him with open arms without hesitation, or would they examine his “church” with healthy skepticism before deciding whether to join forces with him to help the poor?

    • Walter Russell Mead

      I posted this comment by Walter Tyler but wish to note that in my view it contains serious errors of fact and is unfortunately phrased.

  • http://theblakelog.wordpress.com/ Blake Edwards

    I couldn’t agree more. Another fine example (with whom I have personal experience and for whom I can vouch):

    http://kidsacrossamerica.org

    I wish we could get every inner city kid in America out to KAA for a summer.

  • Luke Lea

    Ultimately the liberal left will have to choose between equality and diversity. Can you, thoughtful reader, think of many countries that truly have both? A quick glance at Russia (the world’s most diverse country, and increasingly its most unequal, though this is entirely the fault of its proto-fascist elite), the US, Brazil, Japan and Scandinavia suggests an inverse link between the two, and between levels of immigration and the extent to which the state is able or willing to protect its citizens from the caprices of the free market.

    See here: https://mail.google.com/mail/?hl=en&shva=1#drafts/12f37fe9fec5057b

  • Luke Lea

    I notice some of my comments are not getting posted. Are all discussions of (possible) human biodiversity and its challenges to social policy beyond the pale? What about discussions of the (possible) trade-offs between diversity and equality?

    If there are editorial policies in this area it would be nice to know. thanks,

  • Anthony

    After rereading WRM’S exposition, I yet maintain that the problem of the 21st century is a social problem; can global capitalism as presently developed productively absorb lumpenproletariat? There are major class control functions and interests inherent in our 21st century urban dilemma. The inner cities,in many ways, became surplus of a market economy when they no longer represented sources of economic profit. Now, we all must grapple with exponential growth of lumpenproletariat. Solutions require honest analysis and interpretation as to the corolaries caste, class, exploitation, and discrimination found in the interstices of capitalism and progress.

  • http://powerandcontrol.blogspot.com/ M. Simon

    From Pat Buchanan’s American Conservative Magazine: Drugs in Small Town America – A Romance

    http://www.amconmag.com/blog/middle-american-methamphetamine/

    Yeah. Kind of different for Pat.

    This is in response to the commenter above who thought rural America was the answer to the drug problem.

  • Anthony

    After further thought: ….Solutions require honest analysis and interpretation as to corollaries caste, class, exploitation, and ‘domination’ found in interstices of western capitalism and progress.

  • Mike Field

    I have seen some strange, though very persistent ideas expressed here in these comments.

    First of all, there is the idea that the “blue-state”, big government, social services approach to inner city problem goes back 30 years, or 50 years to the Great Society era. Actually, it goes back the 1930s.

    Many conservatives have a special animus toward Lyndon Johnson. Liberals would like to make him into an “un” person. The Lyndon Johnson centennial passed unnoticed at the 2008 Democratic Convention on the night Barack Obama was nominated.

    Actually, it is appropriate the speak of a Lyndon Johnson revolution, so important was what he and his allies in congress did over a span of maybe three years. You start with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and universal higher education. Yes, there were inanities associated with the Great Society, but these were peripheral.

    But the Great Society did end expanding the social services model.

    The second idea is that the problems of the African American underclass and lower middle class can be solved with entrepreneurship on a petty scale. This is almost absurd idea. As far as I can tell, what black workers want is to work for an institutional employer — i.e. government and large, stable businesses.

    Why we can’t make an effort organize the system of our society to adapt to the people we have is something I don’t fully understand. No amount of social services can ever make people who have grown up and lived under disadvantaged conditions identical to people who have lived under antiseptic, middle class conditions all of their lives.

    If you do not open the doors of the employment system to people, as they are, you will never solve the problem of the inner city. Or the rural underclass in America. Or the problems of any other distressed subculture in America.

  • Acksiom

    38 posts on the collapse of the inner city family and not a single mention of fatherhood or how government policies have driven it out.

    Blind spot you could sink a battleship in. . .

    . . .or a nation.

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