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July 31, 2007

In Which I Praise David Brooks

His latest column on poverty is quite honest, and quite good. I think he's too focused on the utility of social capital within a neighborhood, rather than social capital into new economic classes and social strata, but that's a fair disagreement. If you want to read, incidentally, a phenomenal article on social capital within neighborhoods and its remarkable potential to alleviate poverty and various inner-city ills, Eyal Press wrote a really interesting piece for The Prospect on exactly that topic:

For several decades, the debate over the myriad problems of America's inner cities has been dominated by two schools of thought: on one side, liberals who have emphasized the structural factors (racism, poverty) at their root; on the other, conservatives who've stressed the behavioral pathologies (out-of-wedlock birth, criminality) they believe are to blame. Yet over the past decade, a new theory has emerged to explain why some areas fare better than others even when their residents face similarly daunting odds. It stresses neither jobs nor personal behavior but something at once more elementary and more difficult to capture: the nature of the social interactions taking place among neighbors, and the degree to which they foster a shared capacity to solve problems and enforce collective norms. These qualities appear to have a powerful effect on everything from the level of violence in a community to the conduct of adolescent youth to the likelihood that a neighborhood will remain poor, which is perhaps why a growing number of scholars and policy-makers are interested in teasing out what exactly fosters such traits.

The first indication of this dynamic came nearly a decade ago, in August 1997, when the journal Science published a seven-page article titled "Neighborhoods and Violent Crime: A Multilevel Study of Collective Efficacy." It reported some findings from one of the largest social-science research experiments ever launched in the United States.

The experiment took place in Chicago, where, in the mid-1990s, surveyors fanned out into 343 "neighborhood clusters" -- geographically contiguous tracts consisting of roughly 8,000 people each -- to interview thousands of residents. One of the elements the surveyors were measuring was the level of "social cohesion and trust" in a community. To gauge this, surveyors asked residents to rank, on a five-point scale, how strongly they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements: "People around here are willing to help their neighbors"; "This is a close-knit neighborhood"; "People in this neighborhood can be trusted." A second set of questions sought to measure "informal social control" -- the capacity of adults in a community to work together to achieve a sense of public order. Here, individuals were asked how likely they thought their neighbors were to intervene in various situations: when a fight broke out; when someone was spray-painting graffiti; when the local fire station was threatened with budget cuts. Researchers supplemented the interviews by crisscrossing the city in vans fitted with video cameras to conduct systematic social observation of street life in various neighborhoods.

The results of the survey were striking. Throughout Chicago, the levels of violence and social disorder were markedly lower in communities where the sense of social cohesion and shared expectations about the willingness to intervene were higher -- qualities that, taken together, constituted something the designers of the experiment called "collective efficacy,"...it appeared to explain why similarly impoverished neighborhoods do not always share the same fate: When researchers compared two neighborhoods with similar levels of concentrated disadvantage (unemployment, percentage of welfare recipients) but different levels of collective efficacy, they found that in the neighborhood where collective efficacy was higher, the odds of being victimized by a crime were 30 percent lower. The chance of being murdered was 40 percent less. The absence of collective efficacy, the study found, correlated even more powerfully with some types of violence than did poverty or race.

Read the whole thing.

July 31, 2007 | Permalink


Ezra, I think you need to push back against Giuliani's latest criticism of universal healthcare.

Posted by: Johnny Edwards | Jul 31, 2007 12:50:59 PM

I suspect Brooks sides with Obama in part because his approach has more natural appeal to conservative principles of personal/local responsibility. And I think Obama's approach also at least gives the appearance of getting more to the root of the problem as Brooks may see it (and you seem to like this line of thought), that basic community problems are more fundamental than poverty. The research you quote here is intended to show this, it seems, though there's nothing there to sort out the causal direction. That is, crime probably contributes to community breakdown, so there needs be further work to see if more "community efficacy" is a causal factor, or one significant enough to want to make a central focus. I think there's a very strong intuitive case that it is, and there are many anecdotes that are also supportive.

I admire Edwards' focus on poverty, and I think he'll be willing to adopt whatever good points Obama has, but this could be an area where Obama happens to have had the right experience to focus on the better approach.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 31, 2007 1:23:32 PM

One of the problems here is that conservatives are reflexively against proposals to encourage city planning in ways that would encourage social cohesion. I don't think there's a conspiratorial reason for it-- it's simply that they associate cohesive environments with cities, who do not vote for them, and their campaigns are closely linked with exurban real estate developers.

Conservatives like to talk "social cohesion," and it's always going to sound nice to conservatives, but Brooks and other Republicans are always going to balk when it comes to supporting/paying for politicies that will help social cohesion and trust. They seem more to view social cohesion in terms of trans-geographic terms like "family" and "[mega]church" not in terms of, "are your neighbors accessible and do you see them regularly?"

Posted by: Tyro | Jul 31, 2007 1:58:36 PM

This summary of the research into both the Moving to Opportunity program and the Gautreaux programs in Chicago suggests that combining mobility programs with other supports is probably the most promising way to go: http://www.law.northwestern.edu/journals/njlsp/v1/n1/5/index.htm

The mobility elements need to really get low-income people into middle-class neighborhoods and schools as opposed to slightly less impoverished ones. Basically, the Edwards approach with a dollop of Obama's supports thrown in has the best chance of making a dent in the problems associated with concentrated poverty.

Posted by: anrig | Jul 31, 2007 2:16:00 PM

Conservatives like to talk "social cohesion," and it's always going to sound nice to conservatives, but Brooks and other Republicans are always going to balk when it comes to supporting/paying for politicies that will help social cohesion and trust. They seem more to view social cohesion in terms of trans-geographic terms like "family" and "[mega]church" not in terms of, "are your neighbors accessible and do you see them regularly?"

I always took the conservative definition of 'social cohesion' to mean conforming to a specific, thoroughly dominant (white Judeo-Christian heteronormative, etc.) culture, not trust and/or commonality between varying cultures. But hey, I'm from the south, which is a region about nothing if not the burdens of cultural identity.

Posted by: latts | Jul 31, 2007 2:42:53 PM

"One of the problems here is that conservatives are reflexively against proposals to encourage city planning in ways that would encourage social cohesion"

Do you really think good city planning can create social cohesion? I'm a little skeptical; having lived in both big cities and sprawling suburbs, I've seen suburban areas that have vastly greater social cohesion then any, well planned, city neighborhood. Then again, this may not be what you're getting at.

All in all, social cohesion seems like something that's very difficult to manufacture. Good city planning can help with some aspects (population density, parks, etc), but I'm not sure it has a big enough impact. Some many other factor are important as well such as community identity, church (or some like social function for us atheists), etc.

Posted by: DM | Jul 31, 2007 2:45:02 PM

Once again, TAPPED blocks my IP addresses, but I wonder whether the linked articles deal with the same topics discussed here.

Posted by: TLB | Jul 31, 2007 2:46:43 PM

Brooks and other Republicans are always going to balk when it comes to supporting/paying for politicies that will help social cohesion and trust

Brooks' own comments about programs he knows will cost money and involve government appear to suggest otherwise.

Basically, the Edwards approach with a dollop of Obama's supports thrown in has the best chance of making a dent in the problems associated with concentrated poverty.

Obama would rightly question this, I think. His idea is to put more emphasis on fixing communities rather than moving people out of them. One of the problems of the mobility approach is that it probably actually has a detrimental effect on the neighborhood from which people move. It can't very well be the primary means of fixing the problems unless entire communities are broken up, and that could only happen with with truly massive programs, which would require as well doing something with with the abandoned communities.

TLB, try using an anonymizer, like this one. If that doesn't work, then you're not blocked; it's something else.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 31, 2007 3:03:11 PM

DM, no, I don't think it's a solution by itself. I, myself, live in a city in a large apartment block, and the first thing I'd answer to any of the survey questions would be "no" to most all of them (i don't really know my neighbors, no one I regard as a friend lives in my specific neighborhood, etc.). It is, however, quite safe where I live, just as it is probably safe from crime in the most poorly planned subdivision.

If we're talking safety and social stability, all you need do is populate an era with a sufficient density of intact, affluent families. If you want to ensure that lower-middle-class and poor-neighborhoods don't collapse into a morass of social problems, however, I think that good planning needs to be a factor, and these are going to include good community spaces and perhaps a bit of heavy-handed zoning and local organizing.

Posted by: Tyro | Jul 31, 2007 3:26:12 PM

Oh, Ezra! And here I thought I was joining your Brooks bashing club. (Scroll down slightly on this link to see your shout-out:


Brooks's article is terrible! He superficially critizes community development before making a weak leap to a murky interpretation of social capital and community organizing as effectively monitoring low-income behavior. It smacks of culture of poverty b.s. I sure hope Obama would know better.

And PS to Sanpete: right on for pointing out the opaque "relationship" b/w community efficacy and crime.

Posted by: Leigh | Jul 31, 2007 3:27:33 PM

Right on to Tyro for the planning shout-outs!

The problem with bringing in a certain "density" of "affluent" families is that this too often can lead to increased property values that drive out the low-income households we're addressing. It is really difficult to genuinely create mixed-income communities, esp. when our preferred model is to attempt it via large scale physical development that relies on the private sector that expects a profit and thus needs a minimum threshhold of middle-class residents to come in. HOPE VI is a CLASSIC example of this, with federal seed funding bringing in massive private investment that destroys more affordable housing than it replaces, and ultimately displaces the majority of the low-income in favor of market-rate renters. Alternatively, neighborhoods remain 80% low-income with little of the change we'd like to see.

Posted by: Leigh | Jul 31, 2007 3:42:12 PM

Leigh, I meant "populate areas with a sufficient density of affluent families" sort of as a trivial solution. No matter what planning method is used, communities full of affluent, stable families will always be low in violent property crimes. Giving the benefit of the doubt to brooks for a moment, he's trying to divine how we return to those old lower-middle class urban neighborhoods that used to be normal, family neighborhoods that people used to want to live in but are now dysfunctional and full of social problems beyond mere lack of money. Assuming the study he quotes is correct, how do we get neighborhoods to "foster a shared capacity to solve problems and enforce collective norms"?

Really, I don't know. There's a combination of things where correlation isn't causation (eg, I'm sure neighborhoods with good social cohesion have their libraries supported and kept open by the local government. On the other hand, this may be because the community is cohesive enough to pressure their government into not closing their libraries when budget cuts loom). Maybe it's encouraging homeownership so that resident have more "skin in the game" and are less easily displaced by rising rents.

I don't have an answer, and as a blog commenter, I realize that I am supposed to have a very strident, though uninformed opinion. I suspect that keeping communities cohesive involves both social stability and local community focal points.

Posted by: Tyro | Jul 31, 2007 4:11:36 PM

Well, there's certainly nothing new about 'collective efficacy'. That's why people form gangs- to protect their turf.

One kind of gang- the church- doesn't seem to do a very good job of protecting turf, if you judge by looking at the neighborhoods you find them in.

So you get into some very basic sociology here where it might be said that the church is an institution, but with equal justice, a church is a gang.

Of course, not all gangs are created equal. Some gangs, like Skull and Bones, have lots and lots of inherited money. Other gangs, like the Black Panthers, have only a breakfast program for poor children. Members of Skull and Bones get appointed President. Members of the Black Panthers were murdered by police.

Naturally it makes a lot of difference whether the police are murdering the members of the community in the streets, or protecting them from "outsiders". The Drug Wars alone can furnish volumes of comment on what happens when a black market is created among people who can't find work in the dominant culture, and white police are subsequently sent in (90% of the enforcement effort) to confront minority residents in their community.

It's not much fun breaking up a fight when one of the fighters is an armed undercover cop who might shoot you- and you don't know which one. On a macro and mini scale, this breeds apathy and corrodes a sense of social efficacy.

All the candidates have good ideas which might work, if the underlying dynamic of racial prejudice,the tilted playing field created by the theft of black people's social capital during the years of slavery and discrimination, and the financial exploitation of Americans by our quasi-monopolistic industries were corrected. As if.

Wot the hell. In 30 years the Hispanics will be the majority and they can hardly do worse at solving these problems than we have.

Posted by: serial catowner | Jul 31, 2007 4:26:15 PM

Wahoo, Serial Catowner! You saved me from invoking the racial and ethnic thread to these conversations that is always left out yet is absolutely central.

Homeownership DEFINITELY makes a difference (which is what makes the tragedy of urban and minority predatory lending in the subprime fiasco so g-dd-mn depressing) in investment in communities. However, as the subprime lending debacle points out, different populations have different access to the resources needed (e.g., homeownership) to invest in stable, vibrant communities. The showdown over eminent domain in the states and courts these days also shows just how some people' private property is considered less valuable than others, esp. for resource-starved cities who must generate revenue to support themselves yet are typically home to greater numbers of lower-income populations or tax exempt institutions in states (Hartford is a great example of this, with over 50% of its land held by tax-exempt institutions, and being one of the poorest municipalities in CT).

The problems I have with discussions of collective efficacy, social (dis)organization, etc., is that there is an implicity white and/or middle-class norm against whom the communities under study are compared. Many scholars and activists know - as serial catowner infers - that gangs demonstrate collective efficacy, and are often seen as a neighborhood institution that brings both crime AND stability to communities (Venkatesh's American Ghetto and Patillo-McCoy Black Picket Fences both demonstrate this).

The problem I have with Brooks's article is how unsophisticated it is in dealing with the persistent challenge of community and human development. Social capital means nothing without political and economic capital. Churches can only feed so many families, gangs can only keep the peace so much, and unless low-income residents have the power to bend the ear of their government and demand better investments in education, housing, public transportation, and safety, then we have nothing to talk about. Community organizing that emphasizes political empowerment helps, as does community building measures that provide child care, health care and other social services to ameliorate the demands of poverty along side education and training programs that can better grab hold and inspire action and self-determination. Physical community development such as housing production, and market-oriented substitutes such as housing vouchers do next to nothing to truly effect political and economic change in low-income communities.

PS: The Urban Institute has some of the better analyses of mobility programs such as MTO and HOPE VI.

Posted by: Leigh | Jul 31, 2007 4:50:07 PM

Leigh, I can't see Brooks' article, but based on the quotes from Ezra it appears Brooks doesn't want to exclude political and economic capital. He says he favors Obama's approach because Obama, though he agrees with Edwards that we need those things, also focuses on the social capital.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 31, 2007 5:00:44 PM

I have to echo serial catowner on this one. It's some profound revelation that communities with strong, cohesive communal structures and relations have fewer problems regardless of median income? Heavens, if only we had known this 40 years ago!

I can also second SC's point about the consistent refusal to address the grim realities of urban poverty vis a vis, race, the war on drugs and the gross abuses of police power it engenders.

Ten years ago the neighborhood I live in was a crack war zone. Gunfire and sirens were the daily soundtrack. I put it down to poverty pure and simple. A year and a half after I moved in, the Feds busted half the cops in the local precinct for corruption and racketeering. Turns out a large percentage of the drug trade and other criminal enterprises were being run out of the precinct house. If you think crime is corrosive to social norms in general, imagine what it's like when there's literally no law at all.

Nor did the insanity spawned by the war on drugs end with this incident. A month ago our Chief of Police sacked the entire undercover Drug squad in the wake of an elderly woman being murdered by members of the squad when they kicked in her door in the middle of the night using a warrant gained by perjury. They even planted drugs in the house after the fact and tried to pressure an informant into backing up their perjury. The cops involved went to prison and the Chief was forced to admit that there was no way he could be certain of rooting out all the dirty cops other than firing the lot.

Wash the blood out, rinse, repeat.

Posted by: WB Reeves | Jul 31, 2007 5:10:01 PM

And I thought to myself "Gee I hope my friend Leigh sees this." You go, girl. :)

All I have to say is thank God Gail Collins is back on the Times op-ed pages - because I think she makes the comparison between Edwards and Obama on much safer ground, and she, too, offers up some reasoned thoughts as to why Obama might be better - but that both have problems with their approaches to poverty that no one, probably, wants to consider.

Posted by: weboy | Jul 31, 2007 6:28:18 PM

Sanpete, try this.

Posted by: weboy | Jul 31, 2007 6:30:03 PM

Hi Weboy!

I was just about to cut and paste the bulk of the article for Sanpete (I skipped the throwaway intro). Brooks writes:

"Obama and Edwards agree on a lot, but in this matter they emphasize different things. As Alec MacGillis of The Washington Post observed, Edwards emphasizes programs that help people escape from concentrated poverty. Obama emphasizes programs that fix inner-city neighborhoods. One helps people find better environments, the other seeks to strengthen the environment they are already in.

Edwards would create a million housing vouchers for working families. These would, he argues, “enable people to vote with their feet to demand safe communities with good schools.” They’d help people move to where the jobs are and foster economic integration.

The problem with his approach is that past efforts at dispersal produced disappointing results. Families who were given the means to move from poor neighborhoods to middle-class areas did not see incomes rise. Girls in those families did a little better, but boys did worse. They quickly formed subcultures in the new communities that replicated patterns of the old ones. Male criminality rose, but test scores did not.

Obama, by contrast, builds his approach around the Harlem Children’s Zone, what he calls “an all-encompassing, all-hands-on-deck anti-poverty effort.” The zone takes an area in Harlem and saturates it with childcare, marriage counseling, charter schools and job counselors and everything else you can think of. Obama says he’ll start by replicating the program in 20 cities around the country.

The problem here is that there are few historical examples of neighborhoods being lifted up at once. There are 4,000 community development corporations around the country and they have not lifted residents out of poverty. The positive influences in the center get overwhelmed by the negative peer influences all around.

The organizations that do appear to work, like the Harlem Children’s Zone (there’s no firm data yet), tend to have charismatic leaders like Geoffrey Canada who are willing to fight teachers’ unions and take on bureaucracies. It’s not clear whether their success is replicable, let alone by the federal government.
What we have, then, is two divergent approaches, both of which have problems and low odds of producing tremendous success. If you find that discouraging, welcome to the world of poverty policy.

If I had to choose between the two, I guess I’d go with the Obama plan. I’d lean that way because Obama seems to have a more developed view of social capital. Edwards offers vouchers, job training and vows to create a million temporary public-sector jobs. Obama agrees, but takes fuller advantage of home visits, parental counseling, mentoring programs and other relationship-building efforts.

The Obama policy provides more face-to-face contact with people who can offer praise or disapproval. Rising out of poverty is difficult — even when there are jobs and good schools. It’s hard to focus on a distant degree or home purchase. But human beings have a strong desire for approval and can accomplish a lot with daily doses of praise and censure. Standards of behavior are contagious that way.

A neighborhood is a moral ecosystem, and Obama, the former community organizer, seems to have a better feel for that. It’s not only policies we’re looking for in selecting a leader, it’s a sense of how the world works. Obama’s plan isn’t a sure-fire cure for poverty, but it does reveal an awareness of the supple forces that can’t be measured and seen."

This article is non-sensical. It goes from presenting two candidate's bundled anti-poverty tactics, to misrepresenting HCZ as a CDC and condemning CDCs in the process, then leaps into social capital and a culture of poverty interpretation of Obama's ideas. He also infers that HCZ's is nothing w/o Geoffrey Canada. So now we're talking about community leadership!

Brooks never once indicates that either candidate cares about political capital. Furthermore, based on this article, we should assume Edwards's ideas are the ones that will result in economic capital for households.

Posted by: Leigh | Jul 31, 2007 6:37:32 PM

I don't see how concentrated poverty can help with social capital. The truth is that if you want better services, less crime etc, poverty wouldn't it make more sense to have mixed economic classes in the same neighborhoods?

Posted by: akaison | Jul 31, 2007 8:53:19 PM

This study is a pretty funny example of confounding cause and effect:

"Throughout Chicago, the levels of violence and social disorder were markedly lower in communities where the sense of social cohesion and shared expectations about the willingness to intervene were higher"

In other words, in neighborhoods where people thought they were less likely to get murdered while intervening to prevent a crime, they were -- surprise! -- less likely to get murdered while intervening to prevent a crime.

Posted by: Steve Sailer | Jul 31, 2007 8:53:37 PM

Thanks weboy and Leigh. Leigh, I think you're taking Brooks the wrong way. He doesn't represent the HCZ as a CDC. He does say CDCs per se don't work, but I'm not sure why you disagree. He endorses other community-based programs. He doesn't interpret Obama's program as a social capital/culture of poverty program; he only points out that it includes more to deal with that kind of thing. I disagree that he implies that Edwards' plan is the one that provides economic capital. He implies otherwise when he says Obama agree with Edwards about such capital but Obama adds more. He may not mention political capital, but I'm not sure that's a prime focus of the plans he discussing, or, if it is, that it's a difference between them, which is what he's focused on. You ought to be happy about this much: he's favorably disposed to the goals of both candidates and speaks quite well of Obama's plan in particular. Not a bad thing.

The truth is that if you want better services, less crime etc, poverty wouldn't it make more sense to have mixed economic classes in the same neighborhoods?

It might, akaison, but what's the best way to achieve that? There are a lot of people who already live in poor neighborhoods.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 31, 2007 9:35:56 PM

As someone who studies community development and urban politics in depth, this article does not make me "happy" in any way. But thanks for trying, Sanpete!

Posted by: Leigh | Aug 1, 2007 1:43:39 AM

It may seem like I'm splitting hairs, but for me, this article is totally sloppy. That's what I'm trying to say.

Posted by: Leigh | Aug 1, 2007 1:45:12 AM

The Clinton/Obama proposals talk about empowering people, but actually put the real power in the hands of the agencies.

The actual person who needs help goes from agency to agency. They are offered counseling, provided with pamphlets, and referred to other agencies. It is very rare in this scheme for anybody working for the agency to actually have any responsibility for making good things happen. In fact, usually the politicians and agency heads are quite content if they simply avoid huge public disasters.

Having done some of this hat-in-hand trekking from door to door on behalf of a disabled client, I tend to see these systems as worse than nothing. Legislators pass the enabling acts and then, in a separate bill, do not provide the funding. They feel like they did their job. The public gets told about all the "help" that is available and decides the public has done their share. Agency workers realize that with their job qualifications- which are usually about zero- they've got the best job ever, and the whole thing turns into a patronage setup that makes the Boilermakers hiring hall look like a Baptist Sunday School by comparison.

All of this is milk and honey to the political 'leaders'. They have a workforce that doesn't complain, clients resigned to a life of eternal poverty, the best publicity for the least funding, and no real challenge at all to their major campaign donors. What's not to like?

So, my guess is that we will continue down this primrose path until our falling standard of living causes some major discontent that leads to real changes.

Posted by: serial catowner | Aug 1, 2007 8:49:55 AM

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