According to a story by Plain Dealer writer Rich Exner, Cleveland’s nearly 34% poverty rate is triple that for the rest of Cuyahoga County at 11.6%. The data, pulled from the Census Bureau’s 2011 American Community Survey estimates, is a grim reminder of the difference residence makes when it comes to opportunities.
Sociologically speaking, accesses to opportunities are not simply a matter of “choice”. Rather, “choice” is constrained by factors beyond an individual’s control. The interplay of individual choice and structural constraints became clearly evident during the Great Depression when it became recognized that to be a hard working person was not enough when there were no jobs.
What are structural constraints? These refer to the social institutions that help organize social life and ensure the ability to complete tasks necessary for a society – and its members – to survive. However, those social institutions, while “greater than” the individual, reflect the community in which it operates. Much like a snowball rolling down a hill gathering size as it moves forward, economically challenging times for individuals challenge those very social institutions that are necessary which then are less able to fulfill the obligations to the individuals they are meant to serve.
For instance, higher level of poverty translates into lower consumer spending. Lower consumer spending translates into reduction of services as a means of controlling costs. Reduction of services translates into job loss – which then leads to furthered lower consumer spending.
A reduction in home ownership rates – especially with a corresponding increase in vacant homes – translates into fewer tax dollars going in to the community’s coffer to provide services such as police, fire and EMS protection. Additionally, local schools are negatively impacted as are the public library, social service agencies, community centers, road/street services, waste management and a host of other publically funded operations. As these services are reduced, homes in the community become less attractive for home buyers as the services families are seeking may not be available at the levels that are expected. Moreover, as home owners who are unable to leave the area are also less willing to invest in the aesthetic (and sometimes necessary) upkeep of one’s home – after all, what is more important, heat or fixing the porch? – the value of surrounding homes also is negatively impacted. Thus plummet property taxes further with even fewer tax dollars going to support public services.
When small businesses close up shop and residents are either evicted, move out or move into rental units, the ability to attract new business is greatly reduced. While one way to attract new business into a community has been tax abatement, the proverbial double whammy is that more demands will then be placed on existing public services without the infusion of additional money.
The end result? Fewer jobs mean fewer opportunities to improve one’s economic situation. Reduced finances reduces one’s opportunities to pursue higher education. Other factors also come into play: such as, what about transportation? If there is no public transportation and one can no longer afford to buy, lease or fix their car – or to put gas into it – finding employment “across town” because that is the only place that is hiring is no longer an option. If one does not have internet connection, one cannot work toward an on-line education when other educational opportunities are lost. When the public library is closed on weekends, job searching or working on an education at a library’s computer station is impossible.
Just like a snowball rolling down hill, there is a compounding effect on hard economic times. It is difficult to reverse because the issues are complex and interrelated. Nonetheless, just because something is hard doesn’t mean it must be left to its own devices – this trend must be reversed.
The million dollar question, however, is how?