By Travis McMullen Contributing Columnist
May 6, 2014
I think it’s fair to judge a community based upon how they treat their most disadvantaged citizens.
“Currently Sedalia has 193 units of low-rent housing and generally all units are full,” reports the Democrat’s Emily Jarrett. Consistently full units are a reliable indicator of general need — there are too many Sedalians without homes and locals that walk the tightrope of securing building occupation.
Sedalia, like most cities, could use more low-rent housing. But there are people who respond negatively to such an idea because housing projects all over the country have a negative reputation. There seems to be a misconception that housing projects actually cause more criminal activity. It’s really more of a concentration effect: crime, poverty and income inequality are all part of the same downward spiral that is affecting so many people in this country.
And it’s not because people who draw a low-income are inherently worse than those that draw a high income, or vice versa, but because over the years and in cities all over the country we’ve been systematically cutting these people off from the rest of society. Those who make the bare minimum get the bare minimum. There are too many who portray the low-income lifestyle as easy living. They all sit on their couches and live on the government teat, right? Maybe they’re on their couch because they got injured at work and their employer found some loopholes to weasel out of paying for the proper treatment. Maybe they’re on the couch because the endless grind of attempting to find employment has finally chewed them up, spit them out and worn them down. Imagine effectively drowning in rejection — government agencies, potential employers and authority figures all bombarding you constantly with the word “no.” Imagine being so sick of the rejection that you generally give up on society. Maybe they’re on that couch because they’re spiritually broken.
But in a way, it’s harmful to even acknowledge the idea that any significant portion of these people do spend all of their time lounging around. Sure, there are some — there are people in every situation that ruin it for everyone else. There are irresponsible building owners in downtown Sedalia that are ruining it for the majority of owners, most of whom maintain their property sufficiently.
For most of these people, they have to wake up every morning and figure out how they’re going to survive another week. What am I going to pawn to pay this bill? I wonder if I can manage to use this technically expired coupon without anyone noticing. These are the people who could tell you, on a product-by-product basis, about the typical reliability of the expiration dates on their groceries.
Maybe they’ve got an iPhone, even! Maybe they got it as a gift from a friend or a family member. Maybe they saved up their change for one fleeting taste of luxury. The cell phone is essential for those that make do with all levels of income — it is mostly impossible to find or keep reliable employment without a cell phone. Maybe theirs is slightly fancier than you think it should be.
Imagine waking up every morning and having to consider whether or not you’re properly meeting the expectations of your class. There’s that old piece of advice that says that you should always dress well for a job interview — but low-income individuals are expected to dress poorly at all other times, or else they will have government officials swarming and questioning their legitimate individual needs. And yes, sometimes they will get desperate enough to steal, or deal drugs, or mad enough to commit violent acts. People from all economic backgrounds commit crimes for all sorts of reasons. Maybe after a long day of hard work for little pay they decide to pick up a pipe, or smash a window out of pure frustration. I think people suffering through the poverty cycle probably deserve to do drugs just as much if not more than a middle class person living a comparably comfortable lifestyle, yet history shows us that low-income individuals are affected by drug convictions at a disproportionate rate.
A lot of it is self-fulfilling: when you expect crime, you’re going to get more. Offenses that would go unnoticed in areas that don’t have that kind of reputation are suddenly more apparent. People from these areas are given fewer breaks and less deals because of that reputation and remorseless shotgun incarceration usually leads to more bitterness and criminality.
The majority of low-income individuals follow the law just as closely as anyone else and must use their ingenuity to solve the puzzle of surviving in a modern society that is inherently hostile toward them.
What these people need is to feel like they are part of society. They need to feel like residents of Sedalia instead of residents of the Sedalia Housing Projects. They need our understanding, not our consternation.