If you follow me on twitter, you know that I’ve been heavily invested in researching poverty and how it affects wellness in the 21st century. This kind of research has taken me through rabbit hole after rabbit hole, going from understanding simple things like how the school system contributes to the poor health of children to more complex things like the realities of a debt-based economy, with a stack of both economics books and health-centered critiques on my desk.
(If you’re subscribed to my newsletter, you’re also likely used to the stack of books behind my desk… so imagine a stack that high now in front on my desk. Oy.)
At any rate, I keep a pretty close eye on stories in the news that talk about wellness and how out-of-reach it can be for those who live in poverty. It’s something we’ve been discussing here for years and, I’ve got to admit, the constant onslaught of jacka– ahem, people who insist on doing everything they can to diminish and dismiss the needs of those living in under-served communities… it’s frustrating.
Take, for example, this story from earlier this year about a housing project here in Brooklyn that is, essentially, food insecure:
Residents of the Farragut Houses, a city housing project in northwest Brooklyn, suffer from at least two forms of isolation. There is the physical kind: the gated Brooklyn Navy Yard to the east, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to the south. And there is the economic kind: the luxury apartments of Dumbo to the west, the historic rowhouses of Vinegar Hill to the north.
And in this awkward patch, home to 3,500 people in 10 blocky New York City Housing Authority towers, there are very few options for affordable, fresh food. There is a Chinese restaurant, and there are a few bodegas and one small grocery store with a single aisle of produce.
Five years ago, the Bloomberg administration announced a plan to redevelop the dilapidated Admiral’s Row at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and a supermarket was a central aspect of the proposal. But the first developer, PA Associates, was dropped after being charged in an unrelated bribery scandal; the second, Blumenfeld Development Group, claimed it was unable to find a supermarket willing to pay insurance premiums after Hurricane Sandy.
The crumbling homes of Admiral’s Row still stand today, even as the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation is considering, for the third time, proposals for a new developer. The winning bid will be announced by the end of June, the organization says. At the earliest, a 74,000-square-foot supermarket at the Admiral’s Row site will open in late 2017 — more than four years delayed.
For Karen Mann, a 46-year-old mother of four, that is nearly 1,500 dinners too late. At the beginning of each month, Ms. Mann stocks her pantry at the Western Beef supermarket on Empire Boulevard, more than three miles from her apartment. She then buys fresh produce twice each week at the Pathmark at the Atlantic Center, a mile and a half away.
Because she buys so much, she said, she needs to take a cab. All told, she estimates that she spends close to $200 each month just getting to the supermarket to buy food for herself and her four children.
“You have to go out of the neighborhood to get anything,” Ms. Mann said as she unloaded nearly two dozen food-filled plastic bags from a cab’s trunk. “It’s tough, but we work with what we’ve got.” [source]
For many people, a mere “three miles” seems like nothing. You jump in your car, and you go. Alas, that’s not quite how it works in an inner city environment.
Deep within the inner city, you often have spaces that are inhospitable to car ownership. There’s virtually no parking, and that’s to everyone’s benefit – the less space taken up by parking lots, the more space there is to put housing. And, with a mostly-reliable public transit system, people can get by without.
Three miles on public transit, however, drastically increases your commute time to and from the grocery store. It also increases the difficulty of moving your produce from point A to point B. I can say this as someone who has done this before – taking your cart on the bus… down three flights of stairs to the train… up three flights of stairs to the street level to walk to the store… then from the store and the street, down three flights of stairs with groceries to the train (remembering that not all train stations have elevators)… from the train up three flights of stairs to the street level… onto the bus with your cart, and hoping your next bus isn’t full.
Doing this with four kids sounds traumatizing. Doing this around a schedule that must accommodate four kids sounds exhausting. If those kids are, like I’m guessing, getting up everywhere from 5AM to 7AM and getting off from school at everywhere between 2PM and 4PM… that means your grocery shopping can only happen during rush hour, when everyone is in the grocery store (because it’s same to assume that you have a job on top of all of this, as well.) Imagine shopping in a packed grocery store with four kids who are going to be kids. Now, imagine doing that while you also have that hellish commute to and from the grocery store. Then imagine how long that grocery store trip took – it’s likely somewhere around 8PM now – and imagine that you now have to cook dinner.
What do you think you’re most likely to buy? A TV dinner that’s going to let you sit on the couch after such a long and stressful day? Or something that’s going to require another hour on your feet?
When we talk about the stressful nature of poverty and the emotional challenges of reduced resources, this is what we mean. Even typing that entire scenario out just stressed me out.
It’s also worth mentioning that these kinds of issues are, quite honestly, failures in planning, as well… and that’s something that I realized after watching Show Me a Hero, a 6-part series that aired on HBO throughout August. The projects were never intended to be what they became – but, they became what they did in a perfect storm of poverty and lax governing. Hear me out, because this is a poverty and wellness issue, too.
Brooklyn is no victim of urban sprawl. Everything is tightly packed in, here – the map offered in the original article does it little justice. While the quality of the offerings is another story entirely, it’s safe to say that there’s some kind of food store on at least every other block, and that’s mainly because of how densely-packed people are, here. If there are over 35,000 people per square mile in Kings County (which encompasses all of Brooklyn and nothing more), there are more than enough people to sustain a grocery store on every corner, let alone one near each housing project.
Alas, that isn’t the case.
When I ask people why there would be a lack of grocery stores in an area where there is an abundance of people, they make arguments about how “the poor don’t have enough money to keep the store afloat.” But, if a woman with four children can afford to shell out $200 – two hundred additional dollars on top of what she spends when she shops each month – exactly what kind of prices do we think the average grocery store is asking for? How unattainable do we think these prices will truly be? The point of public housing is to offset the cost of living for the most underprivileged people so that they can afford things like groceries – I’d stand to suggest that “affordability” isn’t the issue, here.
People often bring up “safety issues,” and you know what? I think this is a respectable complaint (I’ve even made a similar statement before), but it’s often levied in the wrong direction. Housing projects were never expected to be the crime-riddled, unkempt, skyscrapers that they’ve ultimately become out here. In fact, when I first moved to NYC, I remember being shocked by how high the projects were stacked, because my experience with the projects in Cleveland was that they were ranch-style.
When I talk about poverty now, I understand it to be a condition of living under the unending threat of scarcity – there’s a perpetual fear of not having enough resources, and that fear would make any living being lash out in a criminal way. Remember the hierarchy of food needs?
We all start at the bottom of the pyramid, and as we advance in our careers and lives, we move upward towards of the top of the pyramid. We all start out with “can we, with what we have now, get enough food to feed ourselves?” And, if we can’t, then we don’t care about whether or not we acquire our food in an acceptable fashion, whether it was acquired in a fashion that we can continue using to keep acquiring it, whether it tastes good, or whether it’s organicartisanalglutenfreefancyschmancy – we care about eating, and making sure our families can eat, as well.
When you put people in massive buildings – buildings that, because of the logistics, are difficult for police to patrol through without fear of being jumped by someone with the element of surprise on their side – who all live with the same fear and all suffer the same conditions, you should expect to see crime. When police actively avoid housing projects that are built this way because of the difficulty of policing them, you should expect the entire neighborhood to suffer.
But, when the neighborhood suffers to the point where no one wants to open certain kinds of businesses near a housing project, the inhabitants ultimately suffer. (For the record this is why, when we talk about “low-income” and “affordable” housing, we talk about them within the context of putting low-income units within buildings that are otherwise upscale – it’s a safety measure and precaution for both the low-income tenants and the neighborhoods altogether.)
The thought of people living in “upscale properties” who aren’t paying “upscale prices” often infuriates people who are, in fact, paying those “upscale prices,” and that makes sense to me – if you work hard to be able to afford the finer things in life (said with my imaginary tea cup and pinky in the air), why should someone else be given the same as you for far less? For starters, when it comes to black folks, we’re always assumed to be the “low-income” tenants regardless of the truth; secondly, when it comes to “low-income tenants,” they’re not there because they want to live like you for less – they’re there because your presence, to them, signifies a break in the cycle of poverty.
The cycle of generational poverty is bad, sure, but the stigma of poverty is far worse. Much like the high-end fashion stores that tuck the plus-sized garments in the basement or the attic of the store because they don’t want it known that they actually serve the plus-size community because of how stigmatized it is, many stores don’t want to serve an impoverished area because of stigmas there, too. They’re violent. They steal. They can’t afford it. They’ll vandalize it.
All of these are things that were clearly said by someone who’s never known a suburbanite teenager… or seen their high school bathrooms.
What am I getting at, here? If a city screws up public housing to the point where the community is afraid to go near it – afraid to police it, afraid to serve it with respectable businesses – then the city should absolutely take it as its responsibility to fix this. Fix it by changing the way low-income housing is done. Fix it by changing the way these areas are policed. Fix it by ensuring that a quality grocery store becomes available to those who need it the most – and, with a diminished likelihood of being able to afford health care, these are people who need stable access to food the most.
Oh… and one more thing.
Please read this and tell me if your eyes rolled as hard and as deep as mine did. pic.twitter.com/6JRbUnXOS5
— Erika Nicole Kendall (@bgg2wl) September 8, 2015
People often get tightly wound when it comes to this topic because they, too, are living that life of “scarcity” – when you feel like there’s so little support to go around for us all, you start to find reasons to separate the Needs from the Need Nots. You start to make pleas about who should have, and who should not have. The idea of helping people who aren’t you in your particular lot in life feels offensive – the idea that someone could “deserve” something, and that someone not be you seems to make a mockery of the honest and meritorious life you’re trying to lead.
Make no mistake about it – the problem isn’t that there are people in the world who need help. The problem is that we are being led to believe that we couldn’t help everyone… and that’s where the scarcity comes from – the idea that there’s only but so much help to go around. This isn’t true, it never has been, and it never will be.
There are more than enough resources to be utilized, more than enough policies that can be corrected, and more than enough ways for one of the wealthiest countries in the world to ensure that all its citizens can eat, live, and contribute sustainably. Punching down has never been courageous, and punching up has never been easy… but the more we aim downward, the wider the gap becomes between us while we aren’t looking. Perhaps we should focus on that instead of trying to pretend its the fault of the poor that they can’t get the resources they need to live on their own.