An Inquiry into the Origins of Social Disorder

Cabrini-Green, epitome of  social engineering gone bad. (Click for larger image.)
Chicago’s Cabrini-Green towers, epitome of social engineering gone bad. (Click for larger image.)

by James A. Bacon

The conventional wisdom in housing-reform circles these days emphasizes the need to bust up concentrations of poverty. When  Mayor Dwight Jones recently explained his thinking behind Richmond’s latest plans to inject mixed-income housing into the City of Richmond’s desolate East End, he said he wanted to change the culture of poverty. Poor people need models of success. They need to see people subjecting themselves to the discipline every morning of getting up and going to work. Mix poor people with working- and middle-class people, the thinking goes, and some of those bourgeois virtues will rub off on them.

Without realizing it, Virginians are reprising a discussion that took place in the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. In “Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago Public Housing,” University of Chicago professor D. Bradford Hunt chronicles the public policy decisions over a half century of slum-clearance and public housing initiatives that created the infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects, now demolished, and other incubators of crime and social breakdown. The debates in Chicago paralleled those in other cities across the country, including, no doubt, Richmond.

Richmond's Creighton Court -- no towers but dysfunctional anyway.
Richmond’s Creighton Court, circa 1953 — no high-rise apartments but dysfunctional anyway.

A key thesis of Hunt’s book is that it wasn’t the concentration of poverty in Chicago housing complexes that led to a downward spiral of ungovernable youths, vandalism, crime, gangs, physical destruction of property and the flight of anyone and everyone with the means to escape. It was the concentration of young people. In essence, Chicago’s public-housing towers became Lord of the Flies set in a concrete jungle.

Chicago had public housing for the elderly where crime was never a major consideration. But housing projects consisting of apartments with multiple bedrooms and large families became war zones. Writes Hunt:

Widespread social disorder emerged in Chicago’s high-rise projects shortly after they opened in the 1950s and early 1960s, before poverty became entrenched, before jobs disappeared in black ghettos, before the [Chicago Housing Authority]’s finances collapsed, before deferred maintenance meant physical disorder, and before the drug scourge ravaged tenants. … CHA planners produced communities with youth-adult ratios several magnitudes greater than any previously seen in the urban experience.

Ironically, the concentration of youth resulted from progressive social engineering. “Reformers had long proclaimed with both sentiment and social science that public housing’s main beneficiaries would be children saved from the evils of the slums,” Hunt writes. Based on that premise, they excluded childless families from the projects. Child-adult ratios soared and social disorder ensued.

The child-adult ratio is an issue that has received astonishingly little attention from social scientists and politicians, Hunt contends. It’s not too late for Richmond authorities to consider the implications of his argument.

Richmond never built the Cabrini-Green- or Pruitt-Igoe-style high-rise projects that made Chicago and St. Louis synonyms for dysfunctional public housing. Indeed, Richmond’s projects conform more closely to the emerging 1950s suburban ideal of  one- and two-story buildings set in cul de sacs and surrounded by large amounts of open space. Mosby Court and Creighton Court never had to deal with broken elevators, poorly lit stairwells and other features that rendered Cabrini-Green uninhabitable. Kids had plenty of room to run and play (although the landscape was barren). But the Richmond housing projects, launched with so much hope and good intentions, followed a similar path to social disorder. Why?

Hunt’s insights into Chicago housing offer one possible explanation. If Richmond’s public housing had the same high ratios of youth to adults, the few resident adults may have found swarms of adolescents impossible to discipline by traditional means of social control. It would be interesting to go back through the records of the Richmond Redevelopment & Housing Authority to see if Cabrini-Green’s youth-to-adult ratios prevailed.

There is another aspect of this issue that Hunt does not raise (at least not in the first two-thirds of his book, which is all that I have read yet): changing family structure. I would argue that intact, two-parent households are more effective at regulating the activities of their children than are households headed by single mothers. While there may be adult males living with the single mothers, they often are not the children’s fathers and feel no responsibility for raising them. Combine a project with a high child-to-adult ratio and households headed by unwed mothers — especially if those mothers were themselves raised in a permissive and unregulated environment — and you have a recipe for social breakdown.

If this line of reasoning is sound, the question we need to be asking in Richmond is not, “Can we break up concentrations of poverty?” The question is, “Can we break up concentrations of populations with high youth-to-adult ratios and unwed mothers?” As a practical matter, breaking up concentrations of poverty may be the same thing as breaking up populations dominated by youth and unwed mothers. Perhaps I am making an esoteric distinction. But I think not.

Housing authorities need to be attuned to whom they admit into the mixed-income housing they plan to build in the East End. It is not sufficient to have families that are “not poor.” A household with a single working mom and two kids might qualify by her income as working-class or middle-class and, therefore, would count toward the goal of creating a mixed-income community. But if that household contributes to a skewed youth-adult ratio, and if there is no father to contribute to raising and disciplining the children, it could well perpetuate the negative social dynamic of East End poverty.

I don’t pretend to have the answers. I’m just asking questions. But I’m not persuaded that city leaders have the answers either. I fear we shall spend tens of millions of public dollars on a roll of the dice pursuing the latest intellectual fashion without really knowing what we’re doing.

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8 responses to “An Inquiry into the Origins of Social Disorder”

  1. Mom and Dad barely graduated from high school and jobs are scarce so Dad starts dealing drugs. Meanwhile Mom – 15, is pregnant. Dad gets scooped up as low hanging fruit for law enforcement and is shipped off to the hoosegow.

    Mom gets on welfare but a requirement is that she work… so young johnny grows up running loose in the neighborhood and sooner or later makes the company of others who form gangs to protect their drug territory.

    this is not just the urban poor and uneducated. In many of our high schools today – even at the “good” ones there are “incidents”, on-site law enforcement, security cameras , etc.

    We have our issues in the rural areas also with folks who are uneducated and poor and have kids…

    and we know also.. that these kids – are harder to educate.. they take head-start and Pre-K and even in K-12 they need specialized teachers.

    it’s a mess.

    but it’s more than the sound-bite portrayal of it only being a problem of the urban poor.. often blacks.

    When kids “fail” in K-3, and they are unable to keep up academically, they basically drop out of not only school but the only idea of what schools is really about in terms of the future and what kind of life one has.

    When kids who are 15 give up on school.. they’re giving up on more than just education.

    People make fun of the phrase “war on poverty” especially since we have had such spectacular failures at it but it really is a war.

    the “cycle” is going to repeat – over and over unless we deal with it.

    Not dealing with it – is going to doom others kids to an adult life of a huge percentage of society being on entitlements – making more of the wrong kid of babies – or worse in prison… Do folks know what the second largest agency in Va is behind VDOT? It’s the prison system.

    If you total up ALL the things that we spend money on – from the prison system to rehabilitation, to more law enforcement, etc.. it’s probably exceeds what we spend on entitlements.

    It’s not to say we haven’t had some successes. Some kids rescued and steered to a productive life… but so many more not.

    It’s seems we are split as a society between those who want to try to do something and those who say there is not much we can do and we’re throwing good money after bad.

    but all in all.. we probably know this – building de-facto core communities of the uneducated, poor and for want of a better word – criminally inclined… is not a good approach.

    we know that, right?

  2. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Why beat up on cabrini green? Like saying hitler was a bad man

  3. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    There is much food for thought in Jim Bacon’s article.

    Perhaps it and Larry’s comments point up an overarching theme for Richmond’s Mayor. Before he puts together his plans “to inject mixed-income housing into the City of Richmond’s desolate East End, (so as to) “change the culture of poverty”, he should draw on the best thinking and practices now available to best to accomplish his goals across a wide variety of venues and possibilities that might be incorporated into his project.

    In that regard there are some very exciting findings and developments and increasing validated best practices arising in various related fields of what goes into breaking up poverty and all of its many causes, manifestations and cures. This incorporation effort by the Mayor make particularly sense here because the Mayor’s redevelopment plans offer a wide field of play within which these new and proven ideas and practices might be put into play.

    So if he has not done so already, he should bring as much talent and experience as possible to the table then allow them the chance for input into his plans. Thus he might go deep into the best current ideas and practices, trying to configure them into ways that work within his plans, before he goes too deep into the public monies to build his projects’ hard-scapes.

  4. I think the only real cure for poverty – is a good paying job.

    I sometimes wonder if all the money we spend on entitlements, prisons, rehabilitation and education – pre-k, remedial, etc….

    if all of that money were just paid t people – (to do real work).. if it would
    be better that what we do now.

    you now..many a young man who had no idea what he was going to do with his life and without something would get into trouble – was saved by going into the military to – get paid for digging foxholes.. or the modern day equivalent.

    Not saying national defense is doing “scutt” work.. but we also have AmericCorps and the Peace Corps and I’m wondering why that’s not better than watching a kid go bad in an urban poor hellhole.

  5. No one digs foxholes. That’s obsolete thinking. They hire contractors to build fire bases, fix stuff, clean things up, and cook. The military only does specialized military things like go on patrol, because of disarmament and reduction in force treaties, which is why most of the contractors are retired folks who were trained at doing things the old fashioned way. 🙂

  6. they do the modern-day equivalent of it.

    anytime you have an armed force – and they are not directly involved in armed conflict – what are they doing?

    90% of our armed forces has never seen combat, never served in a war zone.

    we’re paying them the be there when needed – i.e. dig foxholes.

  7. so a good question to ask – Darrell – is how much does it cost for one aircraft carrier to do one patrol in which it does nothing other than “be ready”?

    how much does it cost for us to “be ready”?

    when I say “foxhole” – I’m using it as an allegory to “be ready”.

    How much of our 1.5T in income tax revenues should we allocate to “be ready”?

    give me a percent. 50%, 75% ???

    what does it mean when this country spends MORE than the next 10 countries combined on “being ready” and those 10 included the largest of the OECD countries, Russia and China and Iran and North Korea?

    how much should we spend? how much can we afford to spend?

    if taxes for entitlements damage the economy, do taxes for “being ready” also damage the economy?

    when we say there is a “cost” to “social disorder” and we say we do not have enough money to really fix it… what does that mean if the reason why is that we already spend how much of our taxes on “being ready”?

    I’m not advocating anything in particular here OTHER THAN for us to RECOGNIZE how much we DO SPEND on “being ready” – what percentage of our economy is – what we spend on “being ready”?

  8. A carrier costs around 1.4 million a day on cruise. Kind of outdated in a world of drones, tho.

    We could start by reducing total defense (Dod, Homeland Security, etc) expenditures to 3% of GDP. It makes you wonder about jobs when you can send half a dozen old geezer contractors out and they can replace 20 military. On one job a single contractor replaced 6 people and the command never missed a beat. What kills the whole thing is all the high paid contractor and GS corporate overhead needed to manage The Deal.

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