There was an excellent article by Eyal Press which appeared in The American Prospect few weeks back; titled "Can Block Clubs Block Despair?", it didn't get nearly the amount of attention in the blogosphere--from what I can tell anyway--that it deserved. Maybe that's because most peoples eyes glaze over when confronted with discussions of poverty that don't involve accusations that can be turned into handy soundbites, or maybe--focusing here on those who really do take the practical issues of poverty and equality seriously--those who scanned the article didn't see anything in it different from dozens of other pieces which focus on the role of "social capital," "civil society," and other Putnamesque concepts in rebuilding and maintaining intact neighborhoods. If the latter was the case, then that's unfortunate, because what Press's article examined was some urban research on the way in which something very simple--local community organizing--can contribute to the sense of "collective efficacy" in a neighborhood, and how such a sense of efficacy is one of the first as well as one of the most important steps in getting social capital built up again. Press talks about some survey research which took place in Chicago in the mid-1990s, which became the basis of an influence article in the journal Science:
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 was the second set of questions that particularly interest me, and which are most revealing in terms of efficacy. It is one thing for a resident of a neighborhood to say--perhaps without much or only anecdotal evidence, perhaps without having contributed anything directly themselves--that they feel they live in a friendly and helpful place; it is another thing entirely to ask people to speak of instances of actual--and therefore, in some important sense, anticipated and expected--intervention and participation: reporting a crime, filling a pothole, showing up at a PTA or city council meeting. That sort of thing goes much more directly to the idea of collective agency, the belief that a neighborhood possesses, as a group, a certain awareness of and faith in their ability to respond to disparate problems. Press goes on to report:
Over tea one day, Felton Earls, a professor of social medicine at Harvard who co-authored the original Science article, told me that collective efficacy... [is] a theory that emphasizes the capacity of residents to overcome obstacles on the basis of shared expectations--specifically, that they can work together for the common good. A small African American man with dark, pensive eyes and a neatly trimmed gray beard, Earls grew up in New Orleans, in a black community that was far from affluent. "But we didn't think of it as poor," he told me. There were "no gangs, no drugs," he said, "There were many indications of high collective efficacy, and by that I mean supervision of kids. There was music. There was church."
Collective-efficacy researchers like Earls don't claim that structural factors like racism and poverty are unimportant. What they do contend is that even people facing severe disadvantages have the capacity to organize themselves in ways that can make a tangible difference, both at the neighborhood level and on individual blocks.
Earls's comments struck me, because they sounded so much like the comments made by Dr. Galyn Vesey, who spoke at the same community organizing workshop where I presented my lecture on republicanism and radicalism in Kansas. He talked about his own experiences as a participant in civil rights protests and sit-ins in Wichita (yes, here in Wichita, KS; not all the civil rights agitation was in the South), yet he kept using the way he was brought to the point of participating in those difficult and dangerous enterprises to comment on what in his view the youth of today--particularly far too many African-American youth--lack. Dr. Vesey reminisced about the strong sense of trust they as teen-agers had developed for one another through their growing-up years in the all-black neighborhoods in northeastern Wichita and at East High School; he talked about how they had met under the direction of local NAACP leaders at various churches to practice and receive training, and how seriously they and their parents took the enterprise; and he said that he was grateful for the large amount of respect they all felt for parents, teachers, pastors and others who had prepared them, since in his view if that respect had not been there--if they'd instead been of a mind to rebel in an undisciplined way, to let their anger and pride lead them rather than a sense of unity and collective commitment--then their sit-ins would have failed or ended in violence or both. In short, he talked about what went into creating a powerful sense of efficacy--of the ability to make a difference, to improve one's lot in life, to work positively together--amongst his cohort of young black men and women fifty years ago, and a crucial part of that creation was just what Earls said: parental supervision, acceptance of responsibility, forums where people could see and learn from one another, and thus trust that they could work together. Because Vesey grew up on a set of city blocks of where family and school and religious authority was real, kids didn't (or couldn't, at least not easily!) escape learning how to be part of a collective, and that learning made it possible for them to challenge, when the right moment came, a white social structure which completely dwarfed them in terms of real power.
As Press admits, talking about the need for people to learn--whether through block clubs and community-improvement organizations (which are his primary examples) or through other forums for social bonding--how to have trust and, by the same token, learn to act in trustworthy ways (taking responsibility for one's family, teaching one's children, committing to improving one's home, all of which suggests the need for job and marriage stability and discipline) can easily begin to sound like a pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps mentality, if not outright welfare-bashing. But rather than just back away from the argument in order to protect certain liberal sacred cows, Press suggests these kind of "conservative" or local culture responses can and should go hand-in-hand with progressive solutions:
Focusing on the social dynamics within neighborhoods [does risk] obscuring the larger structural inequities poor communities face. On the other hand, as even many progressive scholars who study urban poverty will admit, while structural inequality surely matters, it doesn't explain everything. Insisting otherwise can have the perverse effect of robbing poor people of agency--and of obscuring important differences among neighborhoods that racial and economic factors can't explain. Collective efficacy offers scholars and policy-makers a way to talk about such differences without playing into the reductive "culture of poverty" cliché or necessarily discounting the significance of other variables. In fact, the 1997 article in Science acknowledged that neighborhood activities can accomplish only so much. "Collective efficacy does not exist in a vacuum," it stated, but "is embedded in structural contexts and a wider political economy."
This, again, reminds me of Dr. Vesey's presentation; he was able to move seamlessly from a condemnation of what he sees as the lack of respect (both self-respect and otherwise) amongst young people today to a discussion of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?, with its condemnation of a liberal movement that abandoned real, practical concerns about the availability of jobs and good wages and solid educations in favor of boutique cosmopolitan issues that only interest a highly educated elite, and thus allowed America's blue-collar and rural socio-economic worlds whither away and their remaining residents become ready targets for Republican hucksters. Plainly, it was obvious to him--and, I think, if one read Press's article correctly, it should be obvious to all of us--that one can and should see that a demand that local, state, and national governments be empowered and pressured so as to attend to preserving urban environments of productive employment as much as possible in the face of globalization, demographic change, suburbanization and so forth, is in no way counter to the equally insistent demand that cultural pathologies which undermine the effectiveness of parents, teachers, pastors and other members of a neighborhood be fought. And that means taking a stand for, and organizing on behalf of, the authority of a neighborhood to set standards and thus begin to draw fearful and untrusting residents out together into a collective project.
Press talks about driving through neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago with Robert Sampson, a sociologist at Harvard who helped design the original Chicago experiment:
Sampson and I made our way to Englewood, an impoverished neighborhood where little has improved of late. Along the main drag, Ashland Avenue, the only businesses seemed to be funeral homes and the occasional storefront church. We pulled up to a stoplight, and a man in tattered jeans, a torn T-shirt, and oversized sneakers appeared, lurking ominously on the edge of the road. He stared vacantly into the distance, then hopped the curb and started zigzagging erratically through traffic. Mercifully, when the light changed, the man bolted away from the onrushing cars, sprinting at full speed back over the curb until he tripped and sprawled out on the sidewalk.
Sampson let out a sigh. "This community rates very high on our cynicism and desperation measures," he said. "The idea that people don't care about each other, that you've got to watch out for yourself, is very widespread"...
We were about to head off to another area when Sampson suddenly made an abrupt right turn, then another, then a third. "Hold on," he said. "Did you see that?" I hadn't, but what Sampson had spotted, at the entrance to one of the streets, was a sign for a block club: "No Loitering, Gambling, Drugs, Gangs." A few blocks over, young men had been hanging out on the crumbling stoop of a boarded-up building. Not on this block, though, which alone among the streets in Englewood we'd seen did not have a single abandoned unit on it. "It's like this little island," said Sampson, "and I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts there's less crime on this block than the ones surrounding it."
There will never be, of course, a single-bullet solution to urban poverty and inequality; Press certainly doesn't intend for us to believe that block clubs and community organizations is such. But his article does, I think, suggest important ways to reconsider the old social capital question: specifically, that by looking at the differences between communities in terms of what they offer by way of opportunities for expressing collective efficacy, for meeting together and making decisions and plans together and then holding each other responsible--as parents, homeowners, fellow parishioners or PTA members or just plain neighbors--to seeing those decisions and plans made good, we can get a better sense of what kind of investments and social policies are likely to make a difference in the safety and wealth of communities, and where such resources can be best spent. Though he doesn't touch on it, what Press's article really does is show how the research of Sampson and Earls and others in profoundly localizes all the talk in social science circles about civic virtue and trust. Such concepts are not just relevant solely in generational terms, talking about how the amount of solidarity and equality and wealth which this nation managed to achieve was due to the sacrifices and discipline of our parents and grandparents, but they also describe in a very specific way what happens, or can happen, when a neighborhood is given or makes for itself a venue and a cause and a strategy for being together and working together and believeing together towards the accomplishment of public goods. Which, in a way, makes Putnam's cultural theorizing surprising relevant to the question of poverty after all.