A duplicitous, self-righteous double standard in the “burbs
Often, non-poor Christians respond to the poor as those who are living in a socially constructed reality that is mostly alienated from those living with the effects of poverty. The non-poor Christian’s participation in non-urban life causes a need for continuous reaffirmation for a biblical plausibility for their own social-location, one which alienates rather than connects them to the economically vulnerable. Without a sociological imagination, many non-poor Christians are not fully aware of their own socially constructed exurban reality, nor how it has been formed, which can lead to duplicitous, self-righteous double standards toward the poor.
Often arguments rest, not on biblical grounds, but realities constructed by everyday life outside concentrated areas of poverty, namely the ability of the non-poor to have taken the “opportunities” presented in their socio-economic system to develop wealth and prosperity. The poor in the cities only need to do the same. Equal opportunity, not equal distribution of wealth is just, they reason. But this is not a fair picture, for the so-called “opportunity” has had a history and an opportunity that has been largely absent from social-locations with the most concentrated poverty, a consequence that is more akin to the injustice described by the prophets than simply the results of a good Christian work ethic and the invisible hand of the market. The exurban non-poor benefit from histories and institutions that have developed in favor of the suburbs and, for the most part, at the expense of central-cities—for decades. The shift from urban to suburban came with an intentional redistribution of efforts and transactions ranging from Federal subsidies to government policies to perceptions of urban and non-urban life. The ability to enjoy prosperity today, especially in upwardly mobile exurbia, is built on socio-economic transactions that have contributed to the current socially constructed reality of many non-poor (not just a good work ethic).
Furthermore, current upwardly mobile non-poor who live outside central-cities are the beneficiaries of a change in how home ownership was made possible. Even before WWII, Federal regulations began to restructure the home buying process to allow for lower down-payments and longer term-mortgages. The principle of amortizing loans made it possible to borrow on longer lengths of time for more affordable, smaller monthly payments. Later, after WWII, other Federal Housing Authority (FHA) policies helped to structure home ownership to be very attractive and easier to obtain, crafting regulatory guidelines for subdivisions on the outskirts of urban centers, the first fruits of what was to become suburbs. In effect, the government, through legislation and acts of congress (the FHA and Veterans Administration in particular), disproportionately encouraged new home ownership in the suburbs rather than fixing or rehabilitating older structures in urban centers.
The sociological pressures resulting from the end of WWII, the “released pent-up demand for starting families and buying consumer goods,” a housing shortage in the central cities, the availability of low-cost mortgages for new homes, the mortgage-interest tax credit, mass production techniques in the housing industry all contributed to a rapid expansion of the suburbs. The shift in regulatory policies for long-term-little-down mortgages, government subsidized development of major highways for access in and out of central-cities, the GI Bill (a government funded education/training program), and other Federal aid to the newer exurban regions made prosperity possible as we know it today. Zoning laws and affluent developers, not just the invisible hand of the market, protected the preferences of those with power. Furthermore, advertisers of home-related products, women’s magazines, the FHA, and bank officials all sought to make, as Robert A. Beauregard explains in When America Became Suburban, “the sharpest possible contrast between the private, comfortable, safe, and protected environment of the suburbs and the open, competitive, dangerous, and seductive world of the central city.”
The invisible hand had and continues to get help—sometimes through Federal, State, and municipal efforts; sometimes through creative marketing; sometimes through celebrity-trend makers; sometimes by politically empowered zoning codes. Growth and decline, expansion and contraction, growth in one area at the expense of another area—all unavoidable within a socio-economic system that prizes “progress,” supported by desire for upward-mobility (and, too often, greed), promote the ultimate goal of “the Suburban Way of Life.” It is an empirical fact, the system and its mediating institutions ignored its central-cities and promoted life in the “burbs” as the ultimate goal of prosperity, all for the gods of growth, progress, and the new.
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
*adapted from chapter 5 of my book, Wasted Evangelism: Social Action and the Church's Task of Evangelism
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.