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The primary causes of poverty lie not in individual behavior at all, but in specific social and historical structures, in forces outside any single person’s control. If you haven’t lived it or even seen it firsthand, there’s almost no way to imagine it. Living in the ghetto, one faces problems with public housing, family violence, drug and alcohol abuse, the drug trade, negligent landlords, criminals, illness, guns, isolation, hunger, ethnic antagonisms, racism, and other obviously negative forces. Even forces that might seem positive in other circumstances- the law, the media, government, neighbors, police- can, in the ghetto context, make life miserable for the poor. And one has to contend will all of these forces- any one of which might be overwhelming- all at once, without a break. Turn to deal with one problem, and three attack you from behind. Experience a little unexpected bad luck, and you find yourself instantly drowning. The cumulative effect of the ‘surround’ is more than the sum of any of these individual forces. There is simply no space to breathe.
American society has generally tried to confine private charity and governmental assistance to the ‘deserving’, while insisting that the ‘undeserving poor’ improve their character as a condition for receiving relief. Like many people in our individualistic culture, the poor ultimately blame themselves for their lack of success, and can easily lose whatever self-confidence they have been able to muster. What little public assistance exists is often administered in ways that make it difficult to move back into the world of self-sufficiency, especially when self-sufficiency is defined as a series of exhausting jobs that don’t pay a living wage. The causes of ghetto poverty do not lie in the individual behavior of inner city African Americans, but lie primarily in forces outside their control. It is up to them to do what they humanly can; it is up to the rest of society to change existing programs and create new ones to allow everyone to enjoy a decent standard of living