Archive for the ‘poverty’ Category


So long, Cabrini Green

April 11, 2011

by Sarah Michele Ford

It seems innocuous enough… an apartment complex just northwest of downtown Chicago, constructed between 1942 and 1962, and home to approximately 15,000 people.  But Cabrini Green wasn’t an ordinary apartment complex; to many, it represented everything that was wrong with public housing in American cities. Cabrini Green was the scene of countless acts of violence over the course of its decades as a predominantly poor, predominantly African American public housing complex.  Cabrini Green stood until last month, when the last of the high rise building was demolished.  During that time, Cabrini stood not just as public housing, but as a symbol of the problems of public housing in America’s cities.

The city, the plight and living conditions of the urban poor, has been a central focus of American sociology, and in fact Chicago itself has been the subject of more than its share of urban sociology, beginning in the early part of the twentieth century with the Chicago school.  So how would a sociologist approach the question of Cabrini Green?

A sociologist would look at Cabrini Green and see both symptom and problem.  Cabrini Green, and housing projects in general, concentrated poor people, concentrated minorities, into one place.  On the one hand, this made it more possible to deliver social services. On the other hand, because the urban poor are overwhelmingly African American, it effectively imposed racial segregation and exacerbated the very inner-city problems – gang violence, crushing poverty – that marred the lifetime of Cabrini Green.  These are the causes.  But it’s not that simple… because Cabrini Green was also a symptom. A symptom of racial prejudice, of fear of the poor and of urban violence.

What would be a better option? How can we better deal with the problems of the inner city?


Poverty, Nutrition, and Obesity

October 26, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford

I recently found myself engaged in a rather heated discussion with a friend who was lamenting the quality of food that she can buy with her relatively meager paycheck.  She was justifiably upset that the best calorie value  for her money was off-brand macaroni and cheese which she could buy for $1/box and which would feed her for four meals.

Shepherd Market by Mr. T In DC

Her experience is far from unique.  In many urban locations, there isn’t any kind of a grocery store for residents to shop at; corner stores and fast food are the only options.  Even where there is good access to a wide selection of foods, the fact is that, as my friend knows all too well, healthy food is simply more expensive than lower-quality but more calorically dense options.

It seems contradictory that we so often hear lamentations of the obesity epidemic in the United States (see the statistics available from followed on the heels of reports about increasing rates of malnutrition (see Hunger in the U.S.).  Aren’t these things mutually exclusive?  They are, of course, not.  When the goal is to get as many calories as possible on as few dollars as possible, the sacrifice that often has to be made is nutrition.  The end result is that people who come from “food insecure households” may well be overweight and malnourished at the same time.

There is no clear-cut answer to this social problem.  Some of the problem is education, and it is here that we see the inextricable links between poverty, education, health, and opportunity.  My friend has the benefit of a good education; part of the reason she is so upset at her situation is that she knows that the affordable choices available to her are also ones that are detrimental to her overall health.  In other cases, however, the individuals in this situation are suffering the double whammy of ignorance of the healthy choices to make plus the lack of healthy choices available to them.  Availability of healthy food, regardless of cost, is another problem; even if a person wants to make good nutritional choices, if there are no stores offering those choices to them, they are left with little choice but to buy less-healthy foods.  The daily-life constraints placed upon the poor are also a factor.  Imagine that you are a single parent working multiple jobs in order to support your family.  You may simply not have time to cook nutritional meals for them and opt instead for fast food.

If the problem of poverty and nutrition is so complex, the solution must also be multi-faceted.  In a sense, nutrition serves as a lens into the more general experience of the urban poor in America.


Haiti: poverty and disaster

January 14, 2010

Posted by: Chad M. Gesser

Twitter: @profgesser


Disasters, whether man made or natural, have a dramatic, everlasting impact on people and where they live. In the blink of an eye, a disaster turns everyday normalcy into chaos, survival, and despair.

Not only are property, buildings, and physical structures destroyed during a disaster, but the social relations of the people are too. People are creatures of habit, and when disasters strike, the cultural fabric is ripped apart, leading to panic, hysteria, and organized chaos.

The reason that the earthquake in Haiti (January 2010) is particularly significant is due to the lack of infrastructure. As documented in this report by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, Haiti appeared to have been making slow, but some progress prior to the earthquake.

Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. This translates into a substandard built environment. As a result of the earthquake, not only do we see buildings destroyed, but entire neighborhoods and communities. The availability of services such as medical care and emergency assistance were minimum prior to the earthquake, and we find now that they are virtually non-existent. Basic necessities such as food, water, and shelter prior to the earthquake were hard to come by: now victims are living in parks, on the streets, with no food or water. Transportation grids were haphazard at best prior to the earthquake given the lack of resources and equipment to build and sustain these networks. After the earthquake, with no equipment, the rescue operations were led simply by Haitians using their bare hands and makeshift tools to lift tons of concrete and debris in efforts of finding and freeing survivors.

Understanding the impacts of natural disasters on human populations allows us to better address more effectively and efficiently the needs of the victims. The study of collective behavior is about understanding and addressing the social and psychological dimensions of individuals and groups during times of crisis, when the social structure and normalcy are compromised.
The Haitian earthquake is what I call a complete disaster. Traditional services to meet the needs of the citizens were substandard. Because of the substandard nature, the natural disaster completed destroyed existing infrastructure, leaving survivors with no means to begin recovery.
In normal times, medical care is sought after, sometimes scarce; when the entire population all of sudden needs medical attention, it is very easy for medical services to be overwhelmed with the need of survivors. At current we are seeing medical camps being established to provide basic and emergency medical services. In cities and countries on the coast, we have seen organizations like the Coast Guard set up mobile hospitals due to the difficulty of travel and mobility in the area of devastation. In Haiti this is being done initially at the airport in Port-au-Prince, and likely will follow suit in some fashion in Bay of Port-au-Prince.

During times of normalcy law enforcement serves the purpose of keeping the peace and to provide public safety. During a complete disaster, establishing and/or assuring law and order is desirable. However, law enforcement is asked to meet a variety of community needs, and they too can become overwhelmed. In the days and weeks following a natural disaster, an increase in crime is a concern as survivors work to deal both psychologically and sociologically with the slowly improving situation.

How can emergency personnel address the needs of the families, the community, and the society that is stricken by disaster? What personal needs should be addressed? What group needs should be addressed? What has to be done to help survivors return to a sense of normalcy? Is the response of the international community quick enough? Does it last long enough?