Monday, September 21, 2009

Changes in the Progressive Vision

While reading American Pharaoh, a fascinating book about Mayor Richard Daley I and the history of Chicago, I learned some surprising facts about the history of the Chicago Housing Authority. Elizabeth Wood was a key figure in the development of public housing in Chicago. She was a truly impressive figure; she was educated, energetic, organized, genuinely concerned about the welfare of Chicagoans of all races and cultures. In contrast the current leaders of the CHA, she aggressively promoted the upward mobility, rather than the stagnant dependency of its residents. And most impressively she continuously resisted the corruption and patronage that dominated the city government. Of course, in Daley's Chicago, this meant that she was eventually dismissed from her post.

What particularly caught my attention about Elizabeth Wood and the early years of the CHA was that not only did they screen residents for criminal records and substance abuse and basic housekeeping, but they promoted traditional two parent families, so much so that female headed households only constituted 30% of their tenants, in contrast to the current figure of 92%.
I believe that this represents more than just the inevitable devolution of the CHA from an energetic, progressive organization to a large government bureaucracy that is largely disinterested in the fate of their residents.
This also represents a change in the "progressive" narrative on the nature and causes of poverty and prosperity. Like her "progressive" contemporaries, Wood rightly acknowledged the institutional and external factors of poverty. But, she understood that personal conduct and family structure were essential aspects of the equation. And it appears as if she made a distinction between those who remained trapped in poverty through their own pathological behavior (such as substance abuse) and those who simply needed a boost to achieve upward mobility. And apparently she was reserved about having her organization subsidize the pathological behaviors and family structures that reduced social and economic mobility.

On a deeper level this surely represents a different vision of entitlements. Most contemporary "progressives" believe that all individuals are unconditionally entitled to (utilize the wealth and labor of others to fund their) food, housing, health care and higher education and few look at dependency as a major concern. In contrast, Wood appeared to view social welfare programs as positive, but not as automatic entitlements. This is far more than an impractical academic distinction, because the vision of unlimited entitlement implies an unwillingness to factor in the behaviors and values that foster social pathology. And perhaps more importantly, they imply a lack of concern over the long term dependency that these programs foster.

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