One of social scientist Charles Murray's novel solutions to closing the widening chasm between the well-to-do and the poor is to encourage them to live next door to one other. Presumably, by living in the same neighborhoods as the upper class, the poor would -- by something akin to osmosis -- acquire the habits of success.
Murray claims to practice what he preaches. He wanted his children to have the same small town experience he had growing up in Newton, Iowa (without actually having to live in Iowa). "I did not want my children to grow up only knowing other upper-middle-class kids like themselves," Murray recently told the New York Times. So he moved his family some 50 miles northwest to quiet, picturesque, historic Burkittsville, Md.
It all sounds perfectly wonderful. It also sounds a lot like the policies social engineers have been promoting for decades, ever since they were forced to admit that their grand public housing projects were unmitigated disasters. Down, but not out, they are back peddling a new brand of urban panacea: mixed-income housing.
The theory is that back in some long lost Golden Age people of all socio-economic castes lived together in near-perfect harmony. The banker lived next door to the milkman who lived upstairs from the town drunk who resided across the street from the cop who lived catty-corner to the druggist. Murray even quotes Tocqueville saying, "In the United States, the more opulent citizens take great care not to stand aloof from the people. On the contrary, they constantly keep on easy terms with the lower classes: they listen to them, they speak to them every day."
Perhaps, but this is no Golden Age. This is more like another Iron Age (marked by the prevalent use of iron piercings). Let's say, for arguments sake, that there was indeed a time when all classes lived in communal bliss. As Murray details in his new book Coming Apart, times have changed. Values, manners, taboos, crimes rates, you name it, they have all changed, most radically for the underclass, and certainly not for the better. The manners and mores that encouraged good conduct were long ago washed away by the liberal and libertarian drift of contemporary society.
I HAPPEN TO LIVE on a mixed-income street, and the few middle class people here are united in their desire to move away. The reason is simple. Too many of our poor neighbors make this an extremely difficult place to live. I say "poor," but finances have little to do with their conduct. Economics is simply the prism through which we insist on viewing people. (You can be poor and conduct yourself with style and grace, just as you can be wealthy and behave like an ass.) No, what makes our neighborhood unbearable at times is how our "poorer" neighbors' values and lifestyles are so radically different from ours. In general the middle class craves order, stability, security and tranquility. The poor, meanwhile, lead lives that are slovenly chaotic.
Some examples: Few of the poor young men and women on our street are employed (most are high school dropouts, and yet washing dishes would be beneath them). This allows them to hang out all night in the street playing loud music. Asking them to be quiet does little good. You are likely to be called horrible names. Phone the cops and you only make enemies of them. Besides the noise, there is the litter. You quickly grow weary of cleaning up your neighbors' mounds of discarded beer cans, fast food bags, and wrappers. Marijuana is smoked openly on the sidewalks and stoops. It is not unusual to come home and find a drug deal going on in a car parked in front of your home. One's home must be secured like Fort Knox with house alarm, gates, outdoor lighting, and still you find your car window shattered and your car radio stolen.
As for the habits of the middle class rubbing off on the poor, it would likely be the other way around. Which is why the few responsible middle class parents on our street do not allow their children to associate with their poorer neighbors. I can't say I blame them. The foul language, the filth, the drug use, the frequent spousal and child abuse, and the unsecured firearms are all excellent reasons why, even on our block, the children are segregated into classes.
But how can we expect the urban planners to know this? They do not live on mixed-income streets. They live in lush suburbs in college towns. Lacking first-hand knowledge and real-life experience, they have only their grandiose theories to go by. Besides, if they are proven wrong again, it is not they who will suffer the consequences. They will just return to their drawing boards.