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REYES: Proper policy can end concentrated regional poverty

Opinions Column: Free as in Libre

The recognition that societal ills are concentrated in particular places has been a part of my life from a very early age. Growing up in the Lower Passaic River watershed, vacant lots, abandoned properties and contaminated sites were and remain abundant. These locally unwanted land uses, many of which are classified as brownfields, are a part of the history of my neighborhoods. At the heart of our communities runs the Passaic River, a historic and mighty river which was at the center of New Jersey’s industrial revolution. Decades of improper waste disposal and manufacturing left the 17-mile tidal stretch of the river contaminated with layers of dioxin, PCBs, mercury and other toxic pollutants — the pollution is so serious that the lowest 8 -mile stretch was federally designated a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

What is more, a number of the cities and towns located along the Passaic River are some of the poorest in the state and have been for decades. Paterson, Passaic and Garfield have experienced issues of environmental pollution, inequitable community economic development and disinvestment since the colonization of this land, and Passaic County is ranked 20th out of 21 counties in per capita income according to the latest estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. Issues stemming from living in a polluted environment — higher health care costs, increased school and work absenteeism and reduced life expectancy among many others — are strongly associated with a person’s quality of life and economic status. Given the connection between a person’s neighborhood environment, their health and subsequently their ability to work and earn a living, it behooves policymakers and the public to highlight how important it is to incorporate health in all policies in eradicating the cycle of poverty, the set of factors and events that, unless addressed, perpetuate poverty inter-generationally. 

Largely lost in this discussion is how a person’s zip code or place is not the direct cause of poverty. Poverty does not become spatially concentrated in certain places only because of the environmental and geographic characteristics of that place. Rather economic and political distortions like strategic disinvestment and racist housing policies like redlining influence the socioeconomics of the targeted neighborhoods and communities. In her book, "The Geography of United States Poverty: Patterns of Deprivation", 1980-1990, geographer Wendy Shaw poignantly said that “space is not a backdrop for capitalism, but rather is restructured by it and contributes to the system’s survival. The geography of poverty is a spatial expression of the capitalist system.” This is supported by observational and empirical evidence. For example, the movement of jobs and wealthier households out of particular neighborhoods, in urban cities and rural regions alike, creates “a separation of work, residence and economic, social and political life” that weakens the unifying threads of community, making it exceedingly difficult to overcome even the smallest of hardships. These problems are exacerbated by discrimination, the political apathy of state and local officials and lack of robust social and economic support systems

It is for these complex, intersecting reasons that local organizers, community development practitioners and poverty researchers claim that the eradication of poverty cannot be realized with a one-dimensional approach even if that method is concentrating funding and efforts in the most distressed places. In reviewing a number of rural anti-poverty programs, the ones that addressed the economic system and built the social capital of the affected community proved to be more effective and sustainable. When we focus on the assets our communities already have and build on these strengths, anti-poverty efforts can be most effective when utilizing a multi-faceted approach that is sensitive to how poverty is caused by economic, political and social distortions which are spatially expressed through its concentration in specific places and are economically cyclical and inter-generationally cumulative in nature. 

While focusing on one factor leading to poverty may seem simpler, adopting a deterministic view can obfuscate the path to a more just and equitable society. Geographic or environmental determinism has led many astray by centering the environment as the sole deciding factor in how we live our lives.

But poverty is a complex issue that caused by myriad intersecting, historical problems. Understanding the systemic and structural inequalities in our economic and social systems can empower us to tackle poverty however and wherever it has manifested. We all deserve to live happy and healthy lives regardless of our race, class, geography or any other characteristic. I have been inspired by local leaders who emphasize how the people, in our own right, already have the agency to actualize real-world change. To eradicate poverty and inequality in all places, let us build the community resiliency and support needed to solve these problems head on through positive human development and policy action so that these injustices never arise again. 

Thalya Reyes is an Edward J. Bloustein School of Public Policy master's candidate for public policy and city and regional planning. Her column, "Free as in Libre," runs on alternate Tuesdays.


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