Date Archives

May 2018

Somebody’s Hurting My People

Growing up an Evangelical Christian in the Midwestern United States, I had my share of lessons from the Christian Bible. I even memorized entire books of the New Testament word for word for Bible Quizzing competitions as a teenager. As I write today, one question from those myriad stories and words of wisdom comes to mind. This question is found in the book of Luke, chapter 10 in which an “expert in the law” asked Jesus — “who is my neighbor?” in response to the exhortation to “Love your neighbor as yourself”.

This fundamental question elicited a famous response — typically — in the form of a story. No doubt you’ve heard the tale of the outcast who went out of his way to help a man wounded on the road — something that more pious, educated, socially-acceptable people refused to do. The story of this “Good Samaritan” is one of the most recognizable religious parables in the world.

And even now–perhaps especially now– the question posed in that narrative remains one of the most profound — Who indeed is my neighbor that I am exhorted to “love as I love myself”?

Humankind has a long history of narrowly-defining those deserving of neighborly behavior. While there are functional reasons to maintain some limits on one’s circle of concern, the blind affiliation with an ethnic group, socioeconomic status, a political party or religious preference at the exclusion of those who look, live, act and believe differently than ourselves is at best limiting and at worst leads us to the darkest of places.

We are in a dark place right now. Polarization and segregation threaten to exacerbate tensions and expand inequities. Nowhere is this more true than between those who have financial means and those who do not. Despite generating more and more wealth over the last decades — the benefits of that growth have disproportionately gone to those at the top — and left behind many at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder. As shown in the chart below, income inequality, as indicated by the GINI Ratio, has skyrocketed. The impacts of this decision extend well beyond the size of one’s bank account. From example, massive disparities in life expectancy exist from one subway stop to the next. Health, wealth and well-being are not distributed to all people, leaving too many people still hurting.  These are not just the facts of “the way it is”. These are choices that we make as a people, choices that define who our neighbor is — and who it is not.

One of the most compelling pieces of evidence to explicate this challenge can be found in the ALICE report from my colleagues at the United Way. I have had the privilege of serving on the New Jersey Research Advisory Committee for this group and have watched it expand from a county to one state to a nation. ALICE is an acronym for Asset-limited, Income-constrained and Employed. This is an economic measure of individuals and households that work but find it difficult to make ends meet. As I wrote in an op-ed published last year, we must begin to think about ALICE as a national priority. The costs are too high not to.

The latest ALICE data–released yesterday— paint a sobering picture. Forty-three percent of U.S. households have annual household incomes that fall below the ALICE threshold (meaning they don’t have high enough household income to pay for basic survival costs like food, housing, transportation, healthcare and childcare) – that’s almost 35 million households nationwide. While much has been written about the creation of jobs and low unemployment, the data show that a whopping two-thirds of U.S. jobs pay less than $20 per hour, a wage that is difficult to live on in many places. Of course, the number of ALICE and the cost of living vary from place to place — on a state level between North Dakota (32%) and California (49%) — and from one town or census tract to the next. These geographic variations in wealth correlate closely with the disparities in health (e.g. life expectancy as cited above, chronic disease, etc.), adding evidence to the growing body of literature on the social factors that produce or inhibit health and well-being.

This week another national movement has re-emerged that seeks to address this very issue. Based on the “Poor People’s Campaign” launched by Martin Luther King, Jr.– this call for “Moral Revival” is launching to
“challenge the evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation and the nation’s distorted morality”
While the discussion of  morality is not a territory that I like to wander into frequently on this blog, the leaders of this movement has established  “moral analysis” as a key first principal–and I would agree– this challenge is deeply a moral one– one that is grounded in the question of “Who is our neighbor?”

One of the anthems of this movement sums it up best —  Somebody’s Hurting my Brother . The simple, yet irresistible lyrics say:
Somebody’s hurting my brother and it’s gone on far too long. And I won’t be silent anymore.
“Brother” is replaced by “sister”, “cousin”, etc.– maybe even “neighbor” in subsequent verses. This anthem answers the Samaritan question — particularly sung by someone who benefits from White privilege, education and enough money to meet my needs. My brother who is being hurt is defined broadly, inclusively — and I cannot– will not– be silent anymore.

 If we are to create a more healthy, happy and equitable world, we must begin first by defining who our neighbor is as broadly as possible. Is the recent immigrant my neighbor? What about the family that lives in the old house down the street? Would my neighbor include people who worship differently? What about those who vote differently? My answer to each of these questions would be “yes”.

Which brings us back to the song. If all of these people are my neighbors, than I am compelled do the hard work of noticing, caring and acting when someone is hurting that neighbor, brother, or sister. How is it acceptable that my neighbor lives in fear of deportation every time there is a knock on their door? How is it acceptable that my neighbor skips meals to make the groceries last? How is it acceptable that my neighbor works multiple jobs just to be faced with impossible choices like feeding their family a healthy meal or getting needed medical care?

It is not. And as the song implores us— we can’t be silent anymore.

I will be following and participating with the Poor People’s Campaign and continue to support the ALICE Project, and I encourage you to do the same. Follow along on social media, join a rally, engage in civic disobedience, and/or think about how your vote either makes this problem better or worse. Dig into the ALICE data at and learn more about what is being done to address these issues.

Most importantly, consider your perspective — are you the pious souls that ignore the plight of your neighbor from the comfort of your suburban home or ideological veil? Or, are you willing to take up the megaphone and end your silence because somebody is hurting your brother and it’s gone on far too long.

Please leave a comment. I’d love to hear your thoughts, questions, and ideas as we dialogue about how to build the beloved community.

One Man’s Trash

This year I celebrated Earth Day by joining one of  a number of events around the world for the environmentally-conscious people. My family, team members and I walked the streets of town, exploring hidden and ignored areas along train tracks and harvesting the left over cigarette butts that decorate our sidewalks. In the end, we felt rather accomplished–  filling more than twenty bags and rescuing a couple of abandoned tires. Sadly,  so much more remained to be done. In fact, we could have probably made every day earth day–literally– and still found garbage to fill our bags.

While much has been written about the environmental impact of litter– the damage it does to animals and soil — and probably to us humans more than we imagine (I’m pretty freaked out about microplastics at the moment), I want to weigh in on what neighborhood garbage tells us about the neighborhood itself and the relationships in the community.

It turns out that the presence of visible trash is something that has been studied by neighborhood researchers in a variety of ways. Some researchers have described litter under the construct “neighborhood disorder”– with trash visibility being a key component of “physical disorder”– along with other indicators being grafiti, abandoned cars and vacant lots. Quinn and Colleagues even mapped this level of disorder in NYC to show how neighborhoods differ from one another. Physical disorder is indeed a remarkable and tangible indicator that may help us describe and measure neighborhood-level differences that could correlate with socioeconomic indicators and community investment, but what impact does physical disorder have on neighborhood residents?

Neighborhood disorder is associated with:

While more research needs to be done, it appears that there does indeed exist the hypothesized relationship between neighborhood physical disorder (again of which visible trash is one component) and other adverse outcomes. It is important to note that these studies are correlational in nature. No one has conducted, to my knowledge, a randomized control trial in which one neighborhood is littered and/or another cleaned up. Such a study would be unethical and impractical. The implication here is not that visible trash causes child obesity or erodes neighborhood trust, but that the two are significantly related. It cannot be stated which leads to the other, nor can we take this all out of context– and inter-neighborhood variation is certainly a factor — as may be culture, setting and historical elements.

A related concept to neighborhood disorder is “neighborhood neglect”.  A Google search for the word “neglect” turns up a verb and a noun. The verb is “to fail to care for properly” and respectively the noun is the “state or fact of being uncared for”. Outside of this context, the word neglect is most often used in reference to children. We have a clear picture of what it looks like for a child to be neglected– having inadequate food, clothing, affection, stimulation– and we know the profound impacts that a lack of these investments can have on a child in the near and short term. These effects can have debilitating consequences that accumulate over the years and lead to tremendous so many challenges and deficits as the child grows.

How might this concept of neglect apply to neighborhoods? It is rather paternalistic/maternalistic to think of our neighborhoods as children dependent on care from some larger body, but in some sense this is true. Each neighborhood is nested within multiple municipal, county, state and national contexts each with varying degrees of jurisdictional responsibility and control. We can find countless examples of how governing bodies in a city or town have diverted resources away from neighborhoods for any number of political reasons. Too many places have focused on the tax break for the new industry while ignoring the deteriorating infrastructure on the other side of the tracks. And, of course, there are more active forms of abuse– dumping of toxic chemicals, building highways that sub-divide neighborhoods, cutting of public transportation — that have more direct effects on the lives of those in the community. It is important to note that care or neglect processes are grounded in history — with the current state of places often the accumulation of decades (or more) of an attitude and practice by those in power– an attitude that becomes part of the community ethos and is grounded in the worst of racism and discrimination– the kind that can become internalized and replicated by those who suffer from the conditions and the effect thereof. There is clearly a need for neighbors in these contexts– with their advocates — to challenge long-standing norms, policies and budgetary decisions that disadvantage their communities in favor of others.

Beyond challenging the powers that be, there is so much that neighbors can do each day to move their settings from disorder to health. Neighborhoods are made up of residents with a degree of agency that cannot be understated. People have the ability, despite neglect from those in power, to come together, to take pride in the place they call home, to build the bonds of neighborliness and to –yes– pick up some trash. In future posts, I want to draw attention to efforts like these in various neighborhoods, but for now I want to share with you one amazing idea.

In Philadelphia, the East Kensington Neighbors Association came up with a creative way to address litter in their neighborhood. Calling it Kensington Cans, they worked with local artists to decorate trash cans, turning them into a piece of art that enhances the neighborhood and, hopefully, draws attention.

I think this is a remarkable example of what neighbors can do by coming together. It didn’t require millions of dollars

Visible trash in neighborhoods is a big issue and one that isn’t going away easily. It is often grounded in decades of neglect and abuse by those in power. These larger issues should not be ignored. At that same time, change can begin at a grassroots level when neighbors band together to create small wins that lead to big things– one abandoned tire at a time.

What are you doing to reduce physical disorder in your neighborhood? Add your comments, ideas and questions below!