In the wake of the Los Angeles riots, both Republican and Democratic leaders are calling for a renewed commitment to the urban poor, with emphasis on "empowerment," "enterprise," and above all, "ownership." The political rhetoric is encouraging, but as yet there is too little evidence that policy-makers on either side of the aisle have learned the lessons which experience has taught progressive community developers.
Ownership certainly lies at the root of the problems of many low-income communities, urban and rural alike. Poverty has less to do with inadequate income than with high absentee ownership patterns and the credit barriers that keep low-income people from changing them. Most of what flows in flows right back out in rents paid to absentee landlords and profits to businesses and banks with distant headquarters and even more distant shareholders.
It is appropriate, and long overdue, to extend the essential benefits of ownership--security, equity, and a legacy for the next generation--to low-income people. But the political discussion has focused much more on creating opportunities for individuals than protecting the long-term security of their communities. Communities must have sufficient control over property transfers to democratize access and ensure that property remains affordable over time without requiring an endless succession of charitable subsidies.
Social welfare programs are typically criticized as being both paternalistic and too expensive. But turning the poor into conventional homeowners and entrepreneurs won't solve this problem.