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Review: Urban Injustice by David Hilfiker

July 16, 2011

Title: Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen
Author: Hilfiker, David
Length: 158 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, Sociology, Politics
Publisher / Year: Seven Stories Press / 2002
Source: BookDepository
Rating: 5/5
Why I Read It: I found it browsing the Seven Stories Press catalog and thought it sounded interesting.
Date Read: 18/05/11

Hilfiker opens this book with the quote “When we Americans want to do something about poverty, we usually set about “improving” poor people.”. Hilfiker then goes on to show how ridiculously out of reality these thoughts are. He brings together current events, history, economics, racism, and politics into this riveting book.

On page 17 he says:

Past racial discrimination is still powerfully embedded in current social, political, and physical structures, and thus remains a potent cause of contemporary inner-city poverty.

The author starts by talking about systemic injustices that have brought about the current situation.

He talks about the beginning of  social insurance and how African Americans were kept out  of programs like the Federal Housing Administrations guaranteed mortgage programs, UI and social security, and how African American veterans were also excluded from assistance programs.

He talks as well about the historic creation of ghettos and how it was in effect funded and done in large part through government programs. And once the ghettos were erected, they’ve unfortunately stayed because no one has made any political move to change things. Consider how areas that are poorer have less tax revenue and so less money to put toward schools – of course this leads to fewer options and lower standards for the students there, keeping them trapped in the cycle.

Hilfiker talks as well about the social programs that exist and their history through time. He talks of the ones that have remained stable and well-funded (those that benefit everyone equally or benefit the middle class more than the actual poor) against those that have been decreasing steadily for years and being de-funded (those that benefit the actual poor). And the programs that exist are often a hassle to use and the option is often between maintaining benefits by spending a day or multiple days renewing, or keeping a job that doesn’t pay enough.

Other factors like discrimination in law enforcement also work to keep African Americans trapped. Two quotes really struck me on this topic and so I have to share them.

It is also true, however, that we tend to punish the kinds of crimes committed by the poor more severely than similar ones committed by affluent people. Compare, for example, shoplifting and “fudging” on an expense account. Each is a nonviolent crime against business. Since neither source of income is usually reported to the Internal Revenue Service, each is a federal crime. Yet the shoplifter is much more likely to be prosecuted than the executive manipulating his expense account. (page 36)

He also points out that:

While African Americans are only 12 percent of the population and 13 percent of the drug users, they are 35 percent of those arrested for drug possession, 55 percent of those convicted of drug possession, and an incredible 74 percent of those actually jailed for drug possession. (page 39)

Hilfiker closes by providing a host of options that would be not only fiscally feasible but would often provide cost benefits in many ways. The idea that there is no solution or that the poor are responsibility for the situation they are in, and that structural issues do not come in to play, are fully debunked. He says:

Although the political likelihood of enacting the above programs is at present small, we should not confuse the issue by saying that we have “tried everything” to eliminate poverty or that “the government can’t solve the problem of poverty.” The government – that is, the American people acting together – can solve the problem of poverty, and it would be neither an enormously expensive nor utopian project. The problem has been that we have not been willing to consider it. (page 127)

A slim volume but very well researched and well written. Hilfiker really knows what he is talking about. I highly recommend this to all who are interested in racial issues in the US as well as those interested in poverty elimination.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. July 16, 2011 10:54 am

    Some of what you’ve recounted here I have heard before, but never in the detail that this book goes into. It sounds like a fascinating study of poverty, but also like it might make me a little mad. I think I might want to read this.

    • July 22, 2011 12:18 pm

      Yes, definitely important and informative in the way it pulls information together zibilee.

  2. July 16, 2011 1:55 pm

    Wow, this book sounds incredible. Those statistics you quoted are just infuriating. I think so many people forget to look at the way that the systematic oppression of people of color plays into and even causes poverty and crime rates. It’s so much easier for people to just blame the poor for poverty so they don’t have to challenge their own assumptions or actually do anything. I think I’ll have to check this one out. Thanks for the review.

    • July 22, 2011 12:18 pm

      Yes, it is way too often overlooked or dismissed as ‘no longer important’ when it clearly still affects so much. Can’t recommend this enough Emily O.

  3. July 16, 2011 2:29 pm

    as much as I like shows like the wire ,a book like this seem a great insight into how the things that happen on the wire happen if you know what I mean ,all the best stu

    • July 22, 2011 12:19 pm

      Yes I keep getting that show recommended to me Stu! Maybe one of these days…

  4. July 17, 2011 3:33 am

    It’s all too familiar. We have similar issues here in Australia. Despite the government spending a lot of money, it never gets to the people who need it. Recently, Indigenous women have started speaking up about what their communities need. Maybe the government will listen.

    • July 22, 2011 12:19 pm

      I hope that the gov does listen Violet but sadly history shows us that they rarely do. It’s ridiculous really.

  5. July 17, 2011 11:40 am

    This sounds really interesting. Thanks for bringing the book to my attention!

  6. July 17, 2011 3:26 pm

    Wow, sounds fascinating!

    • July 22, 2011 12:20 pm

      So fascinating Rhiannon. You’re welcome to borrow if you’d like.

  7. July 20, 2011 9:28 am

    This is a book that deserves my attention. Wonderful review, Amy.

  8. July 20, 2011 1:41 pm

    Sounds great! It’s sad that the issues seem to stay the same over so many years, even though solutions are possible and are not new. Or maybe a more positive way of looking at it is that things are changing but too slowly for me to observe. I hope it’s the latter! Certainly books like this can help to shift things in the right direction, or at least counteract the toxic effect of rabid radio talk-show hosts and the like.

    • July 22, 2011 12:21 pm

      Yes it is ridiculous really how little we do and how solutions are so much more possible than we pretend Andrew. If only politics didn’t get in the way of actually doing something useful. I hope we get more books like this and less rabid talk-show hosts :S


  1. Related Reading: Policing the Planet – Policing and the Criminal Justice System | amy reads

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