Is wealth a barrier to a resilient community?

Could wealth be a barrier to community resilience?

I have been thinking about that paradoxical question ever since reviewing a study by John Betancur at the University of Illinois at Chicago[1].  We know that wealth is a resource that people can use to be prepared for and recover from disasters, and resources are a major driver of how well and how quickly a community recovers.  But several studies suggest that is not the complete picture.  Betancur looked at what gentrification does to the social fabric of a community.  In studying how gentrification disrupts communities in the Chicago area, Betancur also verified what earlier authors have found: Poor ethnic neighborhoods tend to have dense social fabrics. A social fabric is a collection of interactions and collaborations that connect people.  It is the pattern of developed relationships, services and supports that benefit the individuals in a community and the community as a whole.  Betancur had two interesting points about this: Wealthier individuals tend to not be as much a part of this social fabric.  They tend to rely on personal resources more than community resources when they are in need.  This simultaneously makes them less a part of the life of the community and also less vulnerable to the loss of the community.  Poorer people, who are more a part of the community, suffer more from its loss.  The loss of community is a loss of a resource that is often not well recognized by planners because it is not an issue for everyone.  When we measure community health in terms of status and wealth we may fail to measure dense social fabric as a strong source of community health and resilience.

This was described further in another recent publication.  Bratanova and colleagues, writing in the Scandanavian Journal of Psychology[2], looked at an intriguing question:  Why do the poor tend to stay poor and the wealthy stay wealthy?  The myth is that the wealthy are more capable, better at business, smarter, and so on.  Not so say Bratanova and fellow researchers.  The wealthy learn to pursue self-interest.  In their research, they had subjects play an economic game after first being primed to believe they were either in the wealthy group or the poor group.  The wealthy group pursued accumulation of wealth and focused on self-interest, all of which perpetuated inequality.  The poor group sought fairness and rejected proposals that would result in inequality, favoring proposals that benefited the group over the individual.

And one more example.  A report in the Chronicle of Philanthropy[3] found that people living in rich enclaves, those gated exclusive neighborhoods, do not donate to charity as much as their equally wealthy counterparts who live in ethnically diverse neighborhoods.  They assert that as people become wealthier they become less sensitive to the needs of others.  A similar conclusion was proposed Karen Weese, writing about this same report in the Washington Post (October 21).  She cited examples of poorer people recognizing the struggles of others and being more motivated to give because they understood from their own experience that life is hard for a lot of people.

Which brings me around to a challenging question:  Are poor ethnic communities and neighborhoods actually stronger communities, at least in some ways?  On some measures, they are more vulnerable, for many reasons.  They live in more vulnerable areas, they have poorer construction, they may have higher crime rates, fewer government services, and so on.  But by other measures they are more resilient, healthier communities as defined by the density of social fabric.   This would seem to have some interesting implications.  As we debate immigration, and as some oppose diversity, is that actually not in the interest of healthy communities?  And as we think about making healthier communities, maybe the poor and immigrant population are not the only ones who need help? Finally, there are implications for the role of the church in advancing personal and community health.  Should the church promote diversity as a path toward seeking justice, practicing mercy and walking humbly?

[1] Betancur, J (2011) Gentrification and community fabric in Chicago Urban Studies 48(2) 383-406

[2] Bratanova, B., Loughnan, S., Klein, O., & Wood, R. (June 01, 2016). The rich get richer, the poor get even: Perceived socioeconomic position influences micro-social distributions of wealth. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 57, 3, 243-249.

[3] Gose, B., & Gipple, E. (August 23, 2012). Rich Enclaves Are Not as Generous as the Wealthy Living Elsewhere. Chronicle of Philanthropy, 24, 16.)


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: