Charity and Agency

You won’t be surprised to know that moving to a better neighborhood will make you happier and healthier. The latest scientific installment in this narrative was made by sociologists using data from a program created during the Clinton administration.

The program is called Moving to Opportunity and is administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. MTO as it is called is a voucher program. In the mid-1990s, 4500 people living in neighborhoods of extreme poverty in major American cities were asked to participate in the MTO program. The vast majority of these people were single-woman heads of household.

Using a lottery, some participants were given a voucher so they could move to better housing in better neighborhoods. The other participants got nothing and so were left to their own devices.

The purpose of the program was to see whether enabling people to live in a better neighborhood would improve their lives in some way. So the program periodically collects a bunch of data. The sociologists analyzed that data and published the results in Science magazine.

The press release sent out by Science was headlined “For Happiness, Environment Beats Economics.” The sociologists concluded that people who got vouchers and moved to a less poverty-stricken neighborhood were slightly happier and had slightly better mental and physical health. On the other hand, they concluded that the peoples’ “economic self-sufficiency” didn’t change—meaning, their household income didn’t improve.

Those conclusions are exaggerations not entirely supported by the data. But that’s not the important thing going on here. What’s important is the ideology embedded in the program design and the research design and how those reproduce the ideology of liberal (or what people now like to call progressive) social policy.

MTO is a charity program. The sociologists strain to make it into a success story—I’m speculating here—out of a sense of liberal guilt.

The trouble with charity is that the recipient is an object. The act of charity re-enforces a hierarchical social relationship: from those who have and give to those who need and receive.

That relationship is echoed in conventional social science in the form of transfers of income, wealth, and power from the upper classes to the lower classes. For example, the sociologists in the MTO study refer to the vouchers as “the treatment” and to families who receive vouchers as being “treated.” It sounds very clinical, doesn’t it? Just like a clinical trial where your health (and maybe even your life) is an outcome of treatments administered by experts—as in “You’re not qualified.”

I want to contrast this to a different approach in both what people do and how the science emerges from it.

In the age of Occupy Wall Street, many people are not waiting for someone in authority to commit a charitable act toward those lower down the social food chain. One group, Occupy Our Homes, works to help people afflicted with a wide variety of housing issues—most obviously with foreclosures but also with such issues as tenants’ rights.

One such is a renter’s strike in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. No vouchers here, but renters in three buildings resisting a slumlord. Organizers from the Occupy movement have joined with the strikers (Occupy Sunset Park: Rally for Rent Strikers on Thursday

They want a better place to live. They want respect. They’d want their rights protected. But not vouchers or other liberal social programs. They’re creating their own social program. They are the social program: which is to take power over their lives, individually and collectively. The folks in Sunset Park are about agency, not charity. And I have no doubt that they are happier and healthier because of it.

When Barack Obama ran for the Democratic Party presidential nomination four years ago, a community organizer friend of mine said, “I’m voting for the organizer.” What he meant was that he expected a President Obama to encourage grassroots organizing like that in Sunset Park. There was a flurry of activity early in the Obama Administration’s first term when household meetings were held all over the US that were carryovers from the campaign, household meetings that promised community organizing.

All that faded fast. The Obama Administration didn’t want communities taking their destiny into their own hands. What it wanted was a peanut gallery. That’s because governments exist to maintain social stability, not empower citizens—particularly those in the lower classes. Charity, on the other hand, maintains social stability through dependency.

But the organizing happened despite the efforts of the pols to coopt it. And the good news is that it will make you happier and it’s good for your health. I’ve got the science to prove it.