Friday, February 24, 2012

"Why don't the poor go to our meetings?", a post from local sociologist Johanna Bockman

Ward 6 resident and GMU faculty member Johanna Bockman's blog Sociology in My Neighborhood: DC Ward 6 is a real gem.   Bockman's unique perspective challenges me--and I hope others--to think about changing neighborhoods, planning, the cost of urban living, and more.

Bockman's recent post Why don't the poor go to our meetings? has given me the tools to better consider the issue of civic engagement otherwise known as citizen engagement.

I encourage you to read the whole post here or on Bockman's blog.   If you read the original, you will also be able to read the comments.

Why don't the poor go to our meetings?
One unnamed commenter on my past post about the Hine PUD process asked, "Other than reforming the process, what do you want in terms of amenities and benefits Johanna?" Another commenter, our great ANC rep Brian Pate, wondered why I thought that the process was undemocratic and exclusive since the meetings have been public to which "a broad spectrum of stakeholders, from those adjacent to the development to those with broader interests," were invited, and wrote, "I invite you to come to our next meeting and share your ideas...Hope to see you on the 23rd and please feel free to contact me directly if you like to discuss your ideas further." I greatly appreciate being invited to take part. I feel extremely included. The problem is that thousands of our Ward 6 neighbors and their very different interests are in actuality not included in the discussion.

One of my favorite articles of all time is "Civic Participation and the Equality Problem" by Kay Lehman Schlozman, Sidney Verba, and Henry E. Brady. They ask, why does civic engagement matter? They answer that it matters for "the development of the capacities of the individual, the creation of community and the cultivation of democratic virtues, and the equal protection of interests in public life." They are most interested in the last point: from whom does the government hear and what does it hear from them?

To answer these questions, they interviewed over 15,000 people by phone and then interviewed 2,517 of them in a follow-up, more detailed survey. The researchers found lots of interesting trends. The researchers asked if the respondents had been politically active about a government benefit they received. They found that the government is much more likely to hear from those with who receive seemingly automatic, non-means-tested benefits (Social Security, veterans' benefits, Medicare; benefits not determined by income level) than those with means-tested benefits (Medicaid, food stamps, housing subsidies, Aid to Families with Dependent Children). Those with Social Security were much more likely to contact the government about their benefits than those with AFDC.

The government hears very different messages from the advantaged and the disadvantaged. From the survey, the researchers found that the disadvantaged mainly contact the government about basic human needs: poverty, jobs, housing, and health, as well as drugs and crime. The advantaged contact the government about economic issues (taxes, government spending, or the budget) or about social issues (abortion or pornography). Since the disadvantaged are much less politically active, "public officials actually receive more messages from the advantaged, suggesting a curtailment of government intervention on behalf of the needy, than messages from the disadvantaged urging the opposite."

Why do some participate politically more than others? The researchers found that education is the best predictor. However, when the respondents were asked whether they had been invited (or recruited) to take part in a political act, like being invited personally to give an opinion about the Hine PUD, those who were invited were much more likely to be more educated and more wealthy than those who spontaneously took part in a political activity (see Table 12-2).

Those who invite or recruit others to take part are "rational prospectors," looking to use their time and energies most efficiently. Recruiters find political participants through organizational, neighborhood, and workplace networks of personal ties, as well as impersonal means such as through mass emails. Those who are recruited are different both demographically (more wealthy and more educated) and in their need for government assistance. Such selective recruitment brings in "those who are likely to be political involved already" and represents their interests, rather than providing "equal protection of interests in public life."

So, I am exactly the type of person who would be personally recruited to take part in the Hine PUD process. I have attended several Hine meetings. I greatly appreciate my inclusion in the process. At the same time, I seek to highlight those left out of the process. Were Potomac Gardens residents and their representatives like Resident Council president Melvina Middleton or DCHA Family Commissioner Aquarius Vann-Ghasri personally invited to voice their opinions about the needed amenities and benefits, since Potomac Gardens residents made up much of the Hine Junior High school population? Were some of the 20% of Ward 6 residents living in poverty personally invited to voice their opinion? Were those using Section 8 rental vouchers personally recruited? What would these neighbors say should be done with the Hine property?

Yes, as Brian Pate commented, AmericaSpeaks is expensive, but inclusive democracy does require funding and SW DC residents have benefited from being well organized (as I discussed in a past post). Also, AmericaSpeaks is not the only option. One could look at earlier efforts on Capitol Hill, such as the 1970s Capitol East Coalition for Housing and Neighborhood Improvement, which officially included representatives from public housing, senior citizen, youth, and welfare-low-income residents. Why don't the poor go to Hine meetings or why (probably) weren't they among the 200 who responded to the Hine PUD survey? Maybe they weren't asked.

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