Who Is Your Neighbor? What Do You Owe Them?
I was thinking this morning about an issue that came up at the last meeting of the police jury, the county governing board in my part of the world. There was an attempt to get the police jury to sign off in some way on approval of Section 8 housing in a certain part of the parish.
To be clear, I am not certain what, precisely, was requested — that is, whether it was approval of the project itself, or simply a request for an endorsement by the jury. I’m not making a statement about this particular situation, only using it as a springboard to raise a philosophical and moral issue for discussion. I’m not sure what I think about it, and want to put the question to the room.
Over the past 20 years or so, a certain number of people — often people of means — have left the city of Baton Rouge to come live here in the Feliciana hills, in large part to escape the rising crime and collapsing public school system in East Baton Rouge Parish. West Feliciana, where I live, is largely rural, and has significant poverty, especially concentrated among the black community, many of whom live in radically substandard housing.
West Feliciana also has a housing shortage for everyone — this, in part because of market forces. There are more people wanting to buy land here than there is land for sale. Consequently, the cost of acreage is high, meaning that many people cannot afford to move here. It also means that many people, white and black alike, who were born and raised in this place cannot afford to live here. This is how the market is working. You cannot force landowners to sell their land — and much of the land here is held by a relatively small number of landowners.
Anyway, the thing that scares the heck out of white people is that Baton Rouge crime will find a foothold here in our parish. What they mean is that they don’t want poor black people from north Baton Rouge, with all their social pathologies, settling here. About the Section 8 thing, one white police juror said publicly that he is on board with helping poor people from our parish get housing, but he’s concerned that putting new Section 8 housing in the parish would attract people from outside the parish. He didn’t put it this way, but what he means is: poor black people from East Baton Rouge. It is completely understandable that folks wouldn’t want to import people from that socioeconomic class into our peaceful part of the world.
It is a reasonable concern, though not, I would contend, an excuse for not doing something for the poor people, white and black, who live in this parish. (Again, I’m not taking sides on this particular issue, only using a real world example to spark discussion). Moreover, what do we say to the poor black family in East Baton Rouge who wants the same thing well-off white people in EBR do — to live and raise their kids in a place that’s safe, and to attend a good public school — but who don’t have the means to move up here?
Alternatively, what do you say to the poor black people of this parish who want and need decent housing, but who may feel that they have enough to deal with these days without having their kids exposed to the kinds of pathologies that are tearing up the black community in the inner city?
The police juror I mention pointed out that we are already a cash-strapped parish in a cash-strapped state, and that importing people from outside the parish who have no means of support absent welfare payments is a bad idea. That seems to me to be quite reasonable as well. The well-off who move here from the city have means of self-support, and pay taxes. But there are poor people on welfare who live in this parish, and who have all their lives, who are living in shacks, and who need housing. As a moral question, how do you tell those people — your neighbors — that they are condemned to live in crappy houses despite government money being there to help them live better, because you’re afraid that will open the door to bad people from the city moving in?
What is one’s primary duty? To one’s community, or to the poor? I would say that the concrete reality of one’s community is more important than the abstraction that is the Poor. Your most important duty is to look after the well-being of your neighbors. But what about the poor in one’s own community? They are your neighbors in a way that people who live outside the parish, rich or poor, are not. That is also at issue in this example. I doubt that there’s a mechanism for ensuring that Section 8 housing only goes to people who are residents in the parish.
What would you do if you were on the police jury? How would you justify your vote?
Who is your neighbor?