Former Air Force intelligence officer Mike Koprowski, center, once led DISD’s Office of Transformation and Innovation, aimed at bringing middle class kids back into Dallas schools. DISD let him get away, of course. Now he's leading a new anti-poverty program called Opportunity Dallas.
Former Air Force intelligence officer Mike Koprowski, center, once led DISD’s Office of Transformation and Innovation, aimed at bringing middle class kids back into Dallas schools. DISD let him get away, of course. Now he's leading a new anti-poverty program called Opportunity Dallas.
Mark Graham

Putting Poor People in Nonexistent Nicer Houses Doesn't Make Them Unpoor. Jobs Do That.

Great week for me. It's been a long time since I've been able to complain about Dallas Morning News editorials twice in one week. And as complaints go, this one is a little bit conditional. They actually said a good thing, but, lucky for me, they said it the wrong way.

In fact I might not even bring it up if it did not involve such a central and serious problem for the city. Yesterday in an editorial titled "New Hope in Poverty Fight," the city's only daily newspaper managed to repeat every naive wrong-headed claptrap misconception about poverty in the book – a real shame because the new program they were talking about, called Opportunity Dallas, is almost certain to be a good thing because of the smart guy running it.

But first, what's the deal? In a city brimming with people who pay more in a month for artisinal cocktails than for rent, where's all this poverty? That answer used to be simple. South. But in recent years poverty has dispersed. You really don't have to look very hard.

The numbers show that all of those semi-beat-up apartments you drive by in Dallas are brimming with people living on the very ragged edge of survival, giving Dallas the highest poverty rate of any big city in the country, up 42 percent in 15 years, as the News reported yesterday in its editorial. Make no mistake: Poverty in this country and this city today means not enough healthcare and sometimes not enough food, and that includes kids.

We could talk about who's poor, why and for how long. Dallas is an immigration mecca – legal as well as undocumented – and most of us who are native born have witnessed the phenomenon of astonishing upward mobility among whole groups and nationalities.

We also are aware that the native-born generational poor are often a harder nut to crack. One of the most depressing expressions in local political discourse is also one of the more common – cradle-to-prison pipeline. We have a big pipeline for that in Dallas. People's explanations for it cover a broad spectrum from constructive analysis to – surprise, surprise – simple red-neck racism.

Opportunity Dallas is an initiative headed by Mike Koprowski, who was the innovation guru in the Dallas school system under former Superintendent Mike Miles. The fact that Miles' successor, Michael Hinojosa, let Koprowski get way from him last year was depressing, and the fact that Koprowski is still in town and has shown up again in this new incarnation is very good news. We can all look forward to weeks ahead when he will brief the City Council fully on his group's strategy for combating poverty and income inequality in Dallas.

But first, the dumb ideas.

In spite of the catastrophe looming in West Dallas, where new tighter building codes are about to put more than 100 families on the street, the Morning News persists in saying that poverty will be reduced when poor people have nicer houses. I don't know how the editorial writers at the paper can avoid seeing that a policy of more restrictive building codes, absent a fully mobilized program of very cheap replacement housing already in place, is a mass eviction policy.

I don't even get what's complicated or hard to see. Let's think about it in terms of Guy X. Guy X has $100,000 to invest. He's looking for a 6 percent return. He thinks he can get it by becoming a low-rent landlord.

Is Guy X a bad person because he wants to rent houses to people at the bottom of the scale? No, he's a bad guy if he gouges them on the rent, violates the existing building codes, deliberately rents to drug dealers and things like that. But it is a consistent and tell-tale misconception of naive middle class people who have never been within a mile of poverty that all people who do business with the poor are bad people.

Poor is not a planet. All people from Planet Poor are not bad. I find that the less people really know about the poor, the more likely they are to harbor Shylockian stereotypes of people who do business with the poor, as if doing business with the poor is what makes them poor. How lucky we all would be if were that simple.

Part of what's griping my own soul right now, I will admit, is the very bleak chapter just concluded in which representatives of a company owned by one of the city's leading families traipsed through a federal public corruption trial describing – rather blithely I thought – how they had worked to sabotage the single greatest jobs and economic development opportunity ever to come within 100 miles of poor Dallas.

I'm speaking, of course, about the trial of Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price and the evidence presented by the government that Hillwood, controlled by the Perot family, sought Price's help in slowing down the Inland Port logistics center in southern Dallas.

And, yes, I know, the Inland Port was a serious competitive threat to a logistics center the Perots own in Fort Worth, and I would be the last person on earth ever to expect a rich Dallas family to put social equity above their own clear financial interests. Really. If it were my moolah, I wouldn't do it.

Far more distressing to me was the position of Price, frequently seconded over the years by the Morning News editorial page, that the jobs weren't what was most important. Price has said repeatedly over his long career that manual labor is associated with slavery. And then the News said the important thing was Price, because he's black, and the Inland Port would have been in the black part of town, and ... uh ... I forget the rest.

They're all totally nuts. Just crazy. Jobs and business opportunity are the only things that count. Put a poor unemployed man and woman in a nicer house and you've got a poor unemployed man and woman in a nicer house. Oh, I forgot: You don't have any nicer houses.

My liberal friends – all of my friends are liberals – say to me, "Well, Jim, don't you think poor people deserve to live in nicer houses?"

You know what? I don't know. Define "deserve." While we're at it, define "poor." Are we talking about hard working people who always pay their rent if they can? Or crackheads? Which brings me back to Guy X.

I'm talking about Guy X, the honest guy trying to make 6 percent, obeys the law, charges cheap rent, vetts his tenants. If you change the rules on him in some way that knocks him down to 4 percent, even 5, then he's going to start scratching his head, thinking about maybe kicking out the tenants and using the property for that custom motorcycle parts idea his brother-in-law brought up at Thanksgiving.

The posture of the News and the mayor regarding the Khraish family, the landlords in West Dallas whom the city has placed in this very position, is that they are morally bad people for seeking to shift their investment strategy in the wake of a new tougher building code enacted last year. That's a wrongheaded way to look at it on about a dozen levels, not the least of which is that it keeps not one threatened family in a house and certainly does nothing to reduce poverty, probably the opposite.

Meanwhile, I never heard a word from the News about that Inland Port testimony. At the very least and after making elaborate allowances for the legitimate financial interests of the Perots and the deranged economic delusions of the recently acquitted county commissioner, the paper could have mentioned that the kind of economic promise offered and lost in the Inland Port debacle is the only thing that will ever do a damn thing about poverty in this city.

It would be really great if Koprowski or somebody else could do some intensive poverty awareness training for all of the city's best meaning Lady Bountifuls. What do the poor want? Exactly what you want. A chance. What do they need? Exactly what you need. A safe decent life. How do they get it? Exactly how you get it. Work.

Until then, maybe we should take it easy on the fix-up, spruce-up campaign. All that does is make us not have to see – really see – the misery and struggle all around us.

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