Exploding Myths about Poverty

The news photos were dramatic: They showed four high-rise buildings being blown sky-high—the destruction of a public housing project in Newark, New Jersey. One photo, taken just as the explosives were ignited, showed the buildings tilting precariously, dust billowing on all sides. In the second photo, the buildings had been reduced to massive piles of rubble. This demolition project is not just another urban renewal program. It has a much deeper significance: It echoes the death sentence of the Great Society. As the mayor of Newark put it, the explosion represents "the end of an American dream that failed." You see, the Great Society grew from the dream that government social planning could eliminate poverty and solve our country's social problems. Modern social philosophers were inspired by the scientific optimism of the Enlightenment. They dreamed of finding what they called a "social physics," a set of laws governing the way individuals interact, just as the laws of physics govern the way atoms interact. They hoped to use rational scientific planning to map out the ideal society. In the 1950s and 1960s, those dreams took flesh as they were backed by government funding. Public housing was one of the brainstorms of that era. Great, hulking structures were erected, where the style itself reflected the modernist vision: The buildings were scientifically functional, constructed of steel and concrete. Their lines were stark and impersonal, their only goal utilitarian: to warehouse as many people as efficiently as possible. The result was not homes but human cages. But humans are not animals and they cannot live in cages. Soon the walls were defaced by graffiti, the elevators stopped working, criminals stalked the hallways. With no safe places to play, children huddled in gangs. The housing projects designed with such scientific care turned into seedbeds of crime and misery. Residents hated them. When the Newark housing project was blown up, former residents watched and cheered. This is not the first time a housing project was blown up. The trend started with the Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis in 1972. That explosion sent social planners into shock. Historian Charles Jencks even considers the destruction of the St. Louis project the end of the modern era. In other words, what we're seeing is not just the demolition of a couple of old buildings. We're seeing the collapse of modernist social philosophy—the idea that society can be redesigned according to an abstract "social physics." Today most people agree that the Great Society has failed. Several states are experimenting with new approaches to poverty and welfare. This is a marvelous opportunity for Christians to promote a truly biblical social philosophy—one that treats people not as social atoms to be engineered but as image-bearers of God, with dignity and responsibility. Even the buildings we design to house the poor reflect our view of human life. A secular society builds cages, and it's up to you and me to argue for a biblical and humane perspective in shaping public policy. Otherwise even our best schemes may end up once more as piles of rubble.


Chuck Colson


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