Did anyone ask them?

It is impossible after reading Duflo and Banerjee’s Poor Economics to read reports about poverty and public policy without wondering whether anyone bothered asking the poor whether they were interested in the policy allegedly being enacted on their behalf. While the authors focus on the failure of development agencies to ask their beneficiaries, the same pattern is true here in the States.

The local NPR station provides an example in a report on a city policy of policing public housing:

New York Police officers regularly walk the floors, stairwells and roofs of public housing developments looking for suspicious activity. These so-called vertical patrols are also conducted at private buildings when requested by building owners….

At a Thursday afternoon press conference, Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended the controversial tactic of vertical patrols and used the opportunity to bring up a lawsuit challenging the practice. “The [New York Civil Liberties Union] and others are suing us to limit both these patrols – despite the fact that they have been instrumental in saving lives and bringing down crime in what are often crime and gang riddled buildings,” he said.

The city government makes strong claims that this policy is designed to benefit the city’s poor residents:

Mayor Bloomberg sees the vertical patrols as beneficial to the residents who live in places where they occur. “The NYPD goes to these buildings for a very simple reason: it’s where crimes are being committed and to give residents of these buildings some security that those in doorman buildings are afforded,” he reasoned…

“About 4 percent of New York residents live in public housing. About 20 percent of violent crime occurs in public housing,” [NY Police Commissioner] Kelly said. According to the NYPD, 35 people were shot in public housing developments in the last 28 days.

It’s impossible to evaluate the effectiveness of this program based on the information provided. Crucially, it is also impossible to know whether the program is a response to the community’s concerns.

But the same is true of the behavior of the non-profits who claim to argue on behalf of the poor:

The New York Civil Liberties Union lawsuit challenges the practice of vertical patrols and alleges that an untold number of individuals are being stopped without cause. “Subjecting people who are not engaged in suspicious behavior to routine interference with their daily lives simply because of where they live and the color of their skin does not build trust. It does not respect dignity and it doesn’t make us any safer,” NYCLU Director Donna Lieberman said. Lieberman acknowledged that Thursday’s shooting exemplified the challenges police face but said officers should be counted on to do a very difficult job while not violating people’s rights….

While the NYCLU lawsuit challenges vertical patrols in private buildings, a similar, but separate, lawsuit by the Legal Aid Society challenges the practice in public housing developments…

Who asked the NYCLU and Legal Aid to file these suits? Are they representing the wishes of people in the projects? It’s easy to assume that this is the case but it’s not clear that it is.

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