June 26, 2017

Children and Global Gentrification

TigonzalesBy Teresa Irene Gonzales

I recently gave a talk to the newly formed chapter of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Campus Initiative at Knox College. Founded by the United Nations in 1946 to provide aid to Children affected by World War II, UNICEF works in countries across the globe to improve the lives of children through research, health care, access to clean water and sanitation, and emergency relief, to name a few.

Their campus initiatives encourage college students to promote the mission of UNICEF, engage in fundraising, and organize educational panels. Like many clubs and organizations on college campuses, and especially at Knox, there is a component of philanthropy, volunteerism, and community engagement that underlines the work students do with UNICEF. At the same time there is a training component, where students learn how to become civically engaged in projects that they are passionate about.

Given the focus of UNICEF, my talk centered on the impacts of global or planetary gentrification on the lives of children.

As we know, neighborhoods, towns, and cities all change. This is due to people deciding they’d like to live in one area or another, to recent developments, or changes in industry. As I mentioned in a previous post, not all population change is gentrification.

Within a gentrification model, existing residents are displaced due to rising rent and property taxes. Current definitions of gentrification acknowledge a social class element (with higher-income residents displacing lower-income residents) and also the targeted efforts by state actors (municipal government) via growth-focused policies, and land-use developers. These actors focus on capital reinvestment in order to redevelop areas to attract higher-income residents.

Often, this means that wealthier people displace poorer people, and diversity is replaced by social and cultural homogeneity. As a result, places begin to look the same–shops, buildings, food– and working-class elements are demonized and/or removed in favor of specific aesthetic designs.

Researchers have found both positive and negative effects of gentrification. It can increase amenities within a neighborhood and social capital for residents. At the same time, it can lead to displacement, the loss of social networks (which would decrease social capital), increase social isolation, and exacerbate the effects of poverty.

So what does this mean at the planetary scale and what does this mean for children in poverty?

In the U.S. we tend to think of gentrification as process that primarily occurs in western wealthy countries. Yet, as research shows, gentrification is evident across the globe in areas from Mexico City to Mumbai to Shanghai to Johannesburg.

According to sociologists Loretta Lees, Hyun Bang Shin, and Ernesto López-Morales's book Planetary Gentrification:

Gentrification at the planetary scale is…an outcome of the interplays between global and local politico-economic forces, intertwined with an array of different institutional arrangement that characterize the currently hyper-connected capitalist world.

Planetary gentrification is closely linked to both global markets and global political arrangements that directly impact people at the local scale. It has therefore become a process that expands unequal power relations and exacerbates social isolation. Gentrification, at the local and the global level, goes hand in hand with poverty.

According to research conducted by the World Bank and UNICEF, 767 million people, or 10.7% of the global population, live on less than $1.90 per day (defined as extreme poverty), and 2.1 billion people live on less than $3.10 per day; 328 million children are living in extreme poverty. For some of us, it may be difficult to understand the impacts of this poverty and its relationship to social isolation.

Areas of concentrated poverty tend to have inadequate infrastructure, high crime, low educational opportunities, and high unemployment. All of this presents challenges for children, including impaired cognitive development, poor physical health, underachievement in school, lowered aspirations, greater likelihood of welfare dependency, and drug or alcohol abuse. These barriers can directly affect life outcomes as kids get older— that’s if they have the opportunity to grow older.

At least 17 million children suffer from severe acute malnutrition around the world. This is the direct cause of death for 1 million children every year. Every single day, 1,000 children under 5 around the world die from illnesses like diarrhea, dysentery, and cholera caused by contaminated water and inadequate sanitation.

When we compare concentrated poverty with outcomes of displaced poor families from gentrifying areas, the picture becomes even more stark: children are prone to increased homelessness, decreased educational opportunities, overcrowding of homes (with families doubling or tripling up in apartments), decreased social mobility, decreased access to nutritious foods, healthcare, and sanitation, and lower life chances.

So what can be done? Gentrification is a form of economic development that focuses on growth. Rather than support policies that solely benefit the most advantaged populations of society, we must consider how to improve the quality of life for everyone.

Globally, solutions include: equitable access to jobs that pay a living wage, quality education, affordable housing, creation of or incentives for mixed-income areas, quality healthcare, clean water and sanitation, and nutritious food, to name a few. Countries must also moving away from policies that solely promote growth, towards ones that improve equitable economic and sustainable development for everyone.

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