Our ‘thing-oriented’ society puts development ahead of human needs. We all suffer the consequences

October 23, 2023 5:50 am

Members of a clean-up crew remove belongings that have been left behind by occupants as the National Park Service clears the homeless encampment at McPherson Square on Feb. 15, 2023 in Washington, D.C. Columnist Mark McCormick writes that cities’ desire for new and flashy developments outweighs investments in solving social problems (Alex Wong/Getty Images).

It takes concentration not to see certain realities — the mother holding the handwritten sign at the traffic light; the man sleeping under a bridge; the tent cities on public right of ways.

But we make the effort.

In downtown Kansas City, developers plan an entertainment district with a Ferris wheel centerpiece. There’s also talk of a new baseball stadium downtown. A $160 million park built on top of Interstate-670 downtown waits on the horizon.

We routinely look past the obvious suffering of neighbors to find millions for selfish wants that will do nothing to address any kind of suffering. This happens in most communities. The desire for amusements has supplanted any desire to meet actual human needs.

Given our inability to curb such spending, we should demand dollar-for-dollar spending on social uplift for every dollar spent on Ferris wheels, dog parks or sports venues. Otherwise, the extravagances will continue unabated, and the needy will continue to disappear from our priority lists.

In the 1990s, as spasms of gang violence terrorized Little Rock, Arkansas, that city passed a one-cent sales tax and vowed to spend a dollar on prevention for every dollar spent on suppression. Every new prosecutor or patrolman hire meant more money for needs as well as for wants.

Other cities should try this, even if it begins with a moratorium on popular public amenity projects unless and until there’s sufficient money to address needs such as public violence or homelessness. Maybe we could leech some of the guilt from these guilty pleasure projects.

Maybe this idea persuades cities to stop chasing the pipe dream that somehow American tourists will stop caring about beaches and mountains and start choosing Kansas or Missouri as prime vacation spots.

Maybe those enrichment packages get smaller, saving taxpayers money.

Maybe we claw back some ground we’ve ceded to the developers who always seem to be in line for a public money handout.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once argued that global warfare spending stymied “programs of social uplift.” We needed to shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a person-oriented society, King said.

“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered,” he said.

We’re still choosing “things” over people.

Chase Billingham, an associate professor of sociology, studies this phenomenon. Billingham said cities enter negotiations with developers at a decided disadvantage. Multiple cities compete against each other for projects. Ultimately, the cities give away the store to secure deals, he said.

It’s complicated, Billingham said.

City officials could argue that some citizens do want these vanity projects and that the city needs them to generate funds necessary to fight social problems.

“A lot of people like going to sporting events,” Billingham said. “They like going to the farmers market. They like going to the park, and they like having new and shiny things in their city. And especially young people — people we might call gentrifiers — asking for that new kind of development.

“So, there’s political pressure on city council members and mayors and city managers to produce those new kinds of consumer amenities that are oriented toward the consumption tastes of the middle and upper class. And those people are more likely to vote.”

Also, Billingham said, there’s money in development and no money in addressing homelessness.

By now, we ought to understand that the violence, the homelessness and the inequality in our communities have deeper origins than poor choices. Systems and processes help maintain violence, widespread homelessness and uneven opportunity.

Community leaders tend to mention poverty only during election years or when questioned why they’re funding new hotels and stadiums instead of pocked roads, crumbling schools and tent cities.

We haven’t fully funded schools. We support juvenile courts on the backs of kids and poor families. We don’t have parity in spending between district attorneys and public defenders. Foster kids still need more.

Why are we building professional ball stadiums? Why do we make sure the wealthy have more than they need while insisting that the poor get less than they need? We make this calculation each time we choose the frivolous over the substantive.

Blissful unawareness remains our societal default.

If author James Baldwin is to be believed, it’s a conscious choice masquerading as a subconscious one. To maintain this level of comfort, we can’t afford to pay attention.

“For a very long time, America prospered,” Baldwin said. “This prosperity cost millions of people their lives. Now, not even the people who are the most spectacular recipients of the benefits of this prosperity, are able to endure these benefits. They can neither understand them nor do without them … they cannot imagine the price paid by their victims or subjects for this way of life, and so they cannot afford to know why the victims are revolting.

“This is for formula for nation or kingdom decline.”

Yes, we have an answer to the question: “What to get the neighbor who has nothing?”

Apparently, more public amenities.

This commentary originally appeared in the Kansas Reflector, a States Newsroom affiliate. 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Mark McCormick
Mark McCormick

Mark McCormick is the former executive director of The Kansas African American Museum and a former newspaper columnist.