As downtown Pittsburgh fans out to the east between the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers, three distinct street grids form. To the south is Uptown on a bluff overlooking the Monongahela; to the north is the Strip District in the Allegheny’s floodplain; and in between is a hill called, simply, the Hill District. Whereas the north and south street grids mesh naturally with the city center, though, the Hill’s grid is cut off by a concrete scar of parking lots and highway ramps.

It was not always this way; until recently, it was worse. For fifty years the Civic Arena occupied much of this land, cutting the Hill off from Downtown not just physically but visually. The arena was to be part of a “cultural acropolis” featuring the arena, an opera house, and other amenities.

8,000 residents and 400 small businesses were sacrificed. Only the arena was ever built. The rest of the eminent-domained land was used for parking for nearly five decades of hockey games and rock concerts.

The Hill District was and remains, you might have guessed, a black neighborhood—one of relatively few in this de facto segregated Rust Belt city. It was, until the city Brahmins found a better use for their land and property, one of the great centers of black culture in America and home of the finest jazz between New York and Chicago. “Urban renewal” hobbled the Hill; riots after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, assassination delivered the coup de grace.

The poor in “Sliberty”

For much of the twentieth century the three largest commercial districts in Pennsylvania were Center City Philadelphia, Downtown Pittsburgh, and East Liberty—a neighborhood in Pittsburgh’s East End. Located on some of the flattest land in the city, the neighborhood was always a transportation hub around which a major, organic commercial district bloomed.

But in the early sixties the city had 8,000 inconvenient black people to relocate. Having just razed much of East Liberty to make it more ‘car-friendly,’ it only made sense to plop them down there. So the city authorities constructed a few high rises and, having just vandalized the neighborhood and the lives of many hundreds of families, expected the arrangement to flourish.

It did not. White people fled. The communities that had been destroyed never re-formed. The commercial district, or what we left of it, withered. East Liberty (“Sliberty” in the local dialect) became one of those monikers locally associated with crime and blight.

Over the past several years private developers and city officials have done much to correct the defacement of East Liberty. The neighborhood has become, dare I say it, trendy. Boutique hotels. Luxury apartments. Craft cocktails; craft burgers; craft barbecue. Gentrification.

The high rises are gone, but a few aging “affordable housing” complexes remain—one of the last of which is about to be leveled. In a laudable attempt to avoid reprising past atrocities, meetings have been held among stakeholders to ensure some provision is made for the people whose homes are about to be destroyed.

But there’s a popular sentiment toward poverty and the poor that is offended by proposals like this, and that bubbled to the surface in the comboxes of even the city’s more liberal paper. The idea is that subsidized housing residents deserve no compensation for their eviction, nor should they receive any support to stay in the neighborhood. They need to find market-rate housing they can afford without leeching off more successful city residents. Even more perversely, this sentiment is often associated with opposition to wages that would permit these people to afford market housing, not to mention opposition to the public transit that would allow them to access jobs. We must be careful about ascribing malicious motives, but it’s difficult not to detect in these preferences an outright contempt for the poor.

The “bootstraps” approach

That’s a lot of background, but it’s important—and not just because it’s my city and I find it interesting and you should too. It’s important because this history of culpable maltreatment by public and private authorities immediately throws into doubt the individualistic “bootstraps” mentality toward the poor that undergirds the popular sentiment. The facts themselves are the most compelling argument that poverty cannot be reduced to a failure of individual effort or virtue. For social and economic structural deficiencies that span generations only structural fixes can possibly be effective.

This isn’t to say that some individuals can’t make it. Hard work is a necessary condition to successfully grapple one’s way out of poverty—and this should not be downplayed—but it is rarely a sufficient condition. Good opportunities; good transportation; good family; good communities; good fortune—some or all of these are almost always essential parts of climbing the socioeconomic ladder.

More than being unrealistic, the exclusive focus on “hard work” is damaging to the poor. If poverty is just a function of effort and virtue, we can dismiss the long-term poor as lazy and profligate. And while vice surely finds a home in poor neighborhoods, it would be nice if these same moralists accentuated the peculiar and pernicious vices of the rich with as much eagerness.

Now, there’s a more humane version of the “bootstraps” approach. Rather than focusing on the supposed deficiencies of the poor, Christian libertarians focus on their peculiar opportunity to develop in virtue through the process of economic self-improvement. These Christians readily admit that poverty can be incredibly difficult and damaging, but they see governmental intervention of any kind not only as having deleterious economic side effects, but as stultifying the moral maturation that is both necessary for and produced by financial success.

But this rosy picture is just that: a pastel veneer that obscures not just the physical but the spiritual costs of poverty. It ignores the ends Christianity has for people, ends that inhumane social and economic conditions can frustrate. The nearly maniacal dedication to wage labor that is needed to overcome structures of poverty is inconsistent with humane living and corrosive to family life, and therefore to the kind of holy and virtuous life to which God calls us. The “virtues” rewarded and instilled by the market are hardly the same as, and are sometimes inconsistent with, authentic Christian virtue. You can be a very good worker and a bad human being.

It should go without saying that to raise a family in decent conditions, either as a full family unit or especially as a single mother, with the opportunities available to those in poor neighborhoods requires multiple insecure jobs and extreme, unpredictable hours. It should also go without saying that these conditions are damaging to family life—both to the personal and financial confidence to form a family, and to the ability to provide an honorable life for a growing family.

Market above family and faith

Just as surely as government assistance can place the state above the family in order of loyalty and importance, the world of the Christian libertarian places the market above the family. In order not to starve, a mother or a father or both must sacrifice important parts of family life—quality time, basic education, the domestic church—on the altar of the market as the only way to survive.

These are not luxuries, but necessities for the family to do what it is designed to do, and what only it can do. Families are the cross-generational sinews of the Faith; whatever harms family formation and cohesion harms the Faith; whatever personal benefits in fortitude and perseverance accrue to the dedicated laborer they do not and cannot outweigh this damage.

The Christian libertarian’s faith in the market as the only morally worthy economic arbiter depends on the assumption that the market generally rewards virtue and punishes vice, properly understood. Besides the fact that this thesis conveniently validates the status of the well-off, it also conflates bourgeois virtue with Christian virtue.

The “virtues” that are rewarded by the labor market (especially the cheap labor market) are those which benefit the employer and, by extension, the business’s owners, shareholders, and so on. Economic value is the only criterion for judging virtue. (Telling the truth is virtuous, but the market rewards advertising executives for lying when lying will be effective.) Any convergence with Christian virtue is, in almost all cases, accidental. We can imagine, I suppose, a world in which employers value authentic virtue for its own sake in an economic system that teaches that profit maximization is the business’s essential social and moral duty, but I’m not holding my breath.

"Blessed are the multi-taskers, for they increase corporate productivity." "Blessed are the punctual, for they show proper deference to their bosses." These are among the beatitudes of business, and while productivity and punctuality and so on may be worthy character traits inasmuch as they signify respect for others’ time and efforts, they are far from primary virtues. But the market raises these second- and third-order virtues to primary importance. We smugly praise the punctual worker for her virtue, blind to the child she couldn’t read to due to her extreme and inconsistent hours. (Then, of course, we smugly chide her—or throw her in prison—for her parental inattentiveness.)

Christian libertarians often present themselves as hard-nosed realists, but it’s hard to imagine a more extravagant fantasy than the assumption that the skills and traits required to navigate the vagaries of twenty-first-century American capitalism can be mapped directly onto the virtues that build us up in holiness. Work can bring us closer to the Lord—as part of a balanced and humane life filled also with leisure and enjoyment and prayer. A life dedicated to work alone—especially work demanded by the market for survival—is unbalanced and inhumane; it is based on a false and philistine anthropology that elevates the market above the person and the Lord Himself.

The poor are worthy

The City of Pittsburgh did eventually come to an agreement with the tenants and developers in East Liberty. The developer agreed to pay relocation costs and to set aside half of its new housing as “affordable,” for which current residents will have priority. It’s not perfect—gentrification remains the unsolvable puzzle of urban economic and social justice—but it begins to treat the poor and working class like human beings whose lives can’t be arbitrarily disrupted when the market changes.

This is, in the end, all I ask: that we treat the poor as being worthy of the humane lives most Christians in this country are able to lead. Free time away from lubricating the gears of the market is not a luxury; it’s a right. And a right implies a duty; a duty to organize an economy that serves all persons rather than vice versa; a duty to organize a civil society that supplements what the market provides; and a duty to organize a state that sees as its end the common good whose baseline is the freedom of every person to live a fully human life.