About three weeks ago, I arrived in New Haven to spend one semester as a visiting Ph.D. student at Yale. I had never been to the city before, and, given Yale’s reputation, my expectations were high. Not only did I anticipate the chance to study in a highly stimulating environment, I looked forward to living in a welcoming, secure city.
I arrived at Phelps Gate on a Sunday night. On the way to my friend’s house, which was only two blocks away, I was asked twice if I had change. I did not have any cash on me, so I said no. No sweat off my back. But I was surprised by the requests themselves. Wasn’t I just arriving in a country that had experienced 10 years of exceptional economic growth? Maybe these too-poor people were aberrations, exceptions to the wealthy boom.
For the first two weeks, I searched for a place to live. I visited apartments all over New Haven and got to know the city. Luckily, I visited most of the places at daytime. (Walking through streets in which houses that are burned down, abandoned or surrounded by rubbish must be quite scary at night.) Each day, there was at least one person who asked me if I had a quarter. Some claimed they were homeless. Interestingly, I felt the word “homeless” would describe my condition as well.
The fact that several beggars were around the city was one thing that surprised me. But more importantly, I noticed that a considerable number of people on the street looked as though they were extremely poor. Some seemed to lack the money even to maintain basic physical health; others were apparently in need of psychological support.
I have been confronted before with all kinds of unusual sights while traveling through Central and South America. But I didn’t expect to see these kinds of things — and to such an extent — in the United States. The per capita income in the United States is close to Switzerland’s, and I had lived there for three years. In Switzerland, poverty still exists, but its effects do not extend substantially to the physical and mental health of its victims.
New Haven might not be a good representation of the whole country, but it’s one piece of the whole picture. The U.S. system provides many opportunities and strong incentives for its citizens to succeed. Many achieve this goal, but those who do not are left far behind. Since the government does not want to intervene too much in these dynamics, the result is a competitive society where the difference between rich and poor is often quite substantial.
Huge income differences may provide motivation for people to work hard and to succeed, but they also may create envy and social conflicts. In New Haven, perhaps more than in other places, the rich and the poor segments of U.S. society clash. This meeting might be a positive experience for both groups; it may also create problems.
New Haven’s persistently high crime rate seems to be partly due to the clash of these two societal groups. Stepping up the police force might help to lower the crime rate and solve this problem in the short term. But it will not improve the situation in the long term. Only a society that is more equitable and that ensures a certain level of welfare for everyone will resolve the issue.
Matthias Helble is a fourth-year graduate student in economics.