Off The Books by Sudhir Venkatesh

Venkatesh studied the urban poor of a Southside Chicago community for five years and found that the underground economy involved almost every individual in a neighborhood of 30,000 people: moms, business owners, hustlers, preachers, police, politicians, and gang members.

The community's poverty keeps everyone acutely aware of how much they need to get before the next rent needs paid. Everyone in this social fabric keeps a running mental balance sheet. When one grows up in such an environment, what the federal laws call corruption, you call "balance". From business owners' subletting a back room to a prostitute to use in the evening with her johns, to pimps negotiating with community members for a relatively safe place for his prostitute to streetwalk, to the moms who sell soul food out of their home to the prostitute, to a homeless man who runs errands for the mom in exchange for being able to crash in her house when the weather turns for the worse, to the preacher who takes 10% of the homeless man's earnings when the preacher arranges work for him, to the local alderman who takes a kickback to make sure the preacher's permit application sails through no questions asked, even though the preacher runs gambling out of the church, to the local policemen who talk with the alderman and money flows as it needs to, to make sure things happen.

Aside from cursory police oversight, southside Chicago has no effective centralized government. Residents resolve the vast majority of disputes themselves, and much of the resulting cash flows go unreported. No centralized power means that access to commons (such as a park or sidewalk) can be contested by whoever sees fit. If someone's on a curb panhandling, selling drugs, or flesh, someone paid for them to be able to sell there.

From my perspective, three observations stand out:

  1. These people severely lack banking access. Illicit funds need to be stored someplace, and this usually lies with loans to others, unless they also have a legit paycheck and can store the cash at a bank someplace. Urban businesses have marginal returns and tend to still be red-lined for loans (rejected) by commercial banks even with the Community Reinvestment Act still on the books. One possible solution would be for a stable local preacher with a legit non-profit organization to act as banker. They can launder the cash banked with the cash tithed, and just keep a running ledger. When someone wants to make a withdrawal, that person just gets emergency fiscal help in the amount of their requested withdrawal. This would allow people to securely save with a trusted local community cornerstone.
  2. All of the little payments to do things amount to a series of taxes on the inhabitants. No wonder they don't want to pay any other taxes (not that they would get much out of it).
  3. Police officers churn out but apparently don't pass on neighborhood notes to the new officer on the block. This looks ridiculous; one just needs a notebook and a cameraphone, and then the officer would have an easier time getting up to speed, and the inhabitants would have less uncertainty when a new officer gets assigned.

At times, a bit prolix (it kinda shows that he spent 5 years talking with people who were fixated on their problems ;), it repainted my understanding of urban poverty and the society it envelopes.