Wicked problems: a century of social policy in Tremont

The month of January gets its name from the Roman god Janus. Depicted as having two faces, one looking forward and the other looking back, Janus was the god of beginnings, transitions, and time, among other things.

One of my colleagues recently shared a study entitled Between Spires and Stacks, a study commissioned by The Center for Community Solutions in 1934. At the time Community Solutions was known as the Welfare Federation of Cleveland. The report was completed in 1935 and published in 1936.

Focusing on the needs of boys in the Tremont area, the study is impressive in its thoroughness. Including interviews with over 200 adults and 124 boys, maps, Census data, infographics, tables and charts, its format would look familiar to anyone reading social research today. The content would look familiar as well. Here are some quotes from the 350+ page document:

“‘Just another study!’ was a phrase which practically haunted the members of the Working Committee.” (p.xxi)

“Studies…show that juvenile delinquency rates vary enormously with economic status.” (p. 81)

“In light of other data – interview records, observations and case material – where police practices, tolerance of delinquency and other patterns of behavior are dealt with, one is forced to
question seriously the adequacy of the picture as revealed by these figures.” (p. 84)

“Among the most conspicuous problems of the Area is that of poverty. It is referred to as ‘the basic factor of poverty’ because it obviously sustains a direct relationship to most if not all of the
major problems of the Area.” (p. 126)

“Employment, poverty, money, and freedom from debts appear most frequently among wishes expressed for the boys’ families.” (p. 127)

“‘I wish we lived liked ordinary people and just got enough money to pay our rent and to buy food.’” (p. 127)

“‘I think the greatest insecurity and emotional difficulty arise from evictions. We handle from thirty-five to fifty evictions a week in this district. I know of some families under our supervision that have moved as many as five times during the last twelve months. Some of them have a tremendous difficulty getting a place to live, particularly if they say they are on relief.’” (p. 128)

“The apparent relationship which exists between inadequate housing and problems of family disorganization and juvenile delinquency should also be reemphasized.” (p. 130)

“Our hope for the future lies in our youth. We shall be held responsible in the future if we do not meet that challenge with effective action now.” (p.xvii)

Sound familiar?

Wicked problems are complex and difficult to solve

Why is it that the issues described in a study closing in on a century old are so relevant today?

Because issues addressed by social policy are “wicked problems.” Wicked problems refer to problems that are difficult or impossible to solve, due to their complex and interconnected nature. Defined by design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber in 1973, wicked problems have ten characteristics:

    1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
    2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
    3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse.
    4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
    5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly.
    6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
    7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
    8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
    9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
    10. The social planner has no right to be wrong (i.e., planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).

Rittel & Webber’s Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning

Wicked problems call us to frame actions and expectations

When I read through the points of this definition, I am simultaneously comforted that someone has put into words the overwhelming nature of social problems, dispirited at the immensity of the issue, and challenged to rise to the occasion as so many who read these blogs do day in and day out. Defining a wicked problem is not meant to discourage action, but rather frame what the action should look like (each attempt counts and is liable for consequences) and what can reasonably be expected to change (there is no stopping rule and solutions are better or worse).

Defining a wicked problem is not meant to discourage action, but rather frame what the action should look like and what can reasonably be expected to change.

Additionally, the definition of wicked problems makes clear the value of more voices on issues. If how we define or explain a problem determines its resolution, then we need more voices, particularly of those most affected by an issue, explaining how they see a problem. The most salient example of this is the effort to define racism as a public health crisis. A resolution for this wicked problem cannot only focus on medical treatment, but must address equity. While a collaborative approach is best, it is not without its challenges, as Between Spires and Stacks relates.

This democratic procedure has its difficulties. Persons of a certain temperament chaff under the necessity of weighing all factors and abiding by a compromise which may assure action, rather than stating the facts (as they see them) bluntly, letting the shoe pinch where it will. Or it is easy to wait until the field workers have gone and the report is made and then rule it out because you, the involved person or agency, had not been “sufficiently consulted.’ (p. xxi)

We humans tend to name and categorize things to make sense of them. For me, the term wicked problem is good shorthand for what it is we are up against when it comes to social progress. And while the task is daunting, when considering if change is possible, consider these comments about Tremont in 1935 included in Between Spires and Stacks, seemingly unbelievable as we look ahead to 2023:

“‘Why choose the worst area in the city?’”

“‘You will never do anything with that Area in all the world.’”

“‘The Tremont Area is so bad, there is not enough money in Cleveland to clean it up.’” (p.140)

 Tremont’s wicked problems (and some better news) today

Compared to residents of Cleveland heading into the pandemic, Tremont residents had higher rates of employment and college degrees. Tremont residents had lower rates of poverty, unaffordable housing, babies born with low birthweights or preterm, and residents receiving public benefits. Tremont households also had higher median household incomes compared to Cleveland.

Labor Force Participation73.0%59.1%
Bachelor’s degree or higher44.7%17.5%
Persons living below poverty28.4%32.7%
Unaffordable Owner-Occupied Households 20.6%26.0%
Unaffordable Renter-Occupied Households32.7%51.7%
Low birthweight9.8%13.7%
Preterm birth11.8%14.4%
Households that receive SNAP23.9%33.4%
Median Household income$46,987$30,907

Sources: Birth Outcomes data are from Ohio Department of Health, 2014-2017, calculated by The Center for Community Solutions. All other data are 2019 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, compiled by The Center for Community Solutions in collaboration with the Northern Ohio Data & Information Service (NODIS), Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs, Cleveland State University.


Hopefully this January we are renewed in our efforts to tackle wicked problems, in part by bringing more voices into the conversation to transform our communities over time for the better.