Race, Class, and Space: How Our Development Policies Shape Opportunity and Social Mobility in America

1.13.12 | Is there still opportunity in America?

In today’s political climate being a working class average Joe can help muster votes. The Boston Senate race for Ted Kennedy’s old seat is shaping up to be a contest over who’s the real populist.  And Mitt Romney told a crowd at a campaign event in New Hampshire this week that his early days in business were spent “pulling ourselves up, in some respect, by our bootstraps.”

While we can be as skeptical as we want about how self-made these political millionaires really are, there is new evidence that these days, even with a lot of hard work, it’s becoming harder and harder to make it in America—even if you don’t aspire to be one of the ruling elite.

Writing in last week’s New York Times, Jason DeParle highlights new evidence that Americans have less economic mobility than their peers in countries like Canada or Western Europe, even in supposedly class rigid Great Britain. According to the Times, research out of Swedish University found that 42% of American men raised in the bottom fifth income range stay there as adults, compared with only 30% in Britain and 25% in Denmark.

These new statistics provide a timely segue into a new book, “Justice and the American Metropolis” that has been on my nightstand for several months now.

Edited by BRR Network Member Todd Swanstrom and his colleague Clarissa Rile Hayward, the volume dives deep into how metropolitan planning, policy, and local government reinforce class divisions in the United States, and in turn affect economic mobility.

In the introductory chapter, Swanstrom and Hayward coin the term “thick injustice” to understand conditions in American metropolitan areas today and find “unjust power relations that are deep and densely concentrated, as well as opaque and relatively intractable.” This injustice, they say, is hard to see, to assign responsibility for, and to change.

Collectively, the essays argue that social justice should be central to how we define success in metropolitan areas, and they include lessons for incorporating equity principles into planning, redevelopment efforts, and political leadership.

The volume opens with Stephen Macedo’s chapter on “Property-Owning Plutocracy: Inequality and American Localism.” Macedo examines how local politics affect class and mobility and function to reproduce existing divisions and opportunities, or lack there of.

He says in order to understand why intergenerational mobility is not as common in America as some might believe, it’s important to examine local property laws like public financing, zoning laws, and local development decisions.

Macedo says it’s not just private market-based choices that end up separating people by race and class in America. It’s also property laws and local political institutions that shape where we live, go to school, and, in turn, our prospects for success and economic mobility.

Local communities can exercise control over the makeup of local housing, for example, by specifying the minimum lots sizes for homes, which they may argue is about preserving the character of the community or green space, but in reality, Macedo says, makes it impossible to build affordable housing and locks out low-income residents and cements class divisions. He also writes about public financing and its effect on housing prices and access to quality schooling.

Molly Scott takes up a related issue this week at the Urban Institute’s Metrotrends blog. She points to inflexible rental occupancy standards, “often more strictly followed in better neighborhoods,” which restrict renters to two persons per bedroom and can force families to make a tradeoff between size, and location and quality in a very tight housing market.

Macedo cites research by Swanstrom et al. and others showing that economic stratification in America is increasing.  Swanstrom’s study found that the percentage of suburban residents living in middle-class suburbs declined from 74.9% to 60.8% between 1980 and 2000. “[A]ffluent people are ever more likely to live in the company of the privileged and poor people more likely to live in areas of concentrated poverty,” he writes.

The discussion reminds me of recent statistics about where I live in Berkeley, which has the widest gap between rich and poor in the Bay Area, according to recently released data from the Census Bureau. The data show Berkeley has both very rich residents, but also very poor residents.

Alan Berube, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says part of the reason for this is that the city’s progressive zoning laws allow for affordable apartments and residential hotels, unlike some other Bay Area suburbs.

“You won’t see an income inequality like that in Orinda, because there is simply nowhere there for poor people to live,” Berube told the Bay Area Citizen.

Additional highlights in the justice volume include Susan Fainstein’s “Redevelopment Planning and Distributive Justice in the American Metropolis,” which unpacks historical forces in city planning that shaped the nation’s redevelopment policy. Fainstein concludes with specific guidance for policymakers on how to incorporate principals of equity, diversity, and democracy into their planning efforts. She finds:

  • All new housing development should include below market rate housing.
  • Households or businesses should not be relocated for economic development except in exceptional situations.
  • Economic development should give priority to employees and small business owners. New commercial development should provide space for public use.
  • Megaprojects should be required to provide direct benefits to low-income people in the form of employment, public amenities, and a living wage.
  • “Planners should take an active role in deliberative settings in pressing for egalitarian solutions and blocking ones that disproportionately benefit the already well off.”

The volume also addresses how place-based inequalities have increasingly moved outside of central cities to poor and working-class suburbs. In the book’s concluding essay “Creating Justice for the Poor in the New Metropolis,” BRR Network Chair Margaret Weir finds that in some suburban locations, the weak institutional structures (lack of clinics, social services) and locational disadvantages (being far from jobs) can produce what she calls “extrusion,” or “extreme disconnection from the rest of society” making poverty more intractable and less visible. Sociologist William Julius Wilson wrote of similar isolation in the black inner city of the 1970s  and 1980s in his seminal book, “The Truly Disadvantaged.”

Weir says that social justice in the American metropolis will require action from the federal government to build local capacity to respond to their changing demographics and to help redistribute resources across metropolitan regions and eventually promote equity and economic mobility. You can buy your copy of the book online here.

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