What Socioeconomic Disparities Mean for the Future of Cities

7.11.13 | My first job out of college was working with young adults in Job Corps to help connect them to social services. I was the same age as many of my clients, and I befriended one of them in particular. Tanya was 24, training to be a bricklayer journeyman and already the mother of two kids—a 4-year-old girl and 2-year-old boy. I remember her telling me how she cooked them dinner on a hotplate in their apartment, because it didn’t have a real kitchen. A single mother with limited family support, Tanya was struggling to find a job in a field that didn’t welcome women. I helped her find a charity to donate clean mattresses so her kids didn’t have to sleep on the floor.

At the time I lived in a walkup above a bookstore with my college boyfriend. He was a teacher and our combined income wasn’t much, but both of our parents helped with car payments and extras and we spent weekends eating takeout and seeing Chicago theater. Tanya and I were the same age, lived in the same city, but were having radically different experiences of young adulthood.

I think of Tanya every once in a while. Even more lately, now that 15 years later, I am a parent of two kids around the same age, who are, more than likely having radically different childhood experiences than her kids did.

I thought of Tanya again this week, when I read “But What About the Baby?“ one of the articles in Next City’s Forefront series. Allyn Gaestel digs into the different experiences in pregnancy and parenting of two families in Philadelphia. Nine-month-old Evelyn Poor has parents who are both physicians and among the increasing numbers of middle class professionals choosing to raise their families in Philadelphia. Also profiled is 5-month-old Jesus Ocasio, born to a 17-year-old unemployed single mom in North Philadelphia.

The stories read as almost cliché. But the differences in their life experiences are striking. Evelyn eats organic baby food from the local Whole Foods market. Jesus’s family eats “easy to prepare instant foods [his mother] can buy on the cheap at the corner store.” Evelyn gets strolled around her pedestrian-friendly neighborhood­—visiting cafes, parks, and “Nest,” a “membership only baby boho clubhouse” with enrichment activities and healthy snacks for young kids and parents.

Baby Jesus’s mom keeps him home as much as possible because she doesn’t feel safe walking the streets of her neighborhood or taking Jesus to the park. She plans to

“keep Jesus inside her home, in the care of family and off the street as much as possible. She said he could socialize with cousins. When he gets older, she plans to have him homeschooled.”

“After everything that’s been going on,” his mom said referencing local crime. “I do not want him in a school. I do not want him getting hurt.”

Evelyn goes to a Quaker day care down the street from her house so her mom can work part time. Jesus’s mom has been unable to find a job at all despite applying for many. And though the children were delivered at the same hospital, the mothers had very different experiences of maternity care.

These differences in life experience matter. The way environment, family, and opportunity come together to create disparities in American cities is complex.

Elizabeth Votruba-Drzal is a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh who focuses on the intersection of education and poverty. She studies how the environments low-income kids grow up in affects their learning outcomes. This becomes acute especially in the summer months, when kids are out of school.

In a recent article she outlined some of the differences these kids face compared to their higher-income peers.

“High exposure to traffic, to noise, to violence, to things in their everyday environment – lead exposure – it’s that stuff,” Votruba-Drzal said. “But it’s also access to stimulating and engaging conversations with other kids and with adults that are important, especially in the early years, for things like language skill development.”

“I think it’s important to have the broader context of what’s happening in our country right now with respect to socioeconomic disparities in kids’ development and their lifetime chances. It really should be alarming to people.”

Gaestel says the different challenges these families face “serves as a wakeup call for cities about the depth and breadth of inequality that manifests even in the most basic, and shared, human experience of birth.”

She continues:

As Philadelphia transforms, there is a distinct possibility for social gaps to widen, and for the growth to exclude the city’s poor. For the first time in decades, more people are moving to the city than leaving it, and many of the newcomers are better educated or wealthier than the average Philadelphian. But alongside the rehabbed brownstones and loft-style condos, hundreds of thousands of families continue to live in poverty, giving Philly the dubious distinction of having the largest population living in poverty of any major city — 25.6 percent.”

BRR researchers have written widely about poverty and the necessity of equitable, shared growth in the recovery from the great recession.

A new book edited by BRR Network Member Todd Swanstrom and his colleague Clarissa Rile Hayward examines how metropolitan planning, policy, and local government reinforce class divisions in the United States, and how that in turn affects economic mobility for children like Jesus Ocasio. In “Justice and the American Metropolis,” Swanstrom and Hayward coin the term “thick injustice” to describe conditions in American cities today. They find “unjust power relations that are deep and densely concentrated, as well as opaque and relatively intractable.”

Collectively the essays argue that social justice should be central to how we define success in metropolitan areas, and that no growth should be deemed a success if it leaves many behind. Equity principles should be incorporated into planning, redevelopment efforts, and political leadership.

Fellow network member Manuel Pastor has written about how communities of color fall behind on markers of education, health, and wealth. He argues that as these trends continue their impact will grow and begin to have greater effects on cities at large and the entire population. The future of cities, he argues, rests on our ability to grow in ways that will benefit all residents of metro areas, not just the well-off like baby Evelyn. Read the paper he co-authored at PolicyLink for more on how an equity-driven growth model can help connect vulnerable populations to good jobs while strengthening local and regional economies.

These scholars’ ideas provide some important models for policymakers. Jobs and support services are an important starting point, which might have a direct impact on kids like Jesus and on Tanya’s family. I hope her kids, like my kids, are going to summer camp this week, have safe places to play in the afternoons, and will have a decent chance at success. All our children deserve it. Our cities depend on it.


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