Ferguson’s version of the story has several layers. Many of the aviation companies that were once a source of good jobs have shut down or moved away, leaving behind limited employment opportunities, especially for workers without a college degree. The tax base has shriveled, leaving the city dependent on fines and fees — including traffic tickets — for a disproportionate share of its funding. According to the city’s 2014 budget, Ferguson expected to take in $2.7 million in fines and fees in fiscal 2014 — 14 percent of the city’s revenue, up from 8 percent five years earlier.
The recession added to the challenges. Parts of the city were hit hard by the foreclosure crisis; of the 10 Missouri zip codes with the most seriously delinquent mortgages, four are at least partly in Ferguson and three others are in other North County communities. That has turned formerly owner-occupied homes into rentals, often with absentee investors as landlords. The number of Ferguson residents living in poverty has doubled since 2000; its poverty rate, at 24 percent, is one and a half times the national mark.
In all of that, Ferguson is typical of inner-ring suburbs around the country. It isn’t even a particularly extreme example. Ferguson’s schools are struggling, but unlike some surrounding districts, they retain their accreditation. Its foreclosure rate is high by Missouri standards, but is nowhere close to those in Florida, Nevada and Arizona, states that were at the center of the housing crisis. North County has lost much of its manufacturing base, but retains several large employers, including a multinational manufacturer, Emerson Electric Co., and a fast-growing prescription drug provider, Express Scripts.
Ferguson’s experience with poverty is especially typical. St. Louis’s suburbs now have more people living in poverty than St. Louis itself, a pattern repeated across the country. Concentrated poverty of the kind found in southeastern Ferguson is also becoming more common in the suburbs. According to researchers at the Brookings Institution, the number of suburban neighborhoods with poverty rates above 20 percent has more than doubled since 2000.
A familiar story: deindustrialization and a loss of manufacturing jobs, a declining tax base, changing demographics, plenty of suburbanites living in poverty. And a pressing question: what can be done to reverse the fortunes of such communities? These sorts of inner-ring suburbs are not going to be the first choice of many gentrifiers and it can be difficult to switch economic emphases. One possible solution proposed by some is metropolitanization, sharing taxes more across communities in a metropolitan area. However, this requires buy-in from wealthier suburbs who often reject the notion that should provide help to less well-off suburbs.
It will be interesting to return to Ferguson in 5, 10, 20 years to see what has happened. While the shooting of Michael Brown led to a lot of attention, it won’t necessarily alter the course of the community.