Comparing “Trickle-Down America” (urban) and “Stagnant America” (rural)

Recent comments from Hillary Clinton praising American “places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward” leads to this comparison between “trickle-down” and “stagnant” Americas:

Over the past 40 or so years, the U.S. has been fragmenting into two parallel societies, which I’ll call Trickle-Down America and Stagnant America. Each one looks upon the other with suspicion and hostility. Trickle-Down America is the America of our biggest metropolitan areas, and it is defined by comparatively high levels of density, diversity, and economic inequality. Importantly, the richest people in Trickle-Down America are typically white, while the service-sector workers who enable them to work longer hours are disproportionately brown and black. Stagnant America can be found in rural regions, small cities and towns, and outer suburbs across the country. This America is largely white and relatively equal, though it too is scarred by poverty, particularly among Hispanics and blacks. America’s most and least educated workers are concentrated in Trickle-Down America, while Stagnant America is home to most of America’s working- and middle-class white voters.

Is Trickle-Down America morally superior to Stagnant America? A good starting point is to reflect on the sources of Trickle-Down America’s wealth. In New York City, my hometown, the local economy has long been dominated by the financial-services sector, which has grown mightily in recent decades. Has the financialization of the U.S. economy been an unadulterated good for the country as a whole? There are many thoughtful people who’d argue otherwise. Indeed, some argue that rents flowing to the financial sector have badly distorted the U.S. economy, and have contributed to the devastation of tradeable sector employment in Stagnant America. Corporations headquartered in America’s cosmopolitan cities have profited immensely from the emergence of a globalized division of labor. Yet many of these same multinationals have pioneered tax-avoidance strategies that have made it harder for the federal government to compensate those who’ve lost out with globalization, all while deploying their considerable influence to get the U.S. government to pressure other countries to adopt intellectual-property protections that serve their interests. And then there is the federal government itself, and its vast, growing army of private administrative proxies—contractors, non-profits dependent on public subsidies, and the like—that has helped make Washington, D.C., and its environs one of the country’s most affluent and educated regions. It’s hard to disentangle exactly how much of Trickle-Down America’s success relative to Stagnant America is a product of straightforward rent-seeking. I certainly doubt that it accounts for all of it, or even most. But surely it accounts for some, and that should give Trickle-Down America’s champions pause.

One important thing to keep in mind is that Trickle-Down America is, overall, characterized by more stringent land-use limits than Stagnant America. These limits have raised housing costs in affluent coastal regions, which has redounded to the benefit of incumbent homeowners. Yet high housing costs have deterred inward domestic migration while driving out large numbers of working-and middle-class residents…

For now, though, Trickle-Down America’s affluent professionals find themselves in a sweet spot, which surely accounts for some of Clinton’s triumphalism. The food is better. Beautiful old houses are being renovated everywhere you turn. An abundance of low-wage immigrant labor adds diversity and dynamism to cosmopolitan cities, yet the noncitizen working class isn’t in a position to press for a more egalitarian social order—one that could prove discomfiting for local elites. Best of all, opposition to Trump is helping to obscure simmering discontent over Trickle-Down America’s business model.

This is a different way of categorizing the stark urban and rural political divides of recent years. Yet, it also highlights a key issue simmering within the leading cities and metropolitan areas that are so important to American life: who really benefits in the major cities? Are the high levels of innovation, growth, development, and cultural excitement accessible to all urban residents or do the spoils disproportionately go to the top?Inequality cuts across multiple strata of society. Certainly there are stark differences within cities as well as between urban and rural areas. I’ll add a third area that complicates the story above (though these are likely lumped in with the Trickle-Down America segment): the inequality present in American suburbs. Even as the majority of Americans live in suburbs and seem to have achieved the American Dream of suburban life, life outcomes can differ dramatically across suburban communities.

What makes this suburban inequality more interesting for the realm of politics is how is affects voting: areas generally closer to the big city or with demographics more like the big city vote Democrat and wealthier communities and areas further out in regions vote Republicans. Will these same sort of voting cleavages arise in rural areas in cities as various inequalities receive more attention?

Fighting harder against gentrification

Activists in Los Angeles and a few other cities are ramping up their efforts to fend off gentrification:

That’s because it was organized by Defend Boyle Heights, a coalition of scorched-earth young activists from the surrounding neighborhood — the heart of Mexican-American L.A. — who have rejected the old, peaceful forms of resistance (discussion, dialogue, policy proposals) and decided that the only sensible response is to attack and hopefully frighten off the sorts of art galleries, craft breweries and single-origin coffee shops that tend to pave the way for more powerful invaders: the real estate agents, developers and bankers whose arrival typically mark a neighborhood’s point of no return…

By “making s*** crack” — by boycotting, protesting, disrupting, threatening and shouting in the streets — Defend Boyle Heights and its allies have notched a series of surprising victories over the past two and a half years, even as the forces of gentrification continue to make inroads in the neighborhood. A gallery closed its doors after its “staff and artists were routinely trolled online and harassed in person.” An experimental street opera was shut down after members of the Roosevelt High School band — egged on by a group of activists — used saxophones, trombones and trumpets to drown it out. A real estate bike tour promising clients access to a “charming, historic, walkable and bikeable neighborhood” was scrapped after the agent reported threats of violence. “I can’t help but hope that your 60-minute bike ride is a total disaster and that everyone who eats your artisanal treats pukes immediately,” said one message. The national (and international) media descended, with many outlets flocking to Weird Wave Coffee, a hip new shop that was immediately targeted by activists after opening last summer….

These harsh realities aren’t lost on millennials of color — especially young men and women from gentrifying neighborhoods, where such inequities tend to be on vivid, daily display. To that end, a 2016 Harvard Institute of Politics poll found that only 42 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds now support capitalism; a third now identify as socialists. Among those who backed Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy, the number was even higher — a full 54 percent — and minorities and people without a college degree were more likely to support socialism as well…

“We are devoting our time to building a national movement against gentrification,” they wrote in a February blog post titled “Defending Boyle Heights and f***ing s*** up: A 2017 summation and report back from our Hood Solidarity tour.” “Boyle Heights has … become a beacon of hope for other communities facing similar threats. … We are hopeful that in the coming years, with the effort necessary to sustain a movement, poor and working-class people can escalate the class war against gentrification and actually hinder and possibly reverse its effects.”

As the article notes, gentrification is not new but reactions to it have changed over time. Most major cities are beholden to development and have been for decades: development and growth is good, particularly when it is taking place in neighborhoods that have seen better days (think of older urban renewal programs), and politicians and developers can have a symbiotic relationship. Yet, this development often does not help poorer residents who even if they are not pushed out of the neighborhood do benefit in the same ways as developers and politicians.

A few ongoing questions about these efforts:

  1. Do more strident responses to gentrification then allow more negotiation to take place about the future of neighborhoods?
  2. At what point do cities, developers, and business owners push back harder against such protests?
  3. Can protests like these slow or stop gentrification? Can they prompt a larger spirit against gentrification in the community?

Something to keep watching.

Defining a social problem: “transit gaps” or “transit deserts”

One skeptic of the concept of transit gaps explains his concerns:

The Chicago-based nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology recently unveiled its AllTransit Gap Finder—an online mapping tool designed to point out areas with “inadequate” transit service. It’s a good effort, and it’s certainly good that we have more tools for understanding transit demand…

A transit gap is some kind of difference between transit service and transit need or demand. But need and demand are different things. A need means that there are people whose lives would be better if they had transit. A demand is an indication that transit service, if it were provided, would achieve high ridership.

These terms correspond to the two opposing goals of transit service. If the goal of service is ridership, then it should provide excellent service where there is demand. On the other hand, many people who need transit wouldn’t be served if transit agencies ran only high-ridership service. So transit agencies run a certain amount of service for the non-ridership goal of coverage, which responds to need. In other words, they spread service out so that everyone has a little bit, even though low ridership is the predictable outcome. This critical distinction is explained more fully here. It’s a difficult budgetary choice about dividing resources between competing goals, one that local governments need to think about…

Although AllTransit’s claims are framed in misleading terms, the idea of being able to accurately see exactly how well any given neighborhood is served by transit is a laudable one. Over the years I’ve written about other efforts to get this right. An especially important idea, buried deep in the overly complex methodology, is that a transit quality index should be about where you can get to in a given amount of time, rather than what transit is available. In my own work I routinely use this measure to describe the human benefits of transit service changes, because getting to destinations, and having a choice of more destinations, is what makes for a great life.

There seems to be two issues here: separating community values from possibilities as well as how to best measure transportation options. No city has an endless pot of money with which to fund mass transit. Yet, I imagine proponents of transit deserts would note that the general American orientation is toward driving and roads while mass transit has to regularly scrap for money. The measurement issue is hopefully an ongoing conversation as researchers with different decisions and aims work to find measures that both reflect the social realities as well as provide helpful information for residents and local governments.

But, I also suspect that this is critique is missing a key concern of some of those working in the food/transit/grocery stores/parks/medical care desert literature: the key is which groups are most affected by these deserts or have less access to these necessities. Many of the deserts – however defined and regardless of the goals of the community – seem to affect lower class and non-white residents. One could argue that a community might not have the resources or vision to extend mass transit to a particular area but this does not necessarily address the issue of residential segregation that is alive and well in the United States.

CA city to test universal basic income…with $500 a month?

Stockton, California is about to embark on a social experiment providing a universal basic income:

Stockton is one of many Bay Area cities on the fringe of the wealth accumulating in Silicon Valley and San Francisco. The Central Valley city went bankrupt in 2012, and for decades it has been trying to diversify its agriculture-based economy…

Tubbs is coordinating an effort to test a new way to sustain residents: universal basic income, or UBI. For one year, several dozen Stockton families will get $500 a month, no strings attached.

Dorian Warren co-chairs the Economic Security Project, which is contributing $1 million to the initiative. He said the goal is to gather data on the economic and social impacts of giving people a basic income.

In addition to tracking what residents do with the money, Warren said they will be monitoring how a basic income affects things like self-esteem and identity.

While the commentary I’ve seen so far on this story focuses on the long-term viability of universal basic income, I would raise another issue: how much of a test can $500 a month provide? That is not a big sum at all. Stockton is a relatively average place to live regarding costs and quality of life – see here and here. How far can $500 stretch, particularly for those that have a family and/or do not have a decent full-time job? That amount would not pay for an average rent or it could take some work to get food and essentials for a family for a month.

One of the larger questions that will need to be answered about universal basic income involves the amount of money provided. At least in the experiments I have seen thus far, the money is not necessarily meant to be the primary source of income. Yet, isn’t this supposed to provide a floor of income so that everyone can survive? If it is a smaller amount like $500 a month, it is one income source among several that an individual or family would need to put together. I would guess that many would say an extra $500 a month would be helpful but would it make enough of a meaningful difference for the people who need it most?

Calculating and using the Gini index for suburbs

The Gini index is often invoked for countries but it would be interesting to see it regularly utilized for suburban communities:

There are multi-million dollar McMansions and blue-collar families just trying to make ends meet. Across New Jersey, the gap between the rich and the poor continues to get wider.

But how are things changing in your town?

The Census calculates income inequality using a measure called the Gini index, which assigns a value between 0, which would mean complete equality, and 1. The closer a score is to 1, the more wealth is concentrated among fewer people and the bigger the income inequality.

My first thought is that I wonder how much income hetereogeneity suburbs have. There can be quite a bit of income or class segregation across different suburban communities but some of the larger suburbs could have quite the variation.

Then, it would be interesting to see how such information would be used. Would suburbs with less inequality use this as a selling point? Would community groups and activists be able to pressure suburbs into change with this statistic?

Finally, it would probably take a lot of work for this figure to become as widely known for suburbs as it is across countries. Yet, at this point, there is not an agreed-upon figure that works like this in order to compare suburbs. Median household income or the poverty rate can be used in this manner. Population figures probably matter the most for suburbs: it gives a sense of the character of the community and also hints at the growth that may be taking place.

A call to address inequality in cities but are they doing much?

Among the urban trends of 2017, Curbed notes Richard Florida’s admission that promoting the creative class could exacerbate inequalities in cities:

It takes a lot of reflection to contradict an idea that for many, is the centerpiece of your reputation as an author and analyst. In his new book The New Urban CrisisRichard Florida admitted his previous championing of the new creative class—and the idea that tech and design businesses would reinvigorate cities—didn’t anticipate how this rapidly reshaping economy would create urban inequality. A key phrase from the book, “winner-take-all-urbanism” essentially describes the Hunger Games-esque contest over Amazon’s HQ2 and exemplifies the stakes for cities in today’s fast-moving economy. It’s not just a takeaway, but a call-to-arms for local leaders looking to combat the growing divide between the wealthy and poverty.

It may be a “call-to-arms” but it is interesting that this is not followed up with descriptions of actual cities successfully combating inequality. Cities, on the whole, tend to privilege development projects from those with money who want to make more money. (This is not limited just to city leaders; media outlets often act as boosters and business leaders certainly trumpet more opportunities to make money.) In contrast, projects or problems that need addressing that would help more average residents – affordable housing would be a great example – do not get as much attention.

Perhaps I am just overly pessimistic on this so I would love to hear of a major American city that is clearly addressing inequality rather than promoting growth machines.

The city of Boston to research, act on data regarding economic inequality

The city of Boston is taking steps to do its own research regarding troubling inequality within its borders:

And that’s why it’s so interesting that the city is planning to gather and maintain longitudinal data deep into the future that may help explain what’s going on and what policy levers can change the situation. The new cross-agency project, housed in the Mayor’s Office, is called the Economic Mobility Lab, and it has gotten initial funding from the Rockefeller Foundation…

You can see the germ of this idea in the Resilient Strategy that the city released a couple of months ago. Deep in the report, it says that “The City will build upon ongoing efforts by utilizing new and existing data sources to advance resilience and racial equity across the city.” The existing data simply won’t tell the story, and so the city will need to find those new sources and incorporate them—and study the results. For years.

Jason Ewas, the executive director of the Economic Mobility Lab, tells me, “We’re going to put a stake in the ground and say that we’re going to study in general how people are moving up and down, or staying the same, and see if we can see why.” This is an explicit vision of tracking and improving economic mobility.

It’s not that the city will stop experimenting with programs or improving what it’s doing in the meantime. “We’re going to do [that] while researching,” Ewas tells me.

To me, the most interesting part of this is that the city is doing the research itself. Boston has numerous research institutions that could do such research but the city wants to take this on themselves. Will they find things that academic researchers would not uncover (either because of their perspectives or because of the data and actors they would have access to)? Or, will the city be unable to separate out their research arm from their political concerns?

Of course, perhaps these questions do not matter if Boston is able to successfully combat economic inequality. Many cities face these issues as they both try to keep up with the higher end of the globalized economy and serve residents who are far removed from the global elite.