The Simpsons portrayed a (rare?) comfortable working-class family life

If television helps provide viewers reference groups to compare themselves with, The Simpsons suggests working-class Americans can have a decent life:

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The 1996 episode “Much Apu About Nothing” shows Homer’s paycheck. He grosses $479.60 per week, making his annual income about $25,000. My parents’ paychecks in the mid-’90s were similar. So were their educational backgrounds. My father had a two-year degree from the local community college, which he paid for while working nights; my mother had no education beyond high school. Until my parents’ divorce, we were a family of three living primarily on my mother’s salary as a physician’s receptionist, a working-class job like Homer’s…

The Simpsons started its 32nd season this past fall. Homer is still the family’s breadwinner. Although he’s had many jobs throughout the show’s run—he was even briefly a roadie for the Rolling Stones—he’s back at the power plant. Marge is still a stay-at-home parent, taking point on raising Bart, Lisa, and Maggie and maintaining the family’s suburban home. But their life no longer resembles reality for many American middle-class families.

Adjusted for inflation, Homer’s 1996 income of $25,000 would be roughly $42,000 today, about 60 percent of the 2019 median U.S. income. But salary aside, the world for someone like Homer Simpson is far less secure. Union membership, which protects wages and benefits for millions of workers in positions like Homer’s, dropped from 14.5 percent in 1996 to 10.3 percent today. With that decline came the loss of income security and many guaranteed benefits, including health insurance and pension plans. In 1993’s episode “Last Exit to Springfield,” Lisa needs braces at the same time that Homer’s dental plan evaporates. Unable to afford Lisa’s orthodontia without that insurance, Homer leads a strike. Mr. Burns, the boss, eventually capitulates to the union’s demand for dental coverage, resulting in shiny new braces for Lisa and one fewer financial headache for her parents. What would Homer have done today without the support of his union?

The purchasing power of Homer’s paycheck, moreover, has shrunk dramatically. The median house costs 2.4 times what it did in the mid-’90s. Health-care expenses for one person are three times what they were 25 years ago. The median tuition for a four-year college is 1.8 times what it was then. In today’s world, Marge would have to get a job too. But even then, they would struggle. Inflation and stagnant wages have led to a rise in two-income households, but to an erosion of economic stability for the people who occupy them.

This critique hints at broader patterns of how television depicts the working class. The 2005 documentary Class Dismissed: How TV Frames the Working Class discusses how television tends to minimize the difficulties of working class life. The Simpsons fits some of these patterns: Homer still somehow keeps working despite his mistakes and anti-intellectualism, the family does not really get ahead, and the family seems happy-go-lucky. Shows with working class characters rarely challenge the economic and social systems that constrain working class Americans.

Similarly, The Simpsons falls into the mold of many sitcoms in television history where there are happy endings and the characters end with good relationships. Despite all the controversy about the show in its early years, the show is at its heart a typical sitcom. While the show does poke fun at many people and aspects of American life, at its basis is a loving nuclear family living in a single-family home with Homer having a steady job. The Simpsons is not a critique of working class life in the United States. Perhaps the portrayal of Mr. Burns best critiques the systems that keep the Simpsons in place.

One place for wiggle room in this critique may be the location of Springfield. The show has been very careful to not reveal where Springfield is within the United States. Homer’s income might be meager but cost of living does differ by region.

Even Lucy Van Pelt knows the value of getting into real estate

To close a scene of A Charlie Brown Christmas, Lucy Van Pelt explains what she really wants for Christmas:

A Charlie Brown Christmas

Lucy: Don’t worry. I’ll be there to help you. I’ll meet you at the auditorium. Incidentally, I know how you feel about all this Christmas business. Getting depressed in all that. It happens to me every year. I never get what I really want. I always get a lot of stupid toys and a bicycle or clothes or something like that.

Charlie Brown: So what is it you want?

Lucy: Real estate.

In addition to the words of Lucy, I recently heard a famous person describe their interest in real estate this way: “they aren’t making any more of it.” I have heard some variation of this numerous times in life. Since there are limits on how much real estate can be had, this can push prices up in places where there is high demand and limited property. (Of course, humans are pretty good at finding ways to create more real estate – think in-fill in many coastal cities – or finding financial opportunities out of what exists.)

If you have resources, real estate can be a good investment. Not only might you be able to use the property while you own it or gain money from its particular use, its resale value could be good. But you have to start with real estate or have the capital to get into real estate to reap the rewards down the road. Not all real estate is desirable – see a recent overview of some such properties in the Chicago area – even as many Americans assume that purchasing a home will pay off in the end.

And perhaps this hints at Lucy’s frustration. She keeps getting Christmas gifts for kids when she really wants to get ahead. Real estate would be a unique but wealth-building present. Forgot those ads with a car in a bow in the driveway: Lucy wants a property deed under the tree.

Looking for buyers for thousands of properties in Black communities in and near Chicago

Even as new skyscrapers join the Chicago skyline, thousands of properties in the Chicago barely attract any interest:

Locations of Cook County property tax 'scavenger sale' properties
Chicago Tribune graphic

County Treasurer Maria Pappas is out with a new report that concludes the 81-year-old program isn’t working. Not enough people are bidding on the properties, she says, and so the parcels often remain eyesores, a deterrent to revitalizing the neighborhoods they blight. That especially hurts struggling Black city neighborhoods and south suburbs, Pappas notes.

“Nobody wants these properties because they are in areas that are losing population, have high crime and aren’t worth the property taxes you have to pay to own them,” said Pappas, who conducts the sales as directed in state law. “So people abandon them.”…

Land Bank officials strongly dispute that notion, saying they’ve done more to return properties to productive use in just a few years than private buyers — often hedge funds making speculative bids — have achieved over a much longer period of time.

They acknowledge changes to the system are needed, and plan to ask lawmakers to approve them. “If the treasurer would like to support the reform of this, we couldn’t be more happy to have her join us,” said County Commissioner Bridget Gainer, who set up the Land Bank in 2013.

Vacant properties are not desirable in any community since they are not generating the revenues they could, whether because taxes are not being paid or the land is not being used in a productive way. Additionally, they are aesthetically unappealing – being often viewed as signs of blight or neighborhood problems – and could attract unwanted activity. Whether it is suburbs trying to fill empty grocery stores or dead shopping malls or communities with fewer economic opportunities looking for redevelopment, vacant or abandoned land is distressing.

This particular ongoing issue in the Chicago area is highlighted even more clearly when land not very far away – perhaps just a few miles and sometimes in the same municipality – is very desirable and multiple actors would want to redevelop it. Even during COVID-19, land in the Loop attracts attention as developers and architects eye property and vie to be part of what is viewed as a desirable area and a good investment.

In the United States, the contrast between the availability of capital and development by location can be incredibly stark. In this case, it is connected to significant residential patterns by race where land and buildings in Black neighborhoods are less desirable. There is land to be redeveloped in Chicago and it can be had rather cheap…but, due to powerful social forces over time, no one has any interest in the cheap land and they would rather continue to fight over and compete in the lucrative areas.

The new residential skyscrapers in Chicago continue to highlight capital flows and disparities

While reading reporting about skyscrapers going up in Chicago even during COVID-19, I continue to wonder: who is purchasing all of the residential units in times like these? Here is one example involving Chicago’s new third-tallest building.

Part of the Chicago skyline from East Jackson Drive – Google Maps

Located on a multilevel riverfront site at 363 E. Wacker Drive that belongs to the same Lakeshore East development as Aqua, Vista will house a 191-room hotel and 393 condominiums once it’s complete in the third quarter of next year.

For now, as COVID-19 rages and office cubicles remain empty, the tower sends the upbeat message that downtown has a future, and it’s not just for the 1%. Vista’s ground-level amenities will benefit ordinary citizens as well as those who can afford the tower’s condos, which start at around $1 million.

The entry point of $1 million means that the clientele for such a building is pretty restricted. The Chicago area is not a superheated real estate market like San Francisco or Manhattan or several other coastal cities yet tall residential buildings are meant for a select few.

On the other hand, another skyscraper project in Chicago might move to make their residential units available for rent rather than purchase:

The biggest Chicago skyscraper to have construction halted by the coronavirus pandemic could be revived in 2021 — as apartments instead of condos.

Unit layouts are being redesigned at 1000M, the Helmut Jahn-designed condo tower on South Michigan Avenue, in an effort to refinance the project and resume construction next year, “primarily as a rental project.”…

It was the largest condo development by unit count, at 421 units, launched in Chicago since the Great Recession all but shut down construction of condos in the city for several years. At 832 feet, it also would be the tallest Jahn-designed building in Chicago, where the German-born architect is based.

With rentals being in demand, this makes some sense in order to help get the project started again. At the same time, these rental units will not come cheap.

All of this residential construction suggests there is a lot of capital continuing to flow for prestigious building projects in desirable locations. COVID-19 might be a bit of a speed bump – whose impact will continue to be determined by its length – but big lenders, developers, and buyers still have an appetite for these prestigious residential units.

Focusing on the construction of these units can both help the public pay attention to where the money is really going as well as continue to highlight the disparities in development money by location. It is hard not to report on these new tall structures; they require a lot of effort and resources and will be part of a celebrated skyline for decades. Yet, within Chicago, as the skyscrapers continue to rise for the corporations and residents with plenty of resources, needs for housing and other development are very present elsewhere.

$741 million in tax incentives for Amazon in NE Illinois – with a bigger price tag for economically challenged communities

Amazon has constructed 36 facilities in the Chicago region since 2015. And they got a lot of help from taxpayers in disadvantaged communities:

WBEZ

To help pay for its vast expansion, the company and its developers have won at least $741 million in taxpayer-funded incentives in northeast Illinois alone, according to a Better Government Association/WBEZ investigation…

Amazon collected less than $100 million in public incentives for the 15 warehouses it built in predominantly white communities but won more than $640 million in taxpayer incentives for the 21 projects built in communities with larger nonwhite populations, the examination found. Many of those communities are either mostly Black, mostly Latinx or have higher concentrations of low-income residents, and with municipal budgets already short on cash.

Records show the three largest incentive packages Amazon received — totaling $512 million — all came from predominantly Black suburbs. By contrast, the company built warehouses in at least seven mostly white communities that reported offering no public incentives at all…

While many of the communities may get more jobs, experts interviewed say the lost revenue from taxpayer incentives will strain public resources to rebuild crumbling roads from the truck traffic, mitigate pollution from the exhaust fumes and noise and to pay for other services such as police protection and fire prevention.

That big companies seek out tax breaks and local incentives is not new. Amazon played the game on a grand scale with its proposed second headquarters.

But, this illustrates one of the problems with tax breaks in general: it is a race to the bottom. Companies look for communities that will have a hard time saying no. What mayor or local official wants to turn down local jobs? Or, turn away a big company with the status like Amazon? Once they have such a company in town, communities often build on this when marketing land and facilities to other firms by saying they are home to Amazon.

Yet, the deal may not be a good one. Jobs are not the only factor that matters in a community. As the story above notes, traffic, pollution, noise, the strain on local budgets and services, and the quality of the jobs also matter. Does the addition of Amazon or another large company make the community as a whole better down the road?

The system could be improved in multiple ways. All the communities in a region could stop competing in this way; that Amazon locates within one municipality could also have spillover benefits for other communities. One community’s gain is not necessarily one community’s loss; the region operates as a whole. If revenue was shared across a region, then tax breaks in a particular community would matter less. Or, communities could just commit not to offer tax breaks at all. If companies cannot play the game, they would have to locate places for other reasons.

These possible solutions do not solve the underlying issues: jobs and capital in a metropolitan region are not evenly distributed. Patterns by race and class continue for decades as companies, residents, and other seek out particular locations and not others. That some communities have to pay more for Amazon to locate there just compounds the problem.

Treating suburban communities as another consumer good to choose among, Part Two

With the New York Times sharing suburban communities to choose among, I argue this could have long-term consequences for how suburbanites think about their community and social life. In short: treat suburbs like objects to consume and suburbs and suburbanites will struggle to form, develop, and maintain community. Here is why:

woman picking wine in store

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  1. Suburban community is often anchored in moral minimalism. With an attitude of leave each other alone, community is relatively shallow. The emphasis on each resident making the best choice for them could hinder efforts to build community. Consumerism encourages individual choices and often says less about and provides fewer opportunities for collective action.
  2. Making a choice among places of where to live could encourage people to more easily move away from places and/or limit their investment into each community. Purchase one suburb, throw it away when it no longer works for you or no longer meets expectations or another looks more attractive. Suburbs can be picked up and discarded at will, limiting commitment from residents and community members.
  3. Consumerism works through consumers making choices based on the resources they have available. This sorts people based on resources and makes it easier to justify different outcomes – and inequality –  by what resources people had coming in (which can be the result of social and individual factors). For example, one historian highlighted the shift in the 1960s from language about segregating by race or ethnicity to economic resources and social class.
  4. Consumer goods need to be differentiated from other competing consumer goods. The sort of analysis from the New York Times – fairly common in real estate sections – can put a spotlight on a few New York area suburbs and it is very difficult to provide an overview of all suburbs. While suburbs do indeed have unique characters, they also share similar traits compared to other places. Yet, for each of the suburbs highlighted, there are dozens of other suburbs with similar characteristics as well as other unique features. Going even further, trumpeting a few suburbs only might push more residents there while depriving other suburbs of possible residents. Highlighting particular features of places can reinforce statuses and traits and encourage agglomerations of both amenities and a lack of resources. In the long run, this pits suburbs against each other when they actually have multiple common interests and residents need particular services and options.

Articulating a different conception of social life beyond consumers making choices and could be more productive in the long run for nurturing the involvement of residents, deeper social connections, and stronger suburban communities. As I have heard said by multiple scholars, consumers take while citizens benefit as well as have responsibilities to others and the whole.

During COVID-19, wealthier people now less mobile than poorer people

Researchers found changes in mobility patterns among Americans of different income levels during COVID-19:

woman in yellow tshirt and beige jacket holding a fruit stand

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Writing in the journal PNAS, researchers from several California universities describe how they used anonymized cell phone location data and census info to show a dramatic reversal in how mobile Americans have been this year. Before Covid-19 struck, rich Americans moved about more than poor Americans—they can always afford to travel. But between January and April, that flipped. Rich folk are now far more likely to stay completely at home than poor folk: The study found that 25 percent more high earners stayed completely at home during the pandemic, compared to the number of them who had stayed home before. That increase was only 10 percent among low earners. And that has major implications for how we as a nation can fight the pandemic.

“In the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a clear mobility response across the board,” says University of California, Davis environmental economist Joakim Weill, lead author on the paper. “In the US, everyone started to stay at home more. But we also found that there is a clear differential between wealthier communities and poor communities, where individuals in wealthier neighborhoods tended to stay at home much more than people in poorer neighborhoods.”…

Close to half of the wealthiest Americans stayed completely at home on weekdays in April, compared to less than 40 percent of low-earners. The poor traveled farther distances on average: In the same month, people who live in lower-income areas traveled between 5 and 6 kilometers, while the rich traveled closer to 4. The rich nearly halved their visits to recreational and retail areas in April, while the poor cut their visits by only a quarter—perhaps because their jobs required them to return to work there.

To be clear, the researchers can’t definitively say why the data shows this dramatic discrepancy, but they can begin to speculate. For one, essential workers often earn lower incomes, like clerks at grocery stores and pharmacies. Indeed, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that among Americans 25 and older with less than a high school diploma, just 5 percent teleworked in June. On the other hand, 54 percent of Americans with a bachelor’s or more advanced degree were able to work remotely.

Social class is connected to mobility, health, and a whole lot of factors in social life. The anonymized cell phone data also seems to align with other patterns: those who can leaving certain big cities as well as differences in COVID-19 cases across communities and racial and ethnic groups.

As the article goes on to note, the fact that anyone can contract COVID-19 is not the same as saying everyone has the same likelihood of contracting COVID-19. Those with resources have more options in how to respond to crises plus more options when it comes to treatment. These differences are generally present regarding health but a large pandemic reveals some of the underlying patterns that deserve attention.

Community disparities in COVID-19 cases mean districts and schools will need to respond differently

Given disparities in who is more at risk for COVID-19 (higher proportions of Blacks and Latinos, differences across suburban communities), school districts and possibly even schools within districts might need different plans to address the situation. In the Chicago suburbs, many districts have already announced plans for the start of school.

interior of abandoned building

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Yet, what the plans are and in which communities is interesting to observe. Approaches can vary quite a bit with some opting for all remote learning to start, others going with a hybrid model (alternating attendance), and a few considering more in-person instruction. Wealthier communities that go for remote options may have more flexibility: parents and families can provide for childcare or have adults who can work from home and technology is plentiful. Furthermore, some communities appear to have a lower risk of COVID-19 compared to other places where people work in different kinds of jobs and households are larger. And larger school districts that encompass pockets of residents from different social classes and racial and ethnic groups could have very different situations within their schools. To some degree, this is nothing new: outcomes can vary for students within schools and districts. At the same time, COVID-19 (and other crises) help expose inequalities already present and may exacerbate them further.

That said, it might difficult to develop one-size-fits-all options even at the district level, let alone among county education boards or state education boards, unless there is a lot of homogeneity. The residential segregation common in the United States which then affects who attends what schools as well as  COVID-19 cases means addressing learning and safety together could require flexibility across schools.

Naperville considering affordable housing – but primarily for current residents?

Naperville will soon discuss recommendations from a consultant regarding affordable housing. Several of the suggestions point to at least some of the affordable housing serving current residents:

low angle photo of balconies

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Commissioners say the ideas are designed to help the city meet a state mandate on affordable housing and provide more places where seniors, young professionals and others who can’t afford many of the houses in Naperville can live…

Establish a rehabilitation loan fund to help low-income senior homeowners make repairs so they can age in place.

Establish a housing trust fund to help veterans, seniors, populations with special housing needs and first responders (including nurses, police officers and firefighters) purchase a home…

These ideas and others are listed in the report from SB Friedman, which found that roughly 22% of homeowners and 44% of renters in Naperville are spending more than 30% of their income on housing, making them “cost-burdened.” Many of these households are low-income, the report found, saying “there appears to be a considerable need for both owner- and renter-occupied affordable housing and income-restricted housing throughout the city to meet current residents’ needs.”

One way for wealthier suburbs to address affordable housing is to look for solutions for some of the populations mentioned above: seniors who are retired and are downsizing or having a hard time affording local housing on a restricted income; young professionals who are just out of school and looking to establish their career; and local workers who are seen as essential to the community such as teachers, fire fighters, and police officers. These are all groups that a wealthier suburb would want to keep as older residents should be able to age in place, attracting young professionals is important for keeping a strong tax base and having more young families in the community, and having certain occupations near their jobs and involved in the community is viewed as a plus.

At the same time, it is not clear that this gets at the full range of housing needs in the Naperville area, Chicago region, or the United States. There are lots of people who would benefit from cheaper housing costs yet the issue of affordable housing in many places is also connected to race and class. As noted in this article, housing is a social justice issue. Is Naperville addressing social justice issues if it is providing housing for the populations discussed above? Or, would providing housing for those with lower-wage jobs make more sense? Or, could cheaper housing provide opportunities for some future residents to experience upward economic mobility in a community with a lot to offer?

There is still much that could happen in these discussions. Naperville has a lot to offer to residents and it is a well-off and high-status community. What comes out of these conversations could help determine what the population of Naperville looks like in the coming years.

 

More on the wealthy leaving cities, San Francisco edition

The flight of some out of New York City amid COVID-19 has attracted attention. This may also be happening in San Francisco:

city skyline during golden hour

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Amid the depths of a global pandemic and financial downturn, the demand for real estate is unexpectedly rocketing in wealthy regions outside San Francisco, reports Bloomberg. Agents say that demand is soaring in affluent areas around the Bay Area such as Napa, Marin and further afield in Carmel, as people who have the means look to get away from the city. Meanwhile, the market in San Francisco and Alameda County is still well below where it was last year.

Elsewhere, Lake Tahoe has also seen a surge in real estate interest. The prospect of living out of the city on an alpine lake while maintaining a career is appealing for a new generation of young buyers, as many tech companies have signaled that remote work may be the new norm for a long time…

Meanwhile, the rental market in San Francisco has dropped significantly, with rates for one-bedroom apartments in the city dropping by 9.2% since June 2019, and hitting a three-year low.

However, buying a new home in an isolated haven in a nearby bucolic county is not an option for lower-income San Francisco residents, and some believe the trend is only exacerbating the wealth divide.

And, as noted in the final paragraph of the story, it is hard to know whether this is a long-term trend. But, this is one of the advantage of wealth and resources: residential options during times when many others are limited in where they can live. And this is not just limited to where they can live; it includes being able to travel back and forth easily, owning or renting multiple properties at the same time, and having all the resources for working from home.

More broadly, the evidence cited above is interesting in that people moving out of the city are not said to be moving very far. They are still within a drive of San Francisco/the Bay Area/Silicon Valley. Are people in the Bay Area more willing to stay close by or do they have to due to work (a need for at least some in the tech industry to be at meetings, see people and products, etc.)? Does this differ from New York City where many of those moving ended up in the suburbs while others left the metro region all together? Staying in driving distance changes the moving experience.

I am also imagining the possibility of a more significant migration than some wealthy people heading for the suburbs or other cool metro areas. What if Facebook said they want to get out of the petri dish of Silicon Valley, be a different kind of tech company that really wants to connect people, and picks up for Omaha or St. Louis or another smaller big city in the middle of the country? Clusters of organizations have particular synergies and efficiencies but if more workers are going to be at home, is there still the same need to locate near everyone else?

Related earlier post: the evidence for this happening in Washington D.C. may not be as strong.