Monday, July 24, 2006

Middle Class Need Not Apply

The WWII folk built their national aspirations on the burgeoning middle class -- and a fantasy of a never-ending economic growth spiral -- leading us to wisdom, peace and prosperity. Rest in peace, all.

In the last 30 years, our cities instead have spit out the middle class while reserving the option to use its members as firefighters and cops, teachers, managers and skilled workers. These increasingly live in the equivalent of luxurious servants' quarters, a.k.a. suburbs.

The Brookings Institution has studied this for decades. Its just released update (in a 24-page PDF file) shows a continuation of the trend among the 100 largest U.S. cities. An accompanying analysis touches on what cities lose as they head toward a citizenry of only wealthy and poor. While not exactly a seesaw without a fulcrum, it's damned close.

Also, in the New York Times, Janny Scott covers the implications for the City. At the San Francisco Chronicle, Tyche Hendicks does the local version there.

So, we can be just as provincial for Boston. We rank toward the extreme end, but we are not as far gone as New York or Los Angeles. For specifics, concentrations of the wealthy (high and very high income levels) by families are 42.7 % in NYC, 42.2% in LA, and 40.2% here.

More meaningful may be by neighborhoods, because this determines how the cities are affordable to the middle class and how well they serve as both staging grounds and areas of opportunity for upward mobility. Comparable figures are 35.9% in NYC, 34.4% in LA, and 30.2% here. Decades ago, Eastern cities were often 50% to even 60% middle-class neighborhoods, offering both diversity and opportunity.

Statistics Fix: The Brookings report breaks these and other figures down for the 100 cities, with granular breakouts. Slice and dice to amuse and amaze yourself.

The findings include a trend to a city of rich and poor only. The rich take fewer housing units and pay an increasing percentage of taxes that support their cities. The resulting economy and two-tiered living appears a throwback 100 years or more.

So, if you accept that gross economic trends and private and public policies from national to local levels are producing this trend, consider the implications. These include:
  • High housing prices lead in forcing the middle class from cities.
  • So far, the displaced can and do still get to work in the cities, so there is no service crisis or upward wage pressures as a result.
  • The displaced may actually fare better in terms of education and quality of life, except for the commuting parents' decreased time at home with family.
That may not look at all bad unless you consider the non-economic consequences. The Times piece lists:
The disappearance of middle-income neighborhoods can limit opportunities for upward mobility, the authors of the Brookings study said. It becomes harder for lower-income homeowners to move up the property ladder, buy into safer neighborhoods, send their children to better schools and even make the kinds of personal contacts that can be a route to better jobs.
Also, Brookings Fellow Alan Berube includes:
Middle-income, economically integrated neighborhoods are important ingredients for a healthy city. Areas like Richmond Hill, Queens, provide a critical rung on the housing ladder for working families who are moving up, but can't afford neighborhoods like Park Slope. They also form a kind of "social glue" that bonds lower-income and higher-income areas, mediating the interests of residents at the economic extremes.
Other observers note such hard-to-quantify factors as ownership. For example, firefighters and police officers will do their jobs better when it is their city, not just a distant job.
Similarly, in California, Sarah Karlinsky, policy director at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association said, "It's bad for democracy. When you have concentrations of poverty, people growing up there have less access to other life opportunities. The same is true at the other end, as well. ... We don't want San Francisco to become Carmel, just a city of the most wealthy. Then we're not a real city any more, we're a boutique."

That is the crux -- will Boston and cities like Boston return to mixed vitality that provides the intellectual, cultural and civic energy that real cities need? While it is not as diverse or vital as some cities, Boston has long served as that staging ground for immigrants and a set of stairs for upward mobility. Even in our most misguided efforts to plow under the West End and other gardens of that proverbial American dream, we have seen other areas in our city emerging to let the newcomers join us.

Herein lies the current danger. If we produce or permit a Boston that does not provide a middle, we lose it all. If the poor have no options to advance to middle class jobs and housing here, we too could become one of those boutiques, or at worse a plantation city of rich and poor only.

Boston is just one of dozens of U.S. cities losing its culture, character and color. Its economy and government stride inexorably to a town of rich and poor only. That middle class of which we Baby Boomers heard so much praise finds exile to the exurbs and suburbs.

Let George Bush's chums and followers of Ayn Rand say that is right and fair, the way of both God and Mammon. Consider instead the realities of an extreme-only Beantown.

We here are big believers in an economically multi-tiered Boston. By accident of housing purchase, we ended up nearly two decade ago in a neighborhood designed to keep the middle class in Boston.

We agree with Wharton School Professor Joseph Gyourko, quoted in the Times piece. He lives in the wealthy, largely white Pennsylvania suburb of Swarthmore. "I do not meet the full range of incomes and social classes within my neighborhood. Well, think about what happens if metropolitan areas like New York, San Francisco and the like turn into my suburb. You’ll have even less interaction. The most interesting and potentially foreboding implication of this sorting is that it changes the way we view life.”

A future post will present alternatives for keeping a balance of classes in Boston.

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1 comment:

tony said...

Greetings From England!
Hey,I like your Blog!
I,ve put a link onto mine!
The only time I've been to The States was last year when I visited Friends in Northampton MA.
We went to Boston for the day.
Best Wishes From Tony.

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