This tweet got me thinking about how the future of communities is tied up in current economic shifts:

I can’t help but feel the same way. I might just be feeling pessimistic from finishing George Packer’s The Unwinding yesterday (strongly recommended) but to my eye, recent history is full of examples of the economic bait and switch. There’s a recurring pattern of poor people and minority groups arriving at the chance for economic opportunity just a bit too late, with the economic advice of ten years ago, and paying for it dearly.

Home ownership was supposed to be a foolproof way to move up in the world – houses never go down in value, and exploitative lending practices weren’t the concern of the middle and upper classes – until the housing collapse wiped out generations of painstakingly accumulated wealth. In the last twenty years, as a university education has become more accessible to minority groups, college has become vastly more expensive, harder to finish, and the wage premium for a bachelor’s degree has ebbed lower than ever. While on average it’s still worth it to go to college, I understand why some have the distinct feeling that they did “everything they were supposed to” and ended up with nothing.

Much ink has been spilled showing that the wealthy are generally moving back to the cities as the suburbs are becoming poorer and more diverse. Poverty in the suburbs can be a big problem because the environment is not built for it: public transit is bad, infrastructure and housing can be poorly constructed, and the jobs, amenities, and social services are located far away. Although some suburbs will continue to be islands of wealth, some are already headed down the path towards concentrated poverty, and those are the very ones that tend to have the worst access to resources.

It’s not because of some evil puppeteer behind the scenes pulling the strings, but it is a natural and predictable result of an economy that punishes people behind the curve – naturally, those without a share of the wealth and decision making power. It’s easy to see how Saunders could be fearful: lacking the resources to stay on top of these trends makes people extremely vulnerable to personal circumstances or poor timing.

Just like the other bait and switches, we could probably find a way down from the ledge if we spot it soon enough and work hard to avoid it. If exploitative lending practices were not systematically reinforced and hidden from view, the crash of 2008 would have been a lot less harmful. If colleges work hard at serving their local population rather than the typical student of 2 generations ago (white 18 year old male attending full time), they become the engine for economic opportunity that they are supposed to be for all people.

The response to this problem is, first, to be aware of the trends. Not just “one thing” is happening in suburbs and cities: see Saunder’s typology of gentrification for a general theory about how different cities are evolving.

Second – and here’s where it gets really hard – only building new ties of community will break down this ugly cycle of displacement and neglect. Cities that successfully weather this storm will spend a lot of time thinking about how to break down the walls between new arrivals and old residents. We are at a moment of significant community “churn” when patterns of settlement are shifting rapidly for reasons that are not totally understood. In my most optimistic moments I feel like those changes can provide the pretext to create stronger, more diverse community bonds.

If that seems like a naive or simplistic solution, it’s never really been put in practice. Whether through segregation (racial or economic) or increasing community polarization (technologically or politically driven) communities have always been reactive rather than proactive, and in the worst ways. “Waiting to see what happens” has led us down the wrong path. My big dream for the next generation would be to jump on these trends as a new opportunity to create a shared sense of community – whether it be in suburbs, cities, or small towns.

My idealistic dream notwithstanding, Saunders is right to worry. Wealth and opportunity naturally follow one another, and if we don’t do a better job decoupling them, suburban concentrated poverty could lead to decades of unnecessary misery.

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One thought on “The Bait and Switch

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