Is Inequality the Purview of City Government?

I haven’t paid an enormous amount of attention to Bill DeBlasio’s mayoral platform – although at some point I probably will – but his candidacy has had the pleasant effect of provoking a conversation about whether, and to what extent, city halls ought to grapple with economic and social inequality. Responses range from Yes, it’s about goddamn time, to No, that’s terrifying, to a sort of sickly cackle.

My position – in fact, the premise of this blog and of many, many hours of my time over the last few years – is that yes, local governance has an enormous amount to do with inequality. I would say there are at least four major ways, roughly in order of big-picture importance:

1. Housing policy. People who don’t believe that cities have a major role to play in the story of inequality tend to emphasize the national and global economic trends that brought us to this point, like offshoring and automatization, which they say can only really be effectively dealt with – to the extent they can be dealt with at all – by high-level policy organs. This is true, I guess. But the experience of poverty and the replication of poverty both heavily – HEAVILY – depend on where you live. Specifically, whether or not you live in a high-poverty neighborhood. Up and down the line – physical and mental health outcomes, educational outcomes, employment and income outcomes both in a single generation and over multiple generations – an enormous body of research shows that neighborhood effects are pretty massive. And income segregation has increased faster over the last 40 years than income inequality, meaning right now cities are actually exacerbating those global-trend-derived problems. A housing policy that promoted income integration would not only help to decouple miserable living conditions with being on the lower end of the income distribution, but also, most likely, improve social mobility.

2. Transportation policy. Places where public transit isn’t an option force low-income people to pay massively more for transportation than they would otherwise. The actual number is something on the order of $10,000 a year per household. Those people who truly cannot pay for a car – or choose not to because they would like to, say, buy their kids new clothes for school, or go to the doctor instead – end up incredibly isolated, both from the broader metropolitan society, and from necessary amenities like stores and jobs. The average American, willing to travel up to 90 minutes each way on public transit, can only reach 30% of all jobs in their metropolitan area. That’s a disaster if you need a job and can’t afford a car.

3. Education policy. The obvious one, but all the way down here because so much of what matters is wrapped up in housing policy. Segregated neighborhoods equal segregated schools, most of the time. Which equals major operational and pedagogical challenges, most of the time.

4. Constituent services. James Fallows wrote once that wealthy people live pretty well all around the world, and so the difference between a developed and developing country is in the quality of life of people who need some kind of direct support from the state. Something similar goes on with cities. If you are middle class, and have always been, you probably are not very upset by, say, the closure of public mental health clinics. If you are not middle class, and need mental health care, you’re devastated. (The situation is made worse, let’s point out, by lackluster transit access to the remaining clinics.) The public services cities provide are a real and important part of the safety net. Without them, more people fall to the point where it’s almost impossible to pick themselves back up, and mobility – at least upward mobility – suffers to some extent. City services are about more than just street-sweeping.

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