Wealth Inequality & Urban Redevelopment: What Cities Can Do

While often separated in political discussion, economic and social inequality are intrinsically intertwined for minorities across the United States.

Yesterday, I attended a “lunch and learn” session of Indianapolis’ Department of Metropolitan Development. I was asked to address the impact of poverty on the City’s efforts at neighborhood revitalization. Regular readers will recognize much of what I said.

One of the criticisms of academia is that we are “siloed”–focused so narrowly on our own research we fail to see the larger picture . In a way, divisions of government face a similar challenge. Urban revitalization efforts—what we used to call urban renewal– especially requires “connecting the dots,” because those efforts have to include public safety, transportation, sanitation, parks and recreation, economic development…the term “holistic” gets overused, but it’s definitely apt in this context.

Blighted neighborhoods are a reflection of poverty. We need to realize that 80 percent of Americans are currently trapped in the low-wage sector, and those are the folks who disproportionately inhabit these neighborhoods. These are areas where human possibility is shrinking, often dramatically. Most of the people who live in distressed areas are burdened with debt and anxious about their insecure jobs– if they have jobs at all.

Recent research tells us that inhabitants of the low-wage sector are getting sicker and dying younger than they used to. They rely on inadequate public transportation and/or cars they have trouble paying for. Family life is crumbling; people often don’t partner for the long-term even when they have children. If they go to college, they finance it by going heavily into debt. They aren’t thinking about the future; they are focused on surviving the present. As one scholar put it, members of America’s (shrinking) middle class act, these people are acted upon.

Worst of all, recent studies tell us that most of those in the low-wage sector have no way out. American social/economic mobility may have been real once, but it is a myth today. And I see no evidence that either this Congress or this Administration is interested in policies to ameliorate any of this.

In the wake of the House healthcare vote, one of my former students, now a government employee, posted a diatribe to Facebook, and I want to share it because I think it sums up where policymakers are right now:

The United States has more citizens in prison than any country in the world. Even more than China, which has four times as many people. Republican legislators chose to focus on eroding healthcare protections.

The United States has a public education system ranked lower than Russia. Republican legislators chose to focus on eroding healthcare protections.

The United States has average Internet speeds three times slower than Romania. Republican legislators chose to focus on eroding healthcare protections.

The United States has infant mortality rates nearly twice as high as Belarus. Republican legislators chose to focus on eroding healthcare protections.

The United States has 2.5 million citizens without access to improved drinking water. Republican legislators chose to focus on eroding healthcare protections.

The United States has a youth unemployment rate of 13.4%. Republican legislators chose to focus on eroding healthcare protections.

The United States has 50 million citizens living below the poverty line. Republican legislators chose to focus on eroding healthcare protections.

The United States has greater income inequality than Morocco, Jordan, Tanzania, Niger, Kyrgyzstan, East Timor, and 95 other countries. Republican legislators chose to focus on eroding healthcare protections.

The United States is responsible for nearly twice as much CO2 emissions as the entire European Union. Republican legislators chose to focus on eroding healthcare protections.

The United States has more railways than any country on Earth, by more than 100,000 kilometers, but has virtually no long-range public transportation system. Republican legislators chose to focus on eroding healthcare protections.

The United States spends more on national defense than every other nation on Earth COMBINED, yet seems to be in perpetual warfare and has a barely functioning veteran-support system. Republican legislators chose to focus on eroding healthcare protections.

Local governments can’t do much about defense spending or national healthcare policy, but cities can address, at least, most of the other deficits my former student identified, from transportation to drinking water to youth unemployment to criminal justice. And every one of those improvements would help address urban blight.

Let me just share some statistics closer to home. A couple of years ago, the United Ways of Indiana took a hard look at “Alice.” Alice is an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed; it describes households with income above the federal poverty level, but below the actual, basic cost of living. The report is eye-opening.

Here are some “highlights” (highlights being something of a misnomer here):

  • More than one in three Hoosier households cannot afford the basics of housing, food, health care and transportation, despite working hard.
  • In Indiana, 37% of households live below the Alice threshold, with some 14% below the poverty level and another 23% above poverty but below the cost of living.
  • These families and individuals have jobs, and many do not qualify for social services or support.
  • The jobs they are filling are critically important to Hoosier communities. These are our child care workers, laborers, movers, home health aides, heavy truck drivers, store clerks, repair workers and office assistants—yet they are unsure if they’ll be able to put dinner on the table each night.

For families living on the edge, families struggling just to feed the baby and keep the lights on, saving money is a pipe dream. There is nothing left to save. These families are vulnerable to any unexpected expense—a car repair, an uninsured illness, even an unexpectedly high utility bill can be enough to plunge them into debt or worse.

What does this rather grim picture have to do with community redevelopment? Let’s leave our silo and connect the dots:

For one thing, there is no money to paint the house or repair the gutters, or otherwise tend to the appearance of the property. Rundown and blighted neighborhoods send a variety of messages to those who drive through them—most visibly, no one cares. That may be unfair—they may care, but feeding the baby comes first. When unkempt houses are in neighborhoods the city has neglected, the problem is compounded. You don’t have to be a proponent of “Broken windows” theory of criminal justice to understand that broken sidewalks and weed-filled lots encourage littering and worse, and abandoned houses tempt squatters.

Research tells us that financial and personal insecurity increase all sorts of social dysfunction, from out-of-wedlock births to crime, drug use and gun violence.

Pew researchers recently confirmed that financial insecurity causes a range of so-called “secondary effects” for communities, including diminished participation in civic and political life. As we all know, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and these are people who rarely squeak. When I was in City Hall, the Hudnut Administration really did care about addressing blight and helping the poor—but the streets that got plowed first were those between the affluent area where the Mayor lived and downtown. Ditto with chuckholes that got filled and streetlights that got repaired.

Low-interest loan programs are important, but most ALICE families have neither the time nor the energy—let alone the resources—to take advantage of them. “Affordable” housing is affordable primarily for those above the ALICE thresholds—there is very little truly affordable housing available for those below it, and none at all that I’m aware of for what my husband—who used to be Director of DMD—calls “no income” families.

In Indianapolis, as you all know, transportation is a huge problem. Automobiles eat up an enormous percentage of a low-income household’s income, and the lack of a car puts a majority of job opportunities out of reach. Without reliable public transportation with reasonable headways, poor people, old people and disabled people are stranded.

There’s actually a lot that cities can do, assuming the existence of political will: improved infrastructure in poor areas, vastly improved public transportation, beefed-up, timely enforcement of building codes and weed ordinances. Working with public safety to minimize criminal activity is critical. Ditto working with IPS to improve educational opportunities, and support for raising the minimum wage.

As my husband likes to say, we should do everything we can to make poor neighborhoods livable. That means ensuring convenient access to public services, to parks, to efficient public transportation. It means attention to public safety, not just through increased police presence, but by promptly taking down dangerous abandoned structures, providing adequate street lighting, and actually rebuilding decaying infrastructure—not just haphazard patching of streets and sidewalks when the holes become too big to ignore. It means paying attention to alleys, which the city ignores, so that their extreme deterioration doesn’t degrade whole neighborhoods. It means walkable neighborhoods with access to wholesome food and health care facilities.

Some of these measures are easier than others, but they all take money, and we live at a time when tax is a dirty word. We can’t easily make up for dwindling federal dollars, thanks to what I consider Indiana’s worst public policy decision during my lifetime–the constitutionalizing of the tax caps. I don’t have to justify that opinion in this room. But we also shouldn’t minimize the importance of political will. Until those of us who remain privileged members of the middle class understand the importance of economic and racial integration to our own well-being, significant improvement to depressed neighborhoods will remain elusive.

We often hear that a rising tide lifts all boats. But it is also true that an ebb tide lowers all boats. Investments in the built environment and in human capital help to raise the tide; continued disinvestment and neglect will ultimately hurt us all.

[Originally published at SheilaKennedy.net on July 14, 2017]


Sheila Kennedy is a former high school English teacher, former lawyer, former Republican, former Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, former columnist for the Indianapolis Star, and former young person. She is currently an (increasingly cranky) old person, a Professor of Law and Public Policy at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis, and Director of IUPUI’s Center for Civic Literacy. She writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal, PA Times, and the Indiana Word, and blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net. For those who are interested in more detail, links to an abbreviated CV and academic publications can be found on her blog, along with links to her books..


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