Inequality, It’s Your Time to Shine

Occupy Wall Street.  Fighting inequality before it was cool, man.  Source: occupytogether.org

Is it me, or is the issue of income inequality starting to move to the front and center of the American consciousness?

I’ve developed a bit of a reputation as an explainer and advocate for my hometown of Detroit, and shed some light on how it’s gotten to its current place.  However, in the process, I’ve come to understand that the forces of income inequality, segregation and a lack of economic and social mobility have played a huge role in the failure that is Detroit.  I’ve steadily been making the case that these factors threaten scores of other American cities as well, and that failure to address them will simply result in more economic — and social — failures.

But look at what’s been happening lately.  It appears that the continued slow pace of economic recovery throughout 2013 has caused the American public to explore more root causes for the current economic conditions, and perhaps the election of Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York City, running on an explicitly “rich city/poor city” platform, has caused even more people to consider the impact of inequality.

Richard Florida, he of Creative Class fame, has far less famously started to note the impact of income inequality, income segregation, and poor economic and social mobility for at least the last eighteen months.  Starting with a sort of call to action in the spring of 2012, Florida followed that up with a series on how our metros are divided by class (here’s the Chicago version; the whole series is worth a look), wrote in November about the difficulty in fighting inequality, and this week wrote about segregation’s role  in the enforcement of inequality. 

Just this week, the Brookings Institution released two separate pieces on income inequality.  Alan Berube wrote about policy strategies that mayors could implement to address income inequality.  Patrick Sharkey wrote about income segregation and its impact on economic mobility.  Both came shortly after and possibly as a response to Adam Davidson’s New York Times Magazine article, which says mayors are limited in their ability to address income inequality.  He cites Harvard economist Edward Glaeser:

Whatever de Blasio does, Glaeser argues, the city will continue to attract both the superrich and the poor, and there will be less space occupied by the middle class. The gap between rich and poor has grown significantly over the past 35 years in nearly every nation, and especially in large cities. “Globalization and new technology have made cities more, not less, valuable,” Glaeser said. This is because the most profitable businesses no longer involve heavy machinery; they are rooted in ideas, which, it turns out, spread most effectively when knowledge workers are densely packed together. The top handful of major metropolitan areas — New York, Chicago, Los Angeles — account for a hugely disproportionate share of overall U.S. economic growth, Glaeser says. There is every reason to believe this trend will continue and, most likely, increase. That will draw even more of the high-earning elite to big cities and many of the poor, too, seeking jobs and assistance in these centers of economic growth.

But perhaps the most prominent position on the subject came from President Obama when he delivered a speech earlier this week stating that our nation’s growing income gap, the disappearance of our middle class and the concentration of wealth at the top are the “defining challenge of our time.”

The defining challenge of our time.  One so insidious it’s taken nearly 40 years to recognize it, and one so intractable that answers elude us.

The Midwest in general and the Rust Belt in particular know this problem well.  It lies at the heart of the decimation of small industrial towns as well as inner-city neighborhoods.  It used to be that your average suburban-dwelling resident in large metros could look the other way from small town and ghetto decay, but now the same decay imperils them.

Without a doubt globalization and technology have made cities more valuable than ever before, and the most successful of them will continue to attract the very rich and very poor.  I lean toward the opinion that the global cities should do what they can to bridge those differences and create opportunity for the poor to be more than simply a service class to the rich who employ them.  But after we address those matters in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and Washington, we’re still left with the hundreds of cities that aren’t connected as globally as these.  What of the rest?

The case of inequality is gaining traction because it’s being experienced by a growing number of people.  For decades, inequality was an abstract concept to most; now it’s being experienced at a local level.  I’m developing a growing sense that whatever solution there is for inequality is also the solution for Rust Belt revitalization, and vice versa.

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