Yesterday, I mentioned the group blogging event sponsored by the Meeting of the Minds conference sponsors and Living Cities. Since the time I wrote my blog post on the effort, more experts took a stab at answering the question, “how could cities better connect their residents to economic opportunity?” I haven’t done a tally, nor have I read every entry, but it’s clear that the growing consensus of experts is that innovation and technology will provide the best way to expand economic opportunity within cities. Coming up as a strong second is greater investment in public transit, to create better access to employment centers in metro areas.
Forget about it.
Simply teaching kids to code — or even adults — will do as much to reduce inequality as teaching them to “dougie”. Relatedly, improved access to job centers can increase employment for low-income and even middle-income residents who lack the ability to get where jobs exist. But in both cases, improvements only come at the margins.
Let me be clear — education and access are critical barriers to the integration of low-income communities, specifically low-income African-American communities, within American society. Yet education, nor access, account for all, or even most, of the inequality and economic disparities that separate these communities from the rest of metro areas.
Economic inequality, racial inequality and poor economic mobility are social problems, created by public policy, and requires a social approach to deal with them. Trying to utilize other measures, like the abstraction that is the technology solution or the indirect way that improved public transit seeks to resolve it, fails to address the core issue.
Today’s inequality is the result of poor access to networks — housing networks, job networks — that privilege the majority. Residents of low income communities have fewer jobs because they lack access to job networks. They have worse living conditions because they lack access to housing networks that could lead to better neighborhoods. This poor network apparatus was created by and reinforced with public policy that isolated low income communities from the rest of metro areas.
Yet today there is an opportunity to change this condition. Where once the return of young, educated middle class suburbanites to cities was constricted to just a few cities throughout the country, it’s now acknowledged to be happening to some extent in almost all of our largest metro areas. What does this mean? It means that low income communities, specifically low income black communities, will have greater proximity to the young educateds — and their networks — than at any time in the last half-century.
This is not a problem. This is an opportunity.
Proximity offers an opportunity to establish networks where none exist. Doing so, however, requires engagement by city newcomers in the neighborhoods they move into, and the companies they work for, in ways perhaps they had not imagined.
What would engagement look like? For starters, it could mean newcomer support of local entrepreneurship initiatives that strengthen the small business makeup of their new neighborhood. It could mean apprenticeship programs conducted by businesses relocating to cities from the suburbs, as a way to develop their ever-increasing need for talent. It could mean sponsorship programs that link young educateds with longtime residents in low income communities. It could mean partnerships that seek to strengthen institutions within low income communities — churches, schools, nonprofits, others — so they do not collapse under the weight of neighborhood change.
It may sound odd, but simple social strategies could work as well. Community get-togethers like picnics, sports leagues and other activities, coordinated by community-minded organizations and citizens that emphasize engagement, could lead to improved networks as well.
Newcomers and longtimers must resist the urge to disparage the other, acting as if the back-to-the-city movement is a zero-sum game. Newcomers must resist the temptation to completely remake their new community in their image without the involvement of longtime residents. Longtimers must resist the urge to defend everything at all costs and welcome positive changes. If a social infrastructure exists within a community, utilize it. If one does not, create it.
There is a frightening alternate scenario. If the social foundation of low income community isolation is not addressed, as the back-to-the-city movement proceeds, we will see an acceleration of low income residential movement to the suburbs — at the same time that people and jobs are moving in the opposite direction. That would lead to greater isolation, poorer networks, and even more inequality than we have today, in part because the physical infrastructure of most suburbs lacks a public or social context. Low income residents stranded in the suburbs would truly be on the outside looking in.
I’m hoping to avoid that scenario.