Atlantic Cities

Why It's So Incredibly Difficult to Fight Urban Inequality

Why It's So Incredibly Difficult to Fight Urban Inequality
AP

The story of American cities today is one increasingly defined by a contradiction, as incredible wealth and advantage thrive alongside increasingly intractable pockets of concentrated disadvantage. Perhaps more so than the fact of inequality itself, the stubborn geography of class is the most troubling reality modern cities face.

The landslide victory of New York's Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio earlier this week has been seen as a referendum on this "tale of two cities." In his victory speech at the Park Slope Armory, de Blasio redoubled his commitment to tackling the worrying relationship between geography, inequality and poverty. "The best and the brightest are born in every neighborhood," he said. “We all have a shared responsibility and a shared stake in making sure their destiny is defined by how hard they work and how big they dream, and not by their ZIP code."

Urban divides are nothing new. Researchers and reformers all the way back to the original Chicago School sociologists of the early 20th century long debated the concentration of poverty in lagging urban centers. In the 1960s, white flight to the suburbs led to concern that inner-city neighborhoods were permanently part of a "hole in the doughnut" – a worrying geographic inequality that was the focus of the Johnson administration's Great Society programs. William Julius Wilson’s landmark book The Truly Disadvantaged more recently rekindled interest in the troubling relationship between a child's neighborhood and his chances in life.

Today's divides are different. They no longer reflect a troubled urban core surrounded by affluent suburbs, but rather a fragmented fractal of class that cuts across city and suburb alike.

Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson, the leading contemporary scholar on such "neighborhood effects," has found overall that those in poorer neighborhoods, regardless of their own family’s income, have far worse life chances. As Sampson warned in an insightful op-ed in The New York Times late last month, "the high-end spatial concentration of income and its associated resources, like well-endowed schools, security, abundant services and political connections, in effect pulls up the drawbridge from our neighbors." Even more troubling, this seems to disproportionately affect affluent African American families, who often find themselves living in high poverty neighborhoods – a relationship that NYU professor Patrick Sharkey explored in his recent book Stuck in Place. Last spring, Sampson said something that neatly predicted the rising discussion of neighborhood inequality in New York City: despite gentrification and new investments, "neighborhoods remained remarkably stable in their relative economic standing—whether at the bottom or the top."

This decades-long persistence of poverty, neighborhood inequality, and class division draws attention to the enormity of the challenge facing America’s cities. In his review of Bloomberg-era anti-poverty efforts in the New York Times, University of Pennsylvania historian Michael Katz points to the limits of local approaches. To address economic and geographic inequality he writes, would require substantial efforts in the form of "an expanded and repaired safety net; direct job creation through publicly funded infrastructure projects; and new programs designed to provide an adequate guaranteed income for every American."

Economic and geographic inequality is deep and structural, built into the very fabric of our greatest cities. What's needed is a new urban policy that addresses the deep-seated geographic as well as economic bases of inequality.

One potentially promising direction is the Obama administration's Promise Zones initiative. The program would concentrate grant money in some of America's most underserved neighborhoods and create an integrated and holistic approach to addressing the interconnected problems of high-poverty: run-down housing stock, failing schools, high levels of violent crime.

The tactic is inspired by the successful Harlem Children’s Zone, which both Obama and de Blasio have held up as a model for their neighborhood revitalization programs. This holistic nonprofit, now covering almost 100 blocks of Harlem, offers everything from prenatal support to college application help to the families living within its "jurisdiction." This integrated approach to tackling inequality, touted by the Obama administration and now central to the de Blasio agenda, offers a much-needed corrective to decades of piecemeal, ineffective urban policy.

We asked Sampson and Sharkey for their thoughts on Promise Zones, and what they shared has important lessons for New York’s new mayor as he sets off on his own ambitious anti-poverty agenda. Both thought the approach was promising, but that it would face a few big hurdles.

The first is simply money. Back in 2007, Obama warned that real and effective, neighborhood-bases solutions "can’t be done on the cheap." The billions needed are difficult to pull together even in the best of times. The Harlem Children’s Zone is incredibly well funded, with an operating budget of $95 million in fiscal year 2012. In contrast, the Obama administration has invested $350 million in 100 of "the nation’s persistent pockets of poverty" since 2009. Per neighborhood, that's less than 4 percent of the money that’s proven effective in Harlem.

As Sharkey explained:

I was excited because it fits with the idea of policies that provide holistic investments in tough places and are designed to reach multiple generations of family members over extended periods of time—so it meets multiple criteria for 'durable' urban policy. But, like most similar urban initiatives that have been announced since the War on Poverty, the initial ambitious idea turned into a small-scale program that was basically a grant program to a scattered set of nonprofits around the country…. I just get depressed by the fact that they have no shot to generate transformative change at the current funding levels.

The second challenge will be institutional support. As Sampson told us, "I think this is a hard nut to crack—nonprofits are important but we know from past research that sometimes local organizations get wrapped up in their own agendas and simply surviving as an organization. If so, the public good can fall to the wayside."

Then, there's the sheer question of time-scale. Inequality, class division, poverty, and concentrated disadvantage have been decades in the making and appear to be built into the very structure of the urban knowledge economy. It will take sustained commitment and long-run reinvestment to turn things around.

Bernardine Watson, a social policy researcher, framed the reality of Promise Zones this way in The Washington Post last month:

Is it bold or well funded enough? Of course not, but in this economic and political environment "bold" is highly unlikely. Still, maybe we can learn something from this limited Promise Zones initiative to help move the needle in the fight against inequality. 

Indeed, this problem is not one that de Blasio, or his city, will be able to fix alone. Much has been made of the idea that mayors are able to be at once more pragmatic, more innovative, and less partisan than their dysfunctional counterparts in Washington. And it is true that mayors have played a large part in many of the most innovative ideas in government today. But these problems are the product of forces far beyond their control and require resources greater than they alone are privy to. Addressing these deep and fundamental divides will require substantial federal commitment.

De Blasio’s historic, landslide election in New York brings new urgency and energy to these divides which constitute perhaps the greatest challenge of 21st century America. But, as de Blasio himself acknowledged in his victory speech Tuesday night, "the problems we set out to address will not be solved overnight." And it may take an effort far greater than any one mayor or one city can muster to bridge them.

Top Image: President Barack Obama, center, with New York City mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, left, visit Junior's Cheesecake restaurant in Brooklyn on Friday, Oct. 25, 2013. (AP Photo/The Daily News, Aaron Schowalter, Pool).

Richard Florida is Co-Founder and Editor at Large at The Atlantic Cities. He's also a Senior Editor at The Atlantic, Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, and Global Research Professor at New York University. He is a frequent speaker to communities, business and professional organizations, and founder of the Creative Class Group, whose current client list can be found here. All posts »

Stephanie Garlock is a fellow at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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