Posts Tagged ‘cities’

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Back in 2010, I warned about the widening and deepening of capitalist poverty in the United States.

The fact is (pdf), more poor people now live in the suburbs than in America’s big cities or rural areas. Suburbia is home to almost 16.4 million poor people, compared to 13.4 million in big cities and 7.3 million in rural areas.

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Lake County, IL, one of the wealthiest counties in the United States, is a case in point. Median household income in 2015 was $82,106, 45 percent higher than the national average.

At the same time, 9.6 percent of the Lake County population lived below the poverty line—more than 20 thousand of them children under the age of 17—and about 60 thousand people were forced to rely on food stamp benefits.

As Scott Allard explains,

Set beside Lake Michigan north of the city of Chicago, Lake County abounds with large single-family homes built mostly since 1970. Parks, swimming pools and recreational spaces dot the landscape. Commuter trains and toll roads ferry workers into Chicago, and back again. . .

Poverty problems in Lake County can be hidden from plain view. Many low-income families live in homes and neighbourhoods that appear very “middle class” on the surface – single-family homes with garages and cars in the driveway.

Closer inspection, however, reveals signs of poverty in all corners of the county. Many Lake County communities from all racial and ethnic groups are in need, and poverty rates in the older communities along Lake Michigan, such as Zion or Waukegan, more closely resemble those in the central city.

Pockets of concentrated poverty can be found in subdivisions of single-family homes, isolated apartment complexes and mobile home parks across the county. It also appears at the outer edges of Lake County in areas that might have been described as rural or recreational 30 or 40 years ago, before suburban sprawl brought in new residents and job-seekers. Several once-bustling strip malls are home to discount retailers and empty storefronts. It is not uncommon to see families at local grocery stores and supermarkets using food stamps or electronic benefit transfer cards to pay for part of their bill.

Rising suburban poverty is, of course, not confined to Lake County or the Chicago area. It can be found across the country, from Atlanta to San Francisco.

Back in the 1990s, researchers began to chronicle the diversity that exists across American suburbs, paying particular attention to older, declining suburbs—manufacturing-based, older industrial areas struggling with structural shifts and economic decline.

Now, however, in the wake of the Second Great Depression, the poverty landscape has broadened even further, encompassing all kinds of communities around the country. We’ve now moved well beyond the declining and at-risk suburbs chronicled in earlier research and are forced to confront the geographical widening of poverty, which continues to blight the nation’s cities and rural areas and is increasingly hidden in plain view in its suburbs.

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Yesterday, I discussed new findings concerning the fact that, while the United States is getting richer every year, American workers are not.

That same problem is showing up in American cities, which since 1970 have experienced a “hollowing-out” of the middle-class.

The graphic above shows the change in income distribution in 20 major U.S. cities between 1970 and 2015. In 1970, each of these cities exhibits a near-symmetrical, bell-shaped income distribution—a high concentration of households in the middle, with narrow tails of low and high-income households on either end. By 2015, the distributions have grown more polarized: fewer middle-income households, and more households in the low-income and/or high-income extremes.

1970 2015

Chicago is a good example of what has taken place in urban areas across the country. It boasted a thriving manufacturing sector in 1970. As illustrated in the map on the left above, incomes were lowest in the city center, growing higher radially outward toward the city’s borders. And while Chicago was largely successful in transitioning away from manufacturing to a service-based economy by 2015, that transition created a heavy concentration of wealth in the business/financial district and marked decline in most of the surrounding areas (as indicated in the map on the right).

To listen to the champions of American capitalism, cities represent the solution to growing inequality and the decline of the middle-class associated with the “old” manufacturing economy. But, as it turns out, urban centers are characterized by the same kind of grotesque inequalities and hollowing-out of the middle-class as the rest of the country.

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Liberal stories about who’s been left behind during the Second Great Depression are just about as convincing as the “breathtakingly clunky” 2014 movie starring Nicolas Cage.

For Thomas B. Edsall, the story is all about the people in the “rural, less populated regions of the country” who have been left behind in the “accelerated shift toward urban prosperity and exurban-to-rural stagnation” and who supported Republicans in the most recent election.

Louis Hyman, for his part, argues that the people who have been left behind—rural Americans and the people “who live and work in small towns”—hold a misplaced nostalgia for Main Street, which has been exploited by Donald Trump. What they really need, according to Hyman, is to find new jobs online so that they can “find their way from Main Street to the mainstream.”

In both cases, and many more like them, the great divide is supposedly one of geography: everyone is prospering in the big cities—with high-tech jobs, soaring incomes, and a proliferation of non-chain boutiques and restaurants—and everyone else, outside those cities, is being left behind.

Except, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, lots of people outside of the country’s metropolitan areas have been excluded from the recovery from the crash of 2007-08 (just as they were during the bubble that preceded it). But that’s true also of cities themselves, from Boston to San Francisco.

The problem is not geography, but class.

According to a 2016 report from the Economic Policy Institute, in almost half of U.S. states, the top 1 percent captured at least half of all income growth between 2009 and 2013, and in 15 of those states, the top 1 percent captured all income growth. In another 10 states, top 1 percent incomes grew in the double digits, while bottom 99 percent incomes fell.

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Much the same is true in the nation’s metropolitan areas. In the 12 most unequal metropolitan areas, the average income of the top 1 percent was at least 40 times greater than the average income of the bottom 99 percent. In the New York City area, the average income of the top 1 percent was 39.3 times the average income of the bottom 99 percent, in Boston 30.6, and in San Francisco, 30.5 times.

By the same token, some of the nation’s non-urban counties have very high levels of income inequality. Lasalle County, Texas, for example, has an average income of the bottom 90 percent of only $47,941 but a top-to-bottom ratio of 125.6. Similarly, Walton County Florida, with a bottom-90-percent income of $40,090, has a top-to-bottom ratio of 45.6.

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The fact is, across the entire United States—in large cities as well in small towns and rural areas—the incomes of the top 1 percent have outpaced the gains of everyone else. That’s been the case during the recovery from the Great Recession, just as it was in the three decades leading up to the most recent crash.

While it’s true, the voters in most metropolitan areas went for Hillary Clinton and those elsewhere supported Trump. The irony is that the majority of those voters, inside and outside the nation’s cities, have been left behind by an economic system that benefits only those at the very top.

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