Point Austin: Desegregating Austin

Latest study on inequality should provoke action

Point Austin

"It is not just that the economic divide in America has grown wider; it's that the rich and poor effectively occupy different worlds, even when they live in the same cities and metros."

– Richard Florida and Charlotta Mellan­der, "Segregated City: The Geography of Economic Segregation in America's Metros"

The latest statistical effusion from Richard Florida (and his University of Toronto colleague Charlotta Mellander) hit the media Monday, generating headlines here and elsewhere declaring (e.g., Tuesday's Statesman), "Study: Austin economic gap tops U.S." The headlines understandably generated local breast-beating about both segregation and inequality (Mayor Steve Adler weighed in early in the week), and our increasing alarm that as Austin continues to grow exponentially, it's also increasingly unaffordable for far too many Austinites. Cue the predictable laments.

I'm still plowing through the dense Florida/Mellander collection of statistics, which are certainly worth pondering, although it's also worth noting at the outset that the headlines and the study don't quite coincide. That's partly because the sociologists write primarily about "metropolitan areas" and not "cities" as such, so that (for example) the "Aus­tin" it analyzes is the "Austin-Round Rock Metropolitan Area." That also makes the "economic segregation" they describe more socially and politically complex – locals have long known Williamson and Hays counties as wealthy bedroom destinations, but finding some comprehensive jurisdictional way to address the social divisions they embody and reinforce is another matter entirely.

Also, the researchers' "economic" distinction comprises three large categories – income, education, and occupation – and that also complicates their comparisons. For example, when they're considering income segregation alone, their "Top 10" list looks radically different – Cleveland, Detroit, Memphis, Milwaukee, Columbus, Phila­del­phia, Phoenix, Buffalo, Kansas City, and Nashville ("mainly Rustbelt metros which have experienced considerable white flight and deindustrialization"). Moreover, Flor­ida's professional preoccupation with the "creative class" leads him to lump wildly disparate occupations (and income levels) into that ideological basket, while reducing the "working class" to less than a quarter of the U.S. population.

Beyond the Skybox

Nevertheless, those analytical swerves shouldn't provide much comfort to those of us who have watched our region prosper as a whole over the last two decades while far too many of our neighbors (increasingly invisible neighbors) have been left behind or driven away from the centers of that prosperity. When New Urbanists and successive city administrations argued that it was time to stop sprawling – for economic, environmental, and social reasons – it didn't seem an inevitable consequence that working-class families (especially racial minorities) would be driven to the margins or out of the city altogether. In 2002, Mike Clark-Madison could still (with qualification) celebrate Austin in these pages as "a place where you can afford a house, raise a family, send your kid to public school, not spend hours a day stuck in traffic, walk in a central-city neighborhood alone at midnight." ("Austin @ Large: How Weird Is That?" Nov. 29, 2002.)

Thirteen years later, that description of the city seems distressingly nostalgic, even unrecognizable for people of moderate means, as the advantages of prosperity most persistently accrue to the wealthiest. And as Florida and Mellander point out, that concentration of wealth is geographically reinforced by those with the resources to do so. "It is not so much the size of the gap between the rich and poor that drives segregation," they write, "as the ability of the super-wealthy to isolate and wall themselves off from the less well-to-do. The Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel has dubbed this phenomenon the 'skyboxification' of American life."

Share the Wealth

Official attempts to slow or reverse that segregation-by-wealth – e.g., with affordable housing projects – have had only middling success. And at the neighborhood level, such projects too often evoke responses that recall earlier decades of attempts at racial desegregation. Witness some folks from River Place, abetted by new District 6 Council Member Don Zim­mer­man, now bitterly fighting a Foundation Communities project that would allow some working-class families to live closer to their service jobs in far West Austin. Unless we can build more housing (of all types) throughout the city at a rate neighborhoods have been disinclined to allow, we can expect that housing costs will continue to be a formidable barrier to an economically diverse Austin.

It would be encouraging to see more City Hall energy on the demand side of the equation – more jobs at better pay for workers at the bottom of the scale, making it possible for more of us to "afford" housing, and higher education, and quality of life, and all the benefits of Austin's legendary prosperity. A city segregated by economic opportunity does not have to be Austin's future, but to avoid such a fate will require a broader community effort than we've yet managed to muster.

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inequality, Segregated City, Richard Florida, Charlotta Mellander, economic segregation, creative class

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