A Success Scenario for the American City
Tomorrow's Cities: Which Future Will We Choose?
From the heart of America’s suburbs, one hears a recurring rationalization. “Since they don’t try, we don’t have to care.” Among the teens gathered on America’s underclass streets, one hears their recurring rejoinder. “Since they don’t care, we don’t have to try.” Set to music, it would be staged as “The Failure Spiral Duet,” a symbolic white matron and a symbolic black teen, trading insults, doubts, and reciprocal cynicism. The worm of rationalized failure munches away on the American spirit. Since people won’t change, cities will never change. Or so we tell ourselves.
The inner city failure spiral is one of many entries on America's list of Failures We Intend To Ignore. As mentioned earlier, we sense America’s failure in the size of this nation’s prison population. We sense America's failure in the disappearance of two-parent families in poverty neighborhoods. We sense America's failure in the lassitude of urban schools, in the prejudices of the urban real estate market.
Let's look for a moment at a single set of measures, taken from Census 2000 data.
This chart comes from a richly detailed dataset I immersed myself in just a few years back. It profiles family structures in the Annapolis peninsula, then an area of 60,000 people, of whom a quarter were African-American. Some black households were middle class and upper middle class; many were low income households. For a variety of reasons, the City of Annapolis long ago became host to nearly a dozen public housing projects. This chart therefore reflects urban America just a little too well, not exactly of course, but directionally on target.
Note the sharp contrast in family patterns. White households without children make up two-thirds of the white total; black households without children make up only a third of the black total.
Of those white household that have children, roughly three-quarters are married couple households. Of those black households with children, fewer than a third are married couple households. Single parent households are only a quarter of the total among whites; among black households, the vast majority are headed by single parents.
The Latino population in 2000 is much smaller than today’s; I won’t try to generalize about the extent of single parent households among Latinos.
The underlying cause of these distressing numbers is America’s ill-advised welfare template. Civil rights veteran and former UN Ambassador Andrew Young condemns welfare as even worse than slavery in the harm it causes to black families.[i] I don’t believe that low income Annapolis is all that different from low income urban areas in most of the country; these are the numbers I cite because they are the numbers I have had occasion to work with most closely.
I begin with these observations in order to anchor the following discussion in the core reality of this nation’s inner city failure spiral. It is both a national failure and a metro area by metro area failure. It is partly a failure caused by racial discrimination but it is much more complex than that. One cannot isolate a single sector that causes it; one cannot explain it by referring to a single template or a single engine of replication that reproduces urban failure over and over again. Urban failures in America reflect a complex set of replication behaviors and they stand as one of America’s toughest challenges. How are we to count ourselves as a competent people and America as a competent nation if this is how we behave?
The failure spiral persists for one central reason. Giving up on the poor is socially acceptable; giving up on America’s urban core is socially acceptable. You know this, I know it, everyone knows it. The problem persists because comparatively few of us think we risk anything by ignoring it. No one pays a social penalty for looking the other way because no one believes that things can change.
Let’s reverse that. Let’s declare that a competent America doesn’t accept the urban failure spiral of today. We take it on. Though we are good people, we have gotten caught up in bad habits. Time to figure this out, time to create a more competent reality, time to leave the past behind.
Louder, please. Right!!!
That's better. So how do we do this?
The effort ahead will require all the competencies that have been under discussion since the beginning of this book.
Core Principle Competence. Integrity at scale takes precedence over irresponsibility at scale. The national interest has a higher claim on our loyalties than any particular special interest.
Collaborative Competence. It takes a lot of teamwork to overcome an urban failure spiral and replace it with an urban success spiral. If we can get everyone in the room, our prospects for long-run success improve considerably.
Descriptive Worldview. If we base our descriptive worldview on anecdotes that lay blame elsewhere, we are apt to think we have no role. If we base our worldview on an historical understanding of cause-and-effect relationships, we are more likely to understand history as a process that is always affected by human choice.
Directional Worldview. Defeatism leads to the conviction that nothing can change. Directional worldviews that lull us into thinking change is impossible may well be self-fulfilling. A competent people makes a point of seeing the future as an expression of its competence, not as an expression of its limitations.
Success Standard. We want a vision of tomorrow’s cities that will be an enduring source of pride, not a source of perpetual mediocrity.
Solution Strategies. We want solutions powerful enough to create a capable and successful urban future for all of us.
America’s inner city failure spiral persists because as a people we haven’t the competency, just yet, to convert a multi-part failure spiral into a multi-part success spiral. That doesn’t mean we cannot learn how to navigate this sort of change; it simply means we haven’t put our minds to it. Let’s look at the pieces to this a bit more closely.
It is easy to think of a city as buildings and streets and parks, which in part it is. But a city is also – and more importantly – its people. What matters to a city’s future is the capacity of its people to listen to one another, share visions for the city’s future, and find ways to work together for everyone’s benefit. A population divided into enclaves won’t be as competent as a population with layers and layers of social connections.
Inner city turnaround is a complex journey, and people who accept the value of working together will navigate its twists and turns more capably. Collaborative competence is the starting point for urban success.
Collaborative competence is essential not only at the local level but also at the national level. Some aspects of urban turnaround depend on national policy choices – welfare policy choices, drug policy choices, minimum wage policy choices, economic prosperity choices. The greater our capacity to think together, optimistically, about the future of America’s cities and the essentials of a healthy future, the better our national policies will be. The better our progress will be.
It always helps to have an image in mind of what collaboration can mean. Let’s take inspiration from a story Adam Kahane tells in his excellent book, Solving Hard Problem. Kahane and his colleagues played a key role in marshaling South Africa’s capacity for collaborative optimism at a particularly difficult moment in that nation’s recent history, as its once dominant white minority was on the verge of handing over power to the country’s black majority. The Mont Fleur Conference Center near Capetown hosted a series of meetings that brought together leaders from powerful groups with long histories of rivalry and deep mistrust. South Africa’s future success depended on the ability of those groups to find common ground. Local peacemakers hoped that something good would emerge at Mont Fleur.
Kahane and the other facilitators guided the Mont Fleur participants through an extended scenario-building exercise. “Imagine the different scenarios that South Africa might go through in the years ahead” – that was the challenge placed before the entire group. South Africa was on the verge of transferring power from the white minority to the black majority. Every plausible scenario was worthy of consideration. The facilitators had asked a question that invites participation rather than division, and the participants rose to the task. Together they developed four scenarios that represented their sense of South Africa’s most likely outcomes. Each scenario was given a distinctive name – Ostrich, Lame Duck, Icarus, Flight of the Flamingoes.
Ostrich: A non-representative white government avoiding a negotiated settlement with the black majority.
Lame Duck: A prolonged transition with a constitutionally weakened government that satisfies no one.
Icarus: A constitutionally unconstrained black government rides a popularity wave, embarks on massive public spending, and crashes the economy.
Flight of the Flamingoes: Key building blocks are put in place, everyone in the society rises slowly and together, and the transition is successful.
Shared scenario building turned the participants into something of a team. Together they shaped the four scenarios; together they would explain them to the nation and ask all sectors of the South African public to react. They published, ran workshops, made videos. Icarus in particular drew considerable attention. Many activists from black South Africa recognized themselves in its portrait, acknowledged the warning it sounded, and reworked their ambitions. The nation began to cohere around Flight of the Flamingoes as the scenario that engendered the most confidence.[ii]
Certain general principles help any collaborative process. No important interest gets excluded. People meet face to face, with expectations of sincerity and truthfulness. All ideas are open to re-examination; nothing is taken as an absolute to be accepted without question. People are to change through persuasion, not through coercion. Collaborative processes seek substantive consensus. Interest-based negotiation works better than positional bargaining. Relationships are to be nurtured even among those who disagree. “Be hard on issues, soft on people” is the well-known Fisher-Ury principle from their book Getting to Yes.
Issues and arguments come and go. Collaborative processes are as much about building enduring relationships as they are about reaching tangible agreements.
Imagine Americans gathering to wrestle with ways to leave behind inner city failure spirals of yesterday and replace them with a series of success spirals. There is no set answer for how this is to be achieved. Communities linked together by strong friendship networks are likely to outperform communities with weak and incomplete friendship networks regardless of the formal agendas they pursue.
Done well, collaboration awakens the imagination and expands the sense of possibility. “Imagine the potential in America’s schools.” “Imagine the potential in America’s urban transportation strategy.” “Imagine the overall potential for America’s cities.”
Think of the process starting at the grassroots. “This is the place where we live. Let’s figure out how to pour a lot of love into this place. Let’s get resources, let’s get things going, let’s deal with the stuff that messes us up and get it under control.”
Think of the process also being metro-wide. And think of it being national as well. Who wouldn’t want to foster collaborative competence on behalf of a warm and wonderful urban future?
It’s easy for middle class suburbanites to pick up their end of the Failure Spiral Duet and demonize the poor. “It’s all THEIR fault.” It’s a simple explanation, but it doesn’t tell us how we got stuck, as a nation, nor does it build a foundation for getting unstuck. If we want to make headway, we have to follow the rules of collaboration and listen quite a bit more carefully to a full range of views.
Here, not as a definitive diagnosis but more as a discussion starter, is a Failure Spiral Scenario, a way of looking at how inter-generational poverty takes hold and hangs on. There are two main parts to this scenario. The outer ring represents the institutional world, shaped by unwise policy choices and inept management. It is the world primarily authored by middle class Americans and their elected officials. At the center is the world of underclass culture, the value system that takes hold among the urban poor. The outer ring gives the poor a big push out of the middle class and into the underclass. The inner ring captures all too many of the urban poor. Each culture’s habits widen its distance from the other.
If one wanted to create a permanent urban underclass, one would put together a failure spiral with ingredients much like those shown here. The housing industry would ghettoize the urban poor, denying them affordable housing in otherwise middle class neighborhoods. Urban schools would be known for rules-based cultures, not inspirational cultures, and their dropout rates would be stunningly high.
The labor market would offer little to their graduates and nothing at all to their dropouts. Even the better jobs would be modestly paid. Employment prospects would be bleak for many, especially for young men. Street gangs would emerge as the social alternative, selling drugs and cashing in on the economy of crime. Many young men would end up not as husbands and fathers but as prison inmates. In a community long on welfare payments and short on marriageable men, young women would regularly have babies without getting married. The children of poverty would grow up in single parent households, all too vulnerable to the pull of underclass culture.
Underclass values are stark and counterproductive. Stay away from paying jobs. Forget about marriage and two-parent family life. Accept drug addiction and crime and violence as a natural way of life. As you enter adulthood, you cannot expect to live anywhere better. So go with the flow.
If that were your recipe for creating an underclass culture and an urban failure spiral, you’d succeed.
Soon it would seem like a law of nature. The middle class can’t help itself. Its housing practices prevent the poor from finding affordable housing in middle class neighborhoods. Its schools haven’t the energy to engage and educate. Its labor market has no interest in giving the urban poor a nurturing welcome to the world of work. By nominally forbidding the sale of narcotics, its drug laws enrich black market dealers. Its welfare rules reward unmarried motherhood. The urban poor live in a world almost wholly lacking in middle class role models, and without their presence, it is all too easy to get pulled into the underclass culture.
The cause-and-effect drivers that perpetuate this failure spiral slip from view. The illusion of inevitability takes over.
That’s the descriptive worldview that dominates the public mind just now. We tell ourselves that inner city decay is a fact of urban life.
Yet all the individual parts of the failure spiral are the consequences of human decisions. Every template that feeds the spiral persists by someone’s human choice. Yesterday’s behaviors persist because we choose to allow their perpetuation.
We practice what Mark Twain once called “the lie of silent assent.” It is the worst sort of lie we tell, Twain argued, because in not speaking out against immoral behavior, we intentionally and willingly approve its persistence.[iii]
A proper worldview grasps this essential truth. We cannot be a competent people, or a competent nation, until we recognize silence in the face of corruption is itself a form of corruption. A proper worldview acknowledges not only the initial causation but our broader participation in its day to day, year to year perpetuation.
Directional Worldview. Americans have never been of one mind on the overarching issues of a large and wealthy nation. Will we put special interests first and the national interest second? Some of us lean toward the special interest answer, some lean toward the national interest answer.
Will we see the environment as a store of riches to be plundered, or as a blessing from the Creator to be honored and taken care of? Will we want the American economy to be a source of prosperity for the entire middle class, or would it be better to forget the middle class and cede the nation’s economic future to its Top Tenth and especially its Top One Percent? Do we want a civic culture of integrity or a civic culture of corruption? Do we want to live in a society known for its robust middle class culture, or do we prefer a Gated Future, an American known for the dynamism of its aristocracy and for the aching feet of its servant classes?
Nature. Society. Economy. Government. Shall we affirm a directional worldview that celebrates nationwide integrity? Or a directional worldview that celebrates special privilege and corruption?
The first directional choice, the national interest choice, creates a vision of tomorrow’s cities as homes for a vibrant social order, a responsible civic spirit, significant economic energy, and a spirit of stewardship toward Nature.
The second directional choice, the special interest choice, implies a vision of cities divided economically, socially, and racially.
The second vision, alas, is presently the default vision. How is one to replace today’s failure spiral with tomorrow’s success spiral if a significant number of Americans think that special interests ought to take precedence over the national interest? In a special interest America, the poor will always be pushed aside the furthest. Social boundaries will be celebrated, not just as a way of pushing poor Americans to the side, but as a way of armor-plating the lifestyles of the very wealthy.
The second vision, though, leaves behind the heart of what it means to live in America and be an American citizen. It isn’t really who we are. In our weaker moments, we sometimes forget ourselves. The first vision is our truer vision. We are a people of civic principle. Our principles shape our long-run dreams for our nation. Our dreams shape our goals; our goals shape our projects; our projects shape our nation. We are most fully ourselves when we engage in making America a worthy home for all the people of this nation.
It is in our national interest to achieve a civic life of principle, an economy that creates prosperity for all Americans, a society based on a thriving middle class, and a world of Nature that’s free from pollution. When we set high standards, we call forth our best. The greater our competence, the healthier our future.
It is a consequential choice. Get our directional worldview wrong and today’s urban failure spirals will last forever. Get our directional worldview right and we give our cities a much brighter future.
Success Standard Competence
A competent people will draw from their directional worldview both a vision of success and a brief set of standards that define that vision.
In that vision, imagine a future in which the major Causes of Failure have been removed. Imagine also a future in which Causes of Urban Success are more plentiful.
Those templates that are part of today’s failure spiral need to fade from the scene. In the housing industry, templates that replicate ghettoization need to be replaced with templates that don’t. Welfare templates that undermine the two-parent family need to disappear. Leadership templates that hold back America’s public schools need to be replaced. Drug policies that enrich the dealer underworld need to disappear. The cultural signals that reinforce underclass values need to be resisted and weakened.
It is never enough simply to remove the most overt causes of failure. A wise public exercises its powers of imagination. Which capabilities would make our cities more competent? What’s missing, what can we create? Urban economies won’t thrive until state and national leaders once again care about America’s manufacturing future. Nor will today’s metro areas thrive till the American labor market once again reflects a spirit of equity and shared rewards. Those who need jobs need access to job readiness classes, including those designed to impart basic life skills.
Most of all, a good success standard visualizes the growth of social capital. Yesterday’s urban strangers become today’s urban volunteers. A marvelous film about the people of Pennsauken, New Jersey, brings this to life. Pennsauken was at the edge of a downhill skid when its people stood up, went door to door, got to know each other, and developed a strategy for emphasizing community strengths and awakening public interest in Pennsauken’s advantages. In any community, there are a thousand ways for people to come together, extend the hand of friendship, share food, and make things happen. All it takes is a few catalysts and a spirited vision.
The Failure Spiral Duet would lose its force. Success Spiral Medleys would work their way into America’s collective subconscious.
A competent nation knows how to leave cynicism behind, muster its hopes, and use those hopes to build a vision of a healthy urban future. The American Dream becomes real when people reach out to one another and champion its promise for everyone. A powerful success vision is powered by America’s courage and shaped by America’s imagination.
Solutions are a matter of seeing the whole, removing causes of failure, generating causes of success. Nothing puts this mantra to the test more than the multi-faceted challenge of inner city turnaround.
Several themes have been sounded in this chapter already. Let’s take some of them a step or two further.
Pride of Place. We want a city to be a source of pride. How do we generate pride of place, neighborhood by neighborhood, resident by resident, neighbor by neighbor? Community activities that promote pride of place also promote bonding, understanding, and relationships that will endure for a long time to come. Pride of place is a success factor, a generator of positive energy, something we would love to have in abundance.
Schools That Educate All Children. Schools that are run by out-of-date principals and burned-out teachers are a key source of urban failure. Schools succeed when everyone on staff is committed to a culture of success and has cultivated a high level of performance mastery.
An Economy That Hires Everyone and Pays Well. In today’s economy, the urban poor are the last hired, the worst paid, and the first fired. In part this is true because America’s economic elites crashed the system in 2008 and it will be a long time before it gets fully on its feet again. But it is more deeply the case because the basic operating system of the American economy underwent a radical change in 1981, in ways that cause the greatest harm to the nation’s most vulnerable. The core principles of shared prosperity capitalism are much better for the nation’s economic health, and we shall have to bring them back for the American economy to work properly. (More on this in chapter 16)
Property Taxes That Don’t Chase Away Business. One distinctive feature of today’s urban failure spiral is the flight of business out of the urban core. To compensate for lost revenues, urban mayors and city councils often respond by raising property taxes. This can be self-defeating, a step that stimulates further middle class flight and business flight.
One student of the problem urges American cities to bite the bullet, cut property tax rates, and do all they can to lure small business and middle class homeowners back to town. Professor Stephen J.K. Walters of Baltimore’s Loyola College points to the dramatic turnaround that San Francisco enjoyed when its property tax rates were forcibly cut by the passage of Proposition 13.[iv] According to Prof. Walters, one should take San Francisco’s success as proof of the hypothesis that lower property tax rates are likely to spark greater economic energy in America’s core cities than high rates.
From the early 1950s to the late 1970s, San Francisco’s property tax had grown from 1.4% to 3.2% while its population had declined from 775,000 in 1950 to scarcely 680,000 in 1978. With statewide passage of Proposition 13, the city’s property tax rate was slashed to 1.2% and has stayed there since. Much to the surprise of local politicians, business response was strong and the city’s population decline was swiftly reversed. Within a year, the city tax receipts had largely recovered. Better to have a lower property tax rate and a stronger economy, Walters argues. As of 2008, the city’s population stood at 809,000.[v] America’s hollowed out core cities can take a valuable lesson from San Francisco’s post 1978 success, as well as from its pre-1978 decline.
Job Readiness/Life Skills. Inner city neighborhoods are a terrible environment for kids. Who can learn to be a competent adult in a setting that imparts so little of life’s essential skills and so many bad habits? Any whole system approach to inner city turnaround entails a lot of healing. Everyone who feels sidelined by a lack of skills needs to hugged and reassured that a lack of skills is only a temporary affliction. Put warm and capable teachers on every block, almost, and give every resident a ladder into a good job, and the healing benefits will be extraordinary.
Welfare Redesign/Marriage Revival. America’s cities cannot move forward without a worldview that affirms the essential virtues of a middle class value system – education, work, marriage, religion, democracy, and capitalism. And if we are to revitalize America’s core cities, marriage in particular deserves a major shout out.
Marriage is traditionally understood as a union between a man and a woman, for the obvious reason that this expresses the psychological makeup that most of us are born with. Most, but not all. For some of us, different pairings work better. There are men who fulfill themselves best paired with other men, and women who fulfill themselves best paired with other women. Marriage isn’t something society creates; we all know this. Marriage is created by two partners, then recognized by society. And it is in society’s interest to have that pairing be as stable as possible.
For any adult, the most important responsibilities in life are those that come with parenthood. However we may be constituted as individuals, we are responsible for the well being of the children we bring into the world. No responsibilities are more profound than those of parenthood, and those responsibilities are generally fulfilled more capably in two-parent households than in single parent households.
So let’s get real about welfare. It might not have occurred to anyone when welfare was first created, decades ago, that it would evolve into a subsidy program for unwed motherhood. Today everyone knows that’s what it has become, and it’s time to get back to basics. It is not in society’s interest to subsidize unwed motherhood; it is in society’s interest to encourage marriage and the revival of the two parent family.
So let’s build our ideas about child support around this elemental principle. Let’s create a program of young family support and define it using four simple rules for the mothers affected.
First rule. If you are married when your first child is born, you can receive support for your first three children. Should you be unmarried when your first child is born, you will receive support only for your first two children.
Second rule. If you are 21 or older when your first child is born, the monthly support payment will be a little higher. If you under 21 when your first child is born, the stipend will be lower not just for the first child, but for the second and even the third child as well.
Third rule. If you are a high school graduate, and your married partner is also a high school graduate, the monthly support payment will be a little higher. (Not lower, higher. The availability of welfare shouldn’t cause anyone to drop out of school.)
Fourth rule. Child support stipends begin at birth and end when the child is old enough for kindergarten.
These are sensible rules. They send the right messages. Better to graduate than not. Better to be married than not. Better to wait to have children than not. Put money behind them and they will reverse the damaging incentive structures that have been the essence of traditional welfare. Let’s have a child support system that points young people not in the wrong direction but in the right direction.
Drug Law Redesign. Let’s look ahead and tell ourselves a success story, the story of how we straightened out the nation’s approach to addictive drugs and to the gangs that now profit from their sale. In America’s wiser urban future, there’s no money to be made from the sale of illegal drugs, because narcotic drugs have been decriminalized and prices reduced. Inner city gangs that once thrived on the drug trade have seen their cash flow from drugs simply vanish. Several social evils have dwindled in size, from street crime to bribery to the activities of international syndicates.
How have we achieved this change?
We started with a sensible worldview adjustment.
First of all, we realized – to our embarrassment – that eighty percent of America’s crime and eighty percent of America’s prison population were traceable to drugs and the laws that make drugs illegal.
We further realized that our policy choices played a major role in magnifying the size of the crime problem. The old practice of outlawing the sale of drugs played into the hands of street gangs. Illegal drugs commanded high prices and enriched those who dominated local black markets. Yesterday’s drug policies had set in motion a kill-or-be-killed natural selection process that benefited the meanest and most violent.
Finally it dawned on us. One cannot win a war against crime with laws that make the practice of crime so enormously profitable. Nor can one prevent an addict from stealing to support his habit when the habit is so costly. The way to make dealers go away is to take away their profits. The way to keep addicts from stealing is to make drugs legal and affordable and to use medical help instead of police enforcement to discourage and deter drug use.
The first problem was the problem within. We had to teach ourselves to feel a sense of compassion for those addicted to drugs and insist on finding a more humane strategy for weaning them off drugs. Once we realized that compassion was cheaper and safer and more promising in the long run, we were ready to set aside the old drug laws, just as we had once set aside Prohibition and the laws against selling and drinking alcoholic beverages. We weren’t demonizing drunks and alcoholics any more; what were we gaining by demonizing people who use drugs? We altered our stance from demonization to criticism. The difference is enormous.
In the new regulatory regime, drugs were to be made available on a prescription basis. Drug addiction was to be handled in the same even-tempered way that works with alcoholism. No, we wouldn’t be happy to see addiction, but we recognized that addiction already existed. Bringing it out in the open would make it more visible but not necessarily any larger. With pushers gone, the recruiting pressures would shrink.
We debated the details of drug decriminalization. We wanted drugs available through prescription, in order to keep users on a medical leash, but we also wanted drugs available essentially at cost. The only way to wipe out the drug underworld’s cash flow was to sell its product so cheaply that it would go broke trying to compete.
It took us awhile to work out the design details, but we finally found a framework that satisfied us. Drug use continues, and its presence is a recognized medical problem. But the crimes that addicts commit? The problem is much smaller. The crimes of violence that dealers used to commit? No longer an issue. Drug sales as a financing mechanism for al Qaeda and other terrorists? Our drug laws no longer add to the problem. A smarter drug policy has been better for U.S. security. Street gangs are a much weaker force in the American inner city. With drug-related crime a smaller social phenomenon than before, prosecutors have fewer cases to try and prisons have fewer inmates and require fewer tax dollars to run. Our cities are calmer and safer. A child of poverty has a cleaner shot at making it through school and into a middle class future.
It took awhile for Americans to see the light. Once we got our thinking straightened out, we wondered why it had taken us so long.
Housing Market Redesign. A middle class that has a heartless attitude towards the poor will look aside as the nation’s housing industry operates as an engine of ghettoization.
Why does this matter?
In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell captures the essence of the matter. He treats the pull of underclass culture as a social epidemic, one that breaks loose whenever a previously stable neighborhood loses its middle class base. [vi]
“All epidemics have Tipping Points. Jonathan Crane, a sociologist at the University of Illinois, has looked at the effect the number of role models in a community -- the professionals, managers, teachers whom the Census Bureau defines as "high status" -- has on the lives of teenagers in the same neighborhood. He found little difference in the pregnancy rates or school drop-out rates in neighborhoods of between 40 and 5 percent of high-status workers. But when the number of professionals dropped below 5 percent, the problems exploded. For black schoolchildren, for example, as the percentage of high-status workers falls just 2.2 percentage points – from 5.6 percent to 3.4 percent – drop-out rates more than double. And at the same Tipping Point, the rates of child-bearing for teenage girls – which barely move at all up to that point – nearly double.”
Housing codes are as sensitive a social issue as any we know. Too many American whites used to hold a worldview that endorsed racial segregation. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act, our nation shifted somewhat. Racial integration for the middle class was now fine with most everyone. And so the black middle class moved out of mixed income black ghettoes, dropping the percentage of high status professionals lower and lower and lower. America’s housing market was integrated by race, or so we told ourselves, but alas, as an unintended consequence, it was segregated even more intensively on economic lines.
The story of this nation over the last four decades is a story of suburbanization for the middle class and the upper middle class and ghettoization for the poor. We have accepted housing templates for the nation that guarantee the adverse outcomes documented by Jonathan Crane’s research. Our core principle has embraced irresponsibility at scale; our worldview has embraced it; our real estate sector embraces it; the consequences are harsh and continuing for those against whom these practices are targeted.
So let’s imagine that we hold ourselves to a higher standard. We have ducked the issue for quite a long time and ducking the issue has not made us a better nation, it has made us a sicker nation. We shift our worldview. We raise our success standard. We take on the puzzle-solving exercise of finding a better way to run the housing sector. We want ghettoization of the poor to go away. But we don’t want to expose middle class neighborhoods to the higher crime rates of ghetto neighborhoods. It is a hard problem. What the heck do we do? How do we solve this puzzle?
A true solution cannot be found in the pages of this or any other book. True solutions will emerge only through collaborative efforts, in one metro area after another. But those solutions will have certain characteristics, and we can imagine here what those characteristics might be.
First of all, they will have a gentle approach and a long horizon. No one can wave a wand and bring economic ghettoization to an instant close. Home ownership is a personal process everywhere, an intimate process, and the sifting together of households from different backgrounds has to have a careful human touch.
Second, we will say No to the idea that “market segmentation” is a sacred principle in housing. Clothing stores use market segmentation all the time; some appeal to teens and some appeal to mature adults. Build an entire neighborhood around a single market segment, though, and in essence the neighborhood is declared to be off limits to the poor, especially those of color. Segmentation: “OK in clothing, not OK in housing.” That’s the new rule.
Third, we invent dozens of creative and individually low impact ways of promoting market de-segmentation. A duplex here, a duplex there. A mother-in-law apartment here, a rental unit for college students there. One sifts affordable housing options into every neighborhood slowly and carefully, on a onesy-twosy basis, with zoning rules that gently coax us toward wider price ranges in rentals and wider price ranges for owner-occupied homes.
Fourth, we slowly rezone and rebuild the nation’s housing ghettoes. Low income housing options survive, but in smaller number and not in concentrated clusters. Middle income housing options dominate the rebuilt neighborhoods.
As this process unfolds, we realize that for years we have been waiting to exhale. And, finally, we can. Young adults just entering the job market and the housing market find more options than before. Retiring adults who want to downsize and live in affordable middle class neighborhoods also have more options. Working families in the lower half of the American labor force have more choices.
The market sector principle is pretty simple. Supply should match demand. If housing demand is hourglass-shaped, housing supply should be hourglass-shaped. If housing demand is diamond-shaped, housing supply should be diamond-shaped. And not just at a macro level, for an urban area as a whole, but at a micro level as well, with each neighborhood emulating in miniature something of the same spread.
Is the process described above a fifty year journey of restitching America’s neighborhoods so that everyone ends up in a stable and safe middle class neighborhood? Yes. Absolutely. One gentle step after another, nothing too dramatic, but with an end point at which it is understood that ghettoized poverty will have faded from the American scene.
“Yes We Can”
America’s sense of its urban future is still dominated by a “No We Can’t” worldview. We can’t fix urban schools, we can’t create urban jobs, we can’t fix welfare, we can’t fix the drug laws, we can’t fix the crime rate or the imprisonment rate, we can’t fix the way we ghettoize neighborhoods, we can’t fix urban schools, and we can’t recruit the nation’s poor out of an underclass culture into a middle class culture.
And we don’t even know how to talk meaningfully about these issues. We haven’t the slightest idea how to launch an effective collaborative conversation that can awaken our sense of a brighter urban tomorrow.
“The Failure Spiral Duet” is still the music of urban America, isn’t it? Time to set all that aside, isn’t it? Let’s make a simple directional shift, from “No, We Can’t” to “Yes, We Can.” Let’s start to talk together. Let’s step up to the wholeness of the challenge and the wholeness of the opportunity. Let’s feed that which is best in the American spirit, not that which is the weakest.
And let’s rewrite our urban lyrics. Let’s blend our voices in singing “The Success Spiral Medley.”
In other words, let’s begin to visualize a better future for urban America and everyone who’s part of it. It will look something like this, except better.
 My words, paraphrasing Kahane.
[i] Andrew Young, speech at St. John’s College, Annapolis, Maryland, November 16, 2007.
[ii] Adam Kahane. Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. San Francisco. 2007. P 23.
[iii] Mark Twain. “My First Lie and How I Got Out of It,” in The Man That Corrupted Hadleysburg and Other Stories and Essays. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1904.
[v] Wikipedia article about the city of San Francisco. (Article as of July 20, 2009.)
[vi] Malcolm Gladwell. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Little, Brown and Company. 2000. Citing Jonathan Crane, “The Epidemic Theory of Ghettos and Neighborhood Effects on Dropping Out and Teenage Childbearing,” American Journal of Sociology (1989), vol. 95, no. 5, pp 1226-1259.