Divided We Fail: The Urban Crisis during Recession

In this blog entry, William W. Goldsmith and Edward J. Blakely, authors of Separate Societies make the connection between failing cities and the Great Recession.

The United States now suffers from one of the longest runs of unemployment and deep economic dislocation since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Recovery is uncertain. We want to point to an unlikely contributor–the increasing isolation of neighborhoods and districts in cities and metropolitan areas. Is it a stretch to attribute even a portion of the national economic collapse to urban segmentation? Perhaps not. In our new edition of Separate Societies, we show abundant evidence of urban segmentation.

The seeds of today’s urban crisis were sown by the Reagan administration, then nurtured by three Bush administrations. The government withdrew from its commitments to states and localities, leaving communities on their own, and it cut away protections for individuals. Federal changes, starting even before 1980, began to strip public assets from cities, reducing administrative capacities and shifting control from public to private enterprises, by privatizing, downsizing, and generally depriving public agencies of capacity and responsibility.

As we now know, a whole series of changes not only left cities more divided by race and class, stretching any sense of social unity to the breaking point, but the changes left federal agencies themselves too feeble to impose regulations or respond to crises. The government ignored warning signs from banks and Wall Street finance firms, just as it neglected inspections to protect levees against Hurricane Katrina and ignored rules to prevent the Deepwater Horizon explosion. After each catastrophe, depleted agencies lacked the skilled staff and specialized equipment to respond.

In the case of cities, what is remarkable is that “majorities” (white, suburban residents, in the main) do not feel the pain. Many in the nation’s better-off suburbs don’t even notice, presumably because they don’t suffer immediately from the fallout and they are far separated from the populations who do. This blindness seems akin to the lack of opposition to the immensely costly, diplomatically damaging, and apparently futile wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a lack abetted by the absence of the military draft or any direct increase in taxation.

In the new edition of Separate Societies, we fast forward from the Reagan urban damages of the 1980s to today, showing that city conditions have grown even worse. Government disinvestment and global competition abetted by runaway corporations have fostered private wealth creation, while public assets have been plundered or neglected. Concentrated private wealth holdings have grown immense, while middle-class and working-class incomes have stagnated or declined. The capacities of city governments have shrunk dramatically. The nation has neglected the building and rebuilding of public assets ranging from roads, bridges and levees to the schools and libraries that are necessary as building blocks for the new post-industrial economy.

The wealthy have gained at the expense of the poor. Today the distance between rich and poor is the longest in the nation’s history. The poor continue to be under-educated and cannot participate in wealth creation; instead they are increasingly imprisoned or on the streets, homeless and often hungry. As we generate poverty we reduce our numbers of educated participants integrated in a growing economy. Our rich and very rich citizens retreat even from suburbs, to private schools and private, gated, exclusive communities.

Rebuilding the American city requires a new industrial policy, emphasis on education, and programs for family support. National leadership is required to seek a nation of hope rather than one of fear. Judging from his writings and early speeches, President Obama is following in the best democratic traditions of Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt, sees the problem, and took the first step toward closing some of the gap with a national health plan.

Separate Societies: Poverty and Inequality in U.S. Cities, Second Edition, with a Foreword by President Bill Clinton, is now available from Temple University Press.

Photo of William W. Goldsmith (left) and Edward J. Blakely (right) by William R. Staffeld.

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