I’m currently trying to recover from three days of cramming two papers, going over some 70 pages of journal papers, and working to boot. This isn’t to complain, as all things considered it’s a better problem to have than others. I only write this to explain the relative blog silence since last Wednesday, and a reminder that things will (necessarily) slow down here more often than not. Nevertheless, I thought I’d throw up some of what I’ve been working on for my Urban Sociology course.
One of the papers I read over the weekend is a critical essay from the journal Urban Studies by Gregory D. Squires and Charis E. Kubrin, titled “On Privileged Places: Race, Uneven Development and the Geography of Opportunity in Urban America” (sorry, no link). They attempt to disentangle the web of causality surrounding substandard urban neighborhoods. This examination involves looking beyond simple, individualistic, explanations for the various adverse outcomes of the residents who live in these communities. Rather, the authors argue, these urban areas are in a state of disrepair due to historical circumstances of racial segregation, unequal economic development and the cyclical concentration of poverty. Towards the end of they turn to discussing public policy, both in light of how it has exacerbated some of the structural issues affecting urban neighborhoods, and how it may help to reverse or ameliorate them in the future.
It’s this latter discussion, on inequality and public/private policy, where the authors write:
It has long been argued that individuals or households make voluntary choices, based on their financial capacity, in selecting their communities when they ‘vote with their feet’ by moving to those areas offering the bundle of services for which they are willing or able to pay (Tiebout, 1956). But individualistic models of labour market inequality have been challenged by institutional theorists in economics who identify a number of structural characteristics of those markets that impede consummation of individual, voluntary exchanges (for example, race and gender discrimination, internal and dual labour markets, labour law including minimum wage statutes, union activity) (Holzer and Danziger, 2001).
Unequal spatial conditions are often framed as the result of individual choices, but people (especially the urban poor) don’t make decisions that are solely the product of some rational calculation in a pure market of goods. Rather, as the authors argue, these actions should be understood to have occurred “in a context shaped by a range of public policy decisions and private practices over which most individuals have little control.” Moreover, that in many instances it was the choice of public and private officials utilizing such policy that aggravated urban imbalances; including local zoning exclusions, federal housing financing practices that favored low-density urban sprawl, and public subsidy incentives for business investment in economic depressed areas that leave municipalities unable to adequately fund public services.
Yet the knowledge that public policy played a role in creating these deteriorated conditions implies that such policy can reverse, or at least improve, those same communities moving forward. One of the specific problems Squires and Kubrin bring up is the preponderance of predatory lending services in lieu of traditional banking options in these communities. Having lived in those areas I can attest to their popularity. Yet one of the more interesting (and, admittedly, unlikely to occur) solutions I’ve come across for these under-served areas is reinstating a national public banking service through the postal system. The idea would operate along similar lines to services in Europe and East Asia. Because these communities have access to post offices, a basic public banking option option forbidden from discriminating or profiting from low-income workers would represent an opportunity to create a more secure monetary environment in economically depressed urban areas. The ability to retain more money, as well as have access to financial services that are increasingly required for institutional payments, could mitigate some of the financial instability in these neighborhoods. There are, of course, many avenues ranging in focus and scope to achieve better conditions in these areas, but the broader point to argue is that such goals are a legitimate aim of public policy.
The issues the authors raise — racial segregation, urban sprawl, concentrated poverty — are understandably troubling in nature and certainly deep in their implications. I wrote last week that it’s erroneous to assume our options in life are presented to us in a vacuum. That wasn’t an original statement or observation, but a key component of the sociological approach. Social-structural phenomena greater than ourselves matter, have influence, and can represent significant social constrictions that complicate individualistic appeals to the ideal of self-governance in a massive, thickly interconnected, society. The insistence of individual choices as the most prevailing, and thus relevant, explanation for collective outcomes of entire neighborhoods or demographic groups are absurd. That argument could be expanded to include the notion of addressing greater social forces and structural influences as being somehow secondary, inferior, considerations for solutions. The existence of dilapidated urban areas is the result of an accumulated prejudicial past and insufficiently supported present. It’s not that individual actions don’t matter, but that they are not undertaken prior to the conditions that influence them.