It’s not that anyone on either side of this debate (which is largely between two camps of people both engaged in trying to help poor and non-white Americans) favors segregation itself, or thinks those who want to move to low-crime suburbs with good schools shouldn’t have opportunities to do so. But left unspoken is what’s supposed to happen to the poor neighborhoods themselves, branded as places of “low opportunity.” Will the last person to leave turn out the lights?
Also unasked is whether residents want to leave. In fact, research on mobility programs has found that a lot of voucher recipients later opted to move back to their old neighborhoods. Unsurprisingly, residents of poor neighborhoods have a wide range of opinions on whether, given the choice, they would like to move, or would like to stay and see their home—where they already have networks family and friends, access to resources, and personal history—get better for them. That latter option should be plausibly on the table more often.
You can’t premise a durable anti-poverty policy on moving the poor around. Aside from the disruption to the social fabric of communities, the growth of new concentrations of poverty over recent decades—many of them in the suburbs—makes clear that this is nothing but an endless game of Poverty Whack-a-Mole. There can be no end as long as we believe that “bad” neighborhoods are wherever low-income people live.
Another example of how zero-sum thinking about “bad” and “good” neighborhoods infects well-meaning advocacy is the scarcity mindset of some gentrification opponents. Everything from bike lanes to basic improvements to parks, sidewalks, and street lighting has been known to invite skepticism as to whom these amenities are “for.” There are complex reasons for this that I don’t wish to dismiss or diminish, but at least part of the reaction is the fear that making a neighborhood nicer is an effort to pave the way for an influx of wealthy newcomers. There is evidence that the cause and effect does not in fact run in this direction (here is a recent study in the case of bike lanes, which finds that they are not correlated with rising rents or displacement)—but the truth is that causes and effects in our complex cities are hard for any observer to pull apart neatly.
I suspect this fear is based less on evidence and more on our mental model of neighborhood quality, in which “good” places are those with a lot of rich people or a lot of white people. And if we’re going to make a neighborhood better, it’s hard to envision that process ending in anything other than people of means moving in and changing the place inexorably. Our existing model of development-by-cataclysmic-money simply doesn’t offer many alternative precedents.
There Is An Alternative
A grad-school instructor of mine, in a course on Neighborhood Revitalization, asked the class, “What would it look like to plan for a working class neighborhood?” His point was that we rarely if ever do it. We implicitly assume that the working class are going to inherit the dregs of our cities, the hand-me-down places that wealthier people don’t want.