The Sub In Suburb: We’ve Been Building Suburbia on the Backs of the Urban Poor for 50 Years

I just posted an excerpt from and a link to a piece on Atlantic about the future of American cities.  Let me share again this salient point:

“That economic shift away from cities was the root cause of America’s urban collapse. Starting in the 1950s, the middle class – and the American Dream – migrated from urban neighborhoods to the suburbs. Industry and corporations soon followed.

Ester Fuchs, director of Columbia University’s Urban and Social Policy program, details the fallout in the latest issue of Columbia’s Journal of International Affairs:

America’s great cities were left in economic free fall, with concentrated poverty, unemployment, high crime rates, failing public schools and severely deteriorating physical infrastructure, including roads, mass transit and parks. Academics and policy makers agreed that cities were irrelevant to America’s economic future; they would become places for poor minorities who could not afford to move to the suburbs. Urban policy became code for social-welfare policy.


This is true in Allentown, and this is at the core of the current debate over the use of EIT (earned income tax) money from people who work in the City but don’t live there.  Where, oh where, should that money go?

In Pennsylvania, until 1962, the EIT stayed in the municipality (read: City) where it was earned.  Then legislators got together with academics and social planners and decided to punish poor minorities for wanting civil rights and jobs in Northern cities.  Low and behold, the EIT, from 1962 on, goes back to the places where workers live, regardless of where the earned income tax was, you know, earned.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania thus funded and directed the great subsidization of the suburbs, the chewing up of green space, and the decline and fall of urban cores.  That’s what happened in Allentown and surrounding townships.  Fifty years later, those townships feel entitled to the status quo and to the money their residents earn in Allentown.  Along comes legislation giving that money back to Allentown to help fund redevelopment, and the townships sue the City.

I hope this highlights what’s really needed: a Commonwealth-wide law directing all EITs back to the cities in which they are earned.  Thank you, townships, for highlighting that need. You are, perhaps, more progressive than people think.

2 thoughts on “The Sub In Suburb: We’ve Been Building Suburbia on the Backs of the Urban Poor for 50 Years

  1. Chris,

    I think you slightly misrepresent the past of urban areas.

    Part of the reason people left urban cores is because they were pushed as well as pulled. Urban life in the early part of the 20th century was not life as on “Friends.” It was crowded, dirty, and full of large and petty inconveniences. Folks were annoyed by the constant need to go store to small (and expensive) store to do even daily shopping and enjoyed the idea of going to a “supermarket” to have the chance to quickly buy nice goods at good prices. Most of all, the conditions were considered unhealthful for people–so much so that progressives like Eleanor Roosevelt pushed for the establishment of suburbs like Greenbelt, MD to allow people to leave urban cores.

    After the Second World War, veterans who had VA loans and money saved from the war left cities for much the same reasons–because (at the time) it made sense to live in communities with better environments, less crime, cleaner air and water, and open parks. To boil all this down to racism ignores a lot that was wrong with America’s cities in the last century–and I think the worst part about the current conventional wisdom is that we whitewash what was wrong with cities before.

    The amount of money to be generated in EIT in the NIZ urban core (home of many of the higher paying jobs)–2.5 million in a city with a 80 million dollar annual budget, suggests that the shift of EIT to the suburbs is hardly the financial travesty that you depict. Furthermore, if you have a family of four and three spend much of their time in the schools, parks, roads, and shopping centers of a particular town and one goes to another place to work–giving all a family’s municipal income tax to a place where only 25% of the people ever go seems equally unjust.

    This isn’t to say we can’t or shouldn’t make our cities better places to work and live. But to boil down a series of mostly rational choices to evil misses the mark.

    (A fan of your work at FPC!)

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