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.

A Note About Class Warfare and the Earned Income Tax

When the powers that be saw urban cores diversifying racially in the 60s and said “here’s a good idea: lets move the hell out and take our EIT with us,”  that was class warfare.  And the poor have been losing ever since.

Bill O’Reilly addresses what he sees as the real problem with Mitt Romney’s “I’m not worried about the very poor” comment here, saying that the real causes of continued poverty are “poor education, addiction, irresponsible behavior and laziness. That’s right far-left people. Some folks are lazy.”

O’Reilly’s right, of course, that each of these things contribute to poverty.  But some of these things, like poor education, are systemic causes.  Saying “some folks are lazy” doesn’t square with calling laziness a systemic root of poverty.  That collapses into race-baiting buzzwords and O’Reilly knows better. That’s journalistic laziness, Bill, and you know it.  Maybe you’re making a Straussian meta-point here, but I doubt it.

That said, the failure of the Great Society is something we must wrestle with across the political spectrum.  Why has it failed? Why do our core cities have poorer educational systems than their suburban counterparts?  Why can a school in the City of Allentown be without books or year-round music education and a school a mile away in the suburbs have access to the finest of these things in spades?  And why, when we ask that question, are we called class warriors?

With regards to the Allentown Neighborhood Improvement Zone, we’ve been considering the historic fallout of situations that arose along with the Great Society:  the flight of capital from urban cores and the subsidizing of the suburbs that came with the decision to move Earned Income Tax out of the cities in which they were earned (cities whose infrastructures make that earning possible in the first place) and into the townships where they were used to build impressive schools and new neighborhoods for cents on the dollar when factoring in environmental and social externalities.

It’s no great wonder why the Great Society failed.  In the Allentown example, it failed by the State legislature’s design. It failed because any entitlement program without robust endemic opportunity creates dependency.  This is where Newt Gingrich is right in spite of himself.  And let’s make no mistake:  I’m not proposing some great apologia for the failed policies of Lyndon Baines Johnson.  From Vietnam to Camden, New Jersey, those speak for themselves.   There are many on the right who believe that systemic dependence on the welfare state was Johnson’s goal and remains the only true goal of most liberals.

I’ll say this:  I believe LBJ was probably one of the biggest racists to have occupied the White House in modern times.  I don’t think he cared about most people, let alone people that didn’t look like him.  I believe he was cynical enough and manipulative enough to believe that his policies would ensure black fidelity to the Democratic party for the “200 years” about which he is said to have boasted.  But I do not believe the Great Society is, on its own, the key to understanding the unsolved issues of poverty in this country.  Add things like capital flight and the movement of EITs from urban cores to cow pastures, and then we’re cooking.

Who’s to blame for the origins of our often racially charged class warfare?  Whatever you believe politically, you can’t honestly think it’s the poor.  You can’t honestly think it was African Americans who were moving to then-prosperous industrial cities for a piece of the opportunity they’d been promised since Lincoln.  If you do, you might be more beholden to ideology than to generative solutions.

Speaking of ideology, isn’t it a shame that, as the media and the ideologues have it, we have but two systems from which to form our political identities?  We’re either left or we’re right.  Oh, sure, maybe some of us are soft-left and soft-right, but really, the key to figuring all of this out lies in the talking points of one of our two bogus systems.  It’s almost as if someone, somewhere is making money from all this confusion and childish division.

If you’re like me, you’re too liberal and too conservative for either camp depending on the issue.  Good for you.  Not for being like me, but for not being people who insist on dividing us with labels and political rhetoric.  Meta-narratives be damned, because the truth is in the middle, and it’s far more interesting.  The future will not come from the front of the room, nor from the busted framing fables of either broken party.

It will come from us.