Progressives Lamenting the Effects of Progressive Policies

Kevin Drum writes

Via Harrison Jacobs, here's a recent study showing the trend in income segregation in American neighborhoods. Forty years ago, 65 percent of us lived in middle-income neighborhoods. Today, that number is only 42 percent. The rest of us live either in rich neighborhoods or in poor neighborhoods.

This is yet another sign of the collapse of the American middle class, and it's a bad omen for the American political system. We increasingly lack a shared culture or shared experiences, and that makes democracy a tough act to pull off. The well-off have less and less interaction with the poor outside of the market economy, and less and less empathy for how they live their lives. For too many of us, the "general welfare" these days is just an academic abstraction, not a lived experience.

He does not give a reason, and apparently following the links, neither does the study author.  But my guess is that they might well attribute it to 1. effects of racism, 2.  growth of the suburbs, 3. laissez faire capitalism.

I don't think racism can be the driver of this change, given that racism and fear of other cultures is demonstrably better in the last 30 years than at most times in history  (read bout 19th century New York if you are not sure).  The suburbs have been a phenomenon for 100 years or more, and capitalism has been less laissez faire over the last 30 years than at any time in our history.

I actually believe a lot of this income sorting is a direct result of two progressive policies.  I have no data, of course, so I will label these as hypotheses, but I would offer two drivers

  • Strict enforcement of the public school monopoly.  People want good schools for their kids.  Some are wealthy enough to escape to private schools.  But the only way for those who stay in the public school system to get to the best schools is to physically move into their districts.  Over time, home prices in the best districts rise, which gives those schools more money to be even better (since most are property tax funded), and makes them even more attractive.  But as home prices rise, only the most wealthy can afford them.  This is dead easy to model.  Even in a starting state where there are only tiny inhomegeneities between the quality of individual schools, one ends up with a neighborhood sorting by income over time.  Ex post facto attempts to fix this by changing the public school funding model and sending state money to the poorest schools can't reverse it, because at least half of school quality is driven not by money by by the expectations and skills of the parents and children in it.  Thus East St. Louis can have some of the highest per pupil spending in the state but have terrible schools.  A school choice system would not likely end sorting by school, but it would eliminate a huge incentive to sort by neighborhood.
  • Strict zoning.  There has always been a desire among certain people to exclude selected groups from their neighborhoods.  This desire has not changed, or if anything I would argue it has declined somewhat.  What has changed is the increased power that exists to exclude.  Zoning laws give the rich and well-connected the political vehicle to exclude the rabble from their neighborhoods in a way that never would have been possible in a free market.  I live just next to the town of Paradise Valley, which has very strict zoning that is absolutely clearly aimed at keeping everyone but the well-off out.  They will not approve construction of new rental units.  The minimum lot sizes are huge, way beyond the reach of many.


  1. rst1317:

    While I agree that the end result would be more diversity, their are legal tools people could use to have some control over the property around them ( HOAs, etc, etc ). The difference is they couldn't be forced on someone after the fact.

    If you're buying a home, you would know if the deed enforces that the 1 acre lot the SFH sits on may never be subdivided. But with zoning, you can buy the property, 20 years later decide you want to split the lot in 2 for extra cash for retirement and find that a decade previous to that, the city changed the zoning so you can no longer do that.

  2. mesaeconoguy:

    In order to be a Regressive, you must necessarily be stupid.

    That is not a subjective value judgment, it is a logical tautology.

    The above example shows that non-causal relationships – which are extremely easy to invoke, but impossible to explain – are the default fallback position of leftist regressivism.

  3. mesocyclone:

    I don't think strict zoning can be laid at the feet of progressives (although perhaps they started it). These days, it's used by all sorts of folks. For example, Paradise Valley probably wasn't a progressive town when it set it's one acre rule. Rehnquist was once the town council, and Barry Goldwater a long time resident.

    Having lived over 25 years in PV, I long had the feeling that PV has a very strong "strangers keep out" attitude. PV was one of the first places in the country to adopt photo radar, and a visit to traffic court showed that almost everyone cited was not a resident. Of course, I was there because the darn thing caught me one day inadvertently exceeding the speed limit (which is *legal* in Arizona) on a clear day with no traffic.

  4. Joe_Da:

    "because at least half of school quality is driven not by money by by the expectations and skills of the parents and children in it."

    You nailed it - though the gene pool of the family probably accounts for something closer to 3/4 of school performance. Why do catholic schools operating on 1/2 the spending per pupil being taught out antiquated buildings in many cases, have better results - its the gene pool - duh.

    the demands for more money by the teachers union is only about getting more money for the teaching monopoly. It has nothing to do with education.

  5. Not Sure:

    "We increasingly lack a shared culture or shared experiences, and that makes democracy a tough act to pull off."
    Diversity is bad now? Damn, I'm not getting the memos.

  6. Urbane_Gorilla:

    What a bunch of drivel..From the title to the unbelievably illogical 'hypotheses'. I have no idea who Kevin Drum is, but someone should take him out back and put him out of his misery before he infects real people.

  7. sean2829:

    Don't forget the effect of big green. How does the price of electricity affect a service business vs. a manufacturing business. Will a paper pusher have to run the gauntlett of environmental regs? We have a rain tax in Maryland based on area of impervious square footage. Manufactures who employ middle class hourly workers are in large single story buildings that can handle the weight of machinery. Professionals work in multi story office buildings. Extra fees, taxes, and regulations fall disproportionately on hourly workers' employers. Joel Kotkin touches on this regularly such as this recent article in the OC Register,’s-class-warfare.

  8. stranger to these shores:

    So good money drives out the bad people? Make it too expensive to buy, impossible to rent and make damned sure that no mass transit stops come within a mile of it's good progressive home. That does the trick all right and all without ever coming out and saying that the meaning and intent of all that is to keep out the blacks in order to maintain quality schools, zero-to low crime and and high property values. It's human nature.
    I liked the quote from elsewhere that no affluent small community that permitted low income housing to encroach survived as an affluent community. Punch out even a little area of blight and it slowly starts to expand and encroach on the rest.
    Makes you wonder if those old racist types had a point.

  9. slocum:

    #1 is plausible, but I don't believe it. What I see is not people constantly to chase marginal bumps in school quality but rather people choosing a place to live where school quality is one of many considerations. And if a school system is 'good enough' they move on to consider other factors. Once their kids enter a school system, they tend to stay put. Which is pretty rational -- there are a number of districts in the area that offer the standard set of advanced high-school courses and where bright, ambitious students wanting to attend an elite university would not be noticeably disadvantaged. About the only people I do so see moving for school opportunities are the sport-oriented families, who seem quite willing to move to improve their kid's chances of, say, being the starting QB instead of sitting on the bench (even if it's a temporary move -- where they rent a place in a nearby district and never sell their home).

    I'd say #2 is probably more important, and large, homogeneously priced housing developments (whether driven by zoning or not) seem relevant. I wonder if the same income segregation is seen in the Houston area where zoning effects are minimal?

  10. Jeff Southall:

    " What I see is not people constantly to chase marginal bumps in school quality"
    Er, no. We've lived thru our 3rd school rezoning process, and it's been an amazing ride. The latest was a rather serious upgrade in school quality taking effect this year, and we've seen three properties sell with bidding "wars" purchased by families specifically mentioning the new school...

  11. sch:

    School systems have been captured by the bureacracy in many places, with federal regulations piling on that essentially "require" a larger and larger central office and school
    non teaching staffing to meet the federal rules. Compared with private school systems (Catholic mostly) and private schools in general the overhead staffing is much greater
    in public schools. A second factor has been the general drift downward in teacher competence as female job opportunities and career possibilities expanded over the past
    50 yrs. Now teaching is drawn from the bottom 50% of the college class and of a college class that compared with 50-60 yrs ago is drawn from a larger part of the high school
    graduating class than it was formerly. Educational unions have become politically entrenched at all levels of government and in some states control the state legislature or
    city councils. Starting the federal dept of education didn't help this. Which is one reason why there is such a disconnect between per pupil expenditures and educational
    results, eg Wash DC, NYC etc.

  12. CTD:

    TJIC (anybody heard from him lately?) argued that a primary unreported cause of the housing bubble was the first point Coyote makes above.

  13. Another_Brian:

    Something else that doesn't seem to be taken into account is who's living in which neighborhoods. Forty years ago, I didn't live in any neighborhood. Thirty years ago I lived in a middle income neighborhood. Twenty years ago, I lived in what would probably be considered a wealthy neighborhood, though probably not what most have in mind when they hear the phrase. Ten years ago, I was in a poor neighborhood, and now I'm back in a middle income neighborhood.

    It's easy to lament demographics, but I wonder what sort of neighborhood Drum lives in, and whether he would willingly move to a lower income neighborhood to help foster empathy for people of lower incomes than his own.

  14. Sam L.:

    Waitaminit! That's.....RAAAAACIST!

    And the progs looooooove living in gated communities.

  15. slocum:

    Yes, there are intense fights over boundary changes (loss aversion has a lot to do with that), but otherwise, I see very little in the way of move-up jockeying within boundaries or between school districts. And if you looked at the income distributions of people assigned to schools (and school districts) around here, you'll certainly find differences in the means, but you'll also find considerable overlap in the bell curves--there are many families in 'second-best' districts who are richer than the poorer families in the highest performing districts. And once kids are out of elementary school, the stratification is mostly *within* schools rather than between them.

  16. Jeff Southall:

    "I see very little in the way of move-up jockeying within boundaries or between school districts. "
    Come to the DC suburbs - perhaps the penultimate definition of "upper working class" and "income inequality" - the point of Warren's post. FWIW, this latest round of districting was triggered by HOAs and developers lobbying the SB to move from an overcrowded, second tier HS. As to divisions, I can take you to developments where the border between row-house/condo apartments and single family housing neatly mimics the school boundries...

  17. JG:

    There is no question the American middle class has been hollowed out. We can thank globalization—a consequence of intermodal shipping containers and technology—for that. It's not going away. For several decades now, we have see economic osmosis spur developing-country GDPs while simultaneously ravaging (sectors of) the economies of developed countries. Consider: while American (and European) middle-class income has stagnated—or retreated—over the last few decades, over 150 million Chinese have entered the middle class. That is an amazing achievement. And that is why "national" statistics are largely meaningless in the age of globalization. They tell us very little about the forces reshaping our world. Similarly, national economic initiatives—political or otherwise—to "fix the problem" will likely see limited success until more international equilibrium is achieved.