So now we know why the Democrats are adopting economic inequality as their central issue: because their constituents, the people who live under policies crafted by the left, are the ones who experience the highest degree of income inequality in their own lives.
That’s the upshot of a recent study of income inequality organized by congressional district: “Across the country, inequality is lower in Republican districts than in Democratic ones” and is “highest in the New York City district of Representative Jerry Nadler, a liberal Democrat.” Who has the congressional district with the least income inequality? That would be Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann, who represents suburban Minneapolis.
Not so in the Twin Cities themselves. Minneapolis-St. Paul, a Democratic stronghold, is notable for a particularly high level of inequality between blacks and whites. Another study from the National Urban League shows that economic inequality by race is concentrated in left-leaning cities, particularly in the North: “the San Francisco-San Mateo-Redwood City metropolitan area has an astonishing $56,000 white-black gap in household median income. The white-black gap in the Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington metro area is about $40,000.”
[A] lot of liberal northern cities have truly lousy track records of fostering black-white economic equality, as well as integrated neighborhoods and schools…. Housing prices influence inequality. In the Journal of Urban Economics, Kahn cited resistance to growth and sprawl in liberal California cities such as Santa Monica and Berkeley, evidenced by the issuance of few housing permits, as a driver of high housing costs.
That is a problem in cities across the country.
An analysis for The New York Times by Zillow, the real estate website, found 90 cities where the median rent—not including utilities—was more than 30 percent of the median gross income…. [A]s long as there are plenty of upper-income renters looking for apartments, there is little incentive to build anything other than expensive units. As a result, there are in effect two separate rental markets that are so far apart in price that they have little impact on each other. In one extreme case, a glut of new luxury apartments in Washington has pushed high-end rents down, even while midrange rents continue to rise.
A great case study is what has happened over the past 40 years to the city of Chicago, which is captured in this animation created by University of Chicago public policy graduate student Daniel Kay Hertz. The areas in grey represent neighborhoods dominated by the middle class, which included most of the city in 1970. But the grey melts away until by 2012, the city is dominated by a large pocket of dark green in the Loop, the near West Side, and the North Side, representing wealthy and upper-middle-class neighborhoods—surrounded by vast areas of red, representing deep poverty, that dominate the city’s South Side.
Here is the data broken down. Hertz’s maps are incomplete in one respect, because they don’t show where the middle class is going. It didn’t just disappear. Its members did not all either rise up to become wealthy or fall down into the ranks of the poor. Instead, most of them moved to the suburbs, and a similar map of the surrounding counties would show a huge increase in the extent and population density of the suburbs that ring the city. (I know, because I was one of the people who moved out of downtown Chicago and decamped to the suburbs in the 1990s.)
As for the mechanisms by which the middle class has been chased out of the city, Hertz offers some good follow-up posts on the impact of local housing policy and particularly zoning laws. Basically, those who live in the really good neighborhoods actively suppress new construction and reduce the number of housing units by deconversion, e.g., taking a three-story building broken into three apartments and turning it into one very expensive single-family townhome.
This creates a paradox: the nicer the neighborhood, the harder it is for anyone to be able to afford to live there. It’s the urban equivalent of a gated community.
Hertz found the same stratification when it comes to city services. One of the key urban amenities is public transportation, which is intended specifically to help the less well-off, who can’t afford cars or the prohibitive cost of parking in the city. Yet through this same process, the neighborhoods that are an easy walk from train stations tend to become more expensive and less dense, so public transportation is becoming a subsidized amenity for the upper middle class.
The same thing holds true for the schools.
The creation of perhaps the most important middle-class amenity—high-performing schools—in the central city will pull even more middle-class and upper-middle-class people to the relevant neighborhoods. Because housing policy restricts market supply, and Chicago doesn’t have a large number of subsidized or public housing units on the North Side, home prices within gentrified-school attendance areas will rise (are rising) so as to price out even more of the working class and poor.
The ultimate government service, the one for which government actually exists in the first place, is the suppression of crime—which is also segregated by neighborhood. The Loop, the North Side, the near West Side, and northwest enjoy a placid suburban level of safety, while the South Side largely remains a free-for-all.
Put this all together and the picture is deeply ironic. Breitbart’s John Nolte observed about the recent film Elysium, a leftist parable in which the Earth is covered in vast grimy slums while the wealthy live an idyllic existence in the ultimate gated community: “that is not Los Angeles in the year 2154, that is Los Angeles today…. In a city that on paper should be a Liberal Utopia, if you want your life expectancy to drop 20 years, you need only find a place to live just a few miles from Hollywood—a place known as east of the 101 and south of the 10.”
So no wonder Democrats are enamored with all of that rhetoric about inequality and class warfare. Their constituents, the audience they are addressing, are far more likely to live in the American equivalent of Rio de Janeiro, a class society starkly divided between squalid, hopeless, crime-ridden favelas and safe, beautiful downtown playgrounds for the rich.
As usual, the Democrats are arsonists posing as the fire brigade, offering to solve a problem they created.
City Journal‘s Aaron Renn notes the political cynicism of the Democrats’ emerging “top-bottom coalition.”
[F]or liberal mayors, middle-class decline is convenient and politically advantageous. Much of America’s moneyed elite has already shifted its allegiance to the Left, especially in cities. Wealthy, educated urbanites hold generally liberal social values and can afford the higher taxes ‘blue’ cities like Chicago impose—especially when those taxes help pay for the upscale amenities they desire. Even when the mayoral administration is less friendly, the urban elite tends to get its needs met. At the same time, the urban poor have remained loyal to the Democrats, no matter how little tangible improvement liberal policies make in their lives. And the various unions, community organizers, and activist groups that advocate for the poor profit handsomely from the moneys directed toward liberal antipoverty programs.
The Democratic Party is the party of inequality. They are the political faction that has a vested interest in inequality, because they depend on appeals to guilt and envy. To upper-middle-class elites, they promise to alleviate any spiritual discomfort caused by contemplating their relative good fortune, by the easy expedient of voting to spend a little extra money on welfare handouts—preferably the money of somebody just a little bit richer than them—rather than doing anything that would actually help the city’s poor find jobs and housing and transportation. For the poor, they promise to take the rich down a notch and distribute some of the loot.
This is the Democratic agenda across the board. It’s no coincidence that the division of the big northern cities into class societies coincides exactly with the War on Poverty, which has merely ameliorated the effects of poverty, at the cost of making it a permanent way of life. If “our American answer to poverty is not to make the poor more secure in their poverty but to reach down and to help them lift themselves out of the ruts of poverty and move with the large majority along the high road of hope and prosperity,” as Lyndon Johnson declared 50 years ago, then his War on Poverty has proven itself an indisputable failure.
That so many on the left still defend it so doggedly makes you wonder. It’s almost as if they want there to be a vast rabble of the poor who look upward for political saviors, rather than a thriving independent middle class that just doesn’t need them.
The report on the pattern of inequality by congressional district notes that this “does call into question the political wisdom of the Democratic Party’s effort to make income inequality the centerpiece of its national economic agenda,” because this fall’s election will be decided “by voters in suburban and rural districts, where inequality tends to be lower. And control of the Senate will be decided largely in states with low levels of inequality relative to the national average.”
But the rising class division in big left-leaning cities suggests a more basic political weakness. The cities are a prime target for a true party of reform that would have the courage to take on entrenched interests and reclaim these cities for the middle class.
I have written about the need to recruit a revived urban coalition of “workingmen and reformers” who would take on this cause. No, I am not suggesting that the right start a crusade against “inequality” as such. In a free society, there will always be unequal results simply because some people will offer more economic value than others, whether through hard work, talent, or the choice of a more lucrative profession. History and common sense show that there is nothing to be gained from tearing down the wealthy. To the contrary, societies have always lifted themselves into prosperity, not by attacking the wealthy, but by creating a better environment for the wealthy to invest in new enterprises.
We should put the issue, not in the language of envy and guilt, but in the language of freedom, opportunity, and personal responsibility. This is about knocking down artificial barriers created by government, making it easier for the poor to lift themselves up through their own effort. Which also turns out to be a widely popular political theme everywhere, cutting across economic lines.
The party that can convincingly take up that theme and connect it to specific reforms will not only win elections. It will do a vast service in uniting the country culturally and politically by defusing class warfare. And not least of all, it will improve the opportunities and future prospects for all Americans.
Follow Robert on Twitter.