Review: Place Matters: Metropolitics for the Twenty-First Century

Place Matters

In Place Matters: Metropolitics for the Twenty-first Century (2004), Dreier, Mollenkopf, and Swanstrom argue that economic segregation in America’s metropolitan areas exacerbates the effects of economic inequality and diminishes the quality of life for poor inner city residents. In the long-run, they argue, such trends harm wealthier residents who occupy the concentric rings around the urban core, and threatens to undermine social cohesion as well as political equality. The book’s argument is articulated across eight chapters which I briefly summarize before offering some critical remarks.

The first chapter lays out the basic premise of the book. America’s growing inequality is bad enough in itself but compounded by the extent to which America’s economic classes are moving away from each other geographically—the wealthy flee to suburban enclaves on the city’s periphery, leaving lower income households to languish in the increasingly impoverished core. “Politically,” say the authors, “the problem is not so much the existence of poverty but the gap between the rich and the poor. This gap enables the rich to dominate the poor” (26). One look at the flood of money into recent elections demonstrates that “rising inequality makes a mockery of the democratic principle of one person, one vote” (id.). Geographic divergence not only means that the rich and the poor will have divergent interests and political priorities for the metro areas, but revenues needed to sustain city services which uplift the poor are increasingly concentrated in a multiplicity of smaller jurisdictions, leaving the central city in fiscal distress and social decay.

In the remainder of the book, the authors present evidence for the existence of economic segregation, argue about the costs thereof, and propose a way forward. A look at income shows that “per capita income in a sample of eighty-five cities actually exceeded that of their suburbs by 5 percent in 1960…central cities fell relative to their suburbs, reaching 84 percent in 1990” (46). Here, the authors suggest that the way to reverse trends of city decline is more regional land-use planning and cooperation and nationalization of public services as in Europe (63). Essentially, they present a compelling case for the proposition that many of the trends associated with urban decay should not be written off as the effects of inexorable economic forces. These trends reflect policy decisions and can be ameliorated by a recognition that how we define local communities matters. Simply, the drawing of local jurisdictional lines has consequences for the allocation of resources, the plight of economically vulnerable residents, and the health of the nation’s cities.

It is in chapter three that the authors attempt to spell out the costs of economic segregation by examining the effects on “jobs and income, health, access to private goods and services, and crime” (66), and it is here that I focus my remarks. While the goals are laudatory and the assembled data is impressive, several of the arguments border on the bizarre. For example, “black men in Harlem have a lower chance of reaching sixty-five than do men in Bangladesh, even though the average income is many times higher in Harlem” (76). “By far the most powerful explanation” the authors explain, “is that economic inequality cancels out improvements from rising GNP” (76-77). So here income inequality—the extent to which others in the society are richer—is the cause of shorter life expectancy of black men in Harlem compared to Bangladesh even if Harlem residents enjoy a higher quality of life in absolute terms. Despite the counter-intuitive nature of this claim, and the many possibly relevant differences between the two groups compared, the authors put forth little that would necessitate their conclusion. Bizarre. While inequality undoubtedly has its consequences, are readers simply to accept that inequality causes Harlem men to die earlier than Bangladeshi men with no further inquiry into other factors which may distinguish the two demographics?

Another example from chapter three involves the higher propensity of persons in concentrated poverty areas to engage in risky behavior. “Tobacco and alcohol companies target their advertising on central-city minority neighborhoods, influencing the likelihood in such areas of smoking, consuming alcohol, eating fat, and failing to use seatbelts” (80). This is an interesting and highly attenuated causal chain extending from tobacco advertisements all the way to seatbelt use. The link between cigarette ads and seatbelt use stretch credulity beyond the breaking point. As deplorable as it might seem, cigarette marketing may be targeting people more likely to be interested in their products, and (forgive me) given the evidence of the health effects from smoking, less educated persons may disproportionately fall into this target group. Low levels of education and low level of income are highly correlated, so it is easy to see how such a phenomenon might play out: it is possible to suppose that residents of low income areas are less rational and hence more prone to see and be influenced by advertisements contrary to their interests. However, this possibility is foreclosed by the authors’ assumption that such residents are hyper-rational, employing risk analysis based on overall life expectancy: “People who do not expect to live very long discount the costs of risky behaviors and engage in them more frequently” (81). This logic is circular: Poor people engage in behavior likely to shorten their own lives because they expect their lives to be foreshortened. Moreover, if we accept the conclusion, it is perfectly rational, morally unobjectionable, and legally uncircumscribable for a vendor of a legal product to market that product to a demographic with a higher likelihood of consumption.

Yet another oddity of chapter three involves banking. The authors note with disapproval that “it is perfectly legal for banks to discriminate against low-income neighborhoods if they have good business reasons not to lend” (89). This is another bizarre statement. Should a bank’s refusal to lend on the basis of “good business reasons” ever be illegal? Would it be helpful to extend credit to a low-income urban resident against sound business judgment? If good business reasons exist not to lend, does not the true problem lay deeper? Such statements betray a bias that unfortunately pervades the work: All market mechanisms are to be judged by their effect on the urban poor even where it is difficult to find fault with the mechanisms themselves.[1] This type of analysis does little to advance the literature on urban development or the effects of inequality. Rather, it muddies the waters.

The above stated bias has another implication: we must be willing to discuss issues of urban decay without reference to any agency in urban dwellers themselves—urban residents come across as flat characters in a narrative that only contemplates victims and villains. The authors are dismissive of arguments or evidence that counterproductive norms and dysfunctional behavior within inner city communities contributes to the environment. They make clear that their focus is on opportunity structures and not behaviors (66). Examining structural causes is needful; declining to give way to condescending moralizing is admirable. But the authors err on the opposite extreme by romanticizing urban dwellers and leaving no room for individual agency in the account of their lives. Hence, high rates of obesity are attributed to parents being afraid to let their children play outside in dangerous areas and the lack of healthy food options in inner city food deserts. Observe that one of the reasons inner city residents engage in more risky behavior, they argue, is because residents are desensitized to danger by their dangerous environments. Yet the authors argue concurrently that the same residents suffer high rates of stress and obesity due to paralyzing fear of danger. One wonders what the authors do with studies in the food insecurity literature which suggest that unhealthy eating habits persist even when more nutritious foods are available[2] and even when such foods are subsidized.[3]

The tendency of the authors to deny agency can be seen in their marketing-based explanation for theft. Crime is higher in low-income communities because “Advertisers promote extravagant consumption patterns that only the middle and upper-middle classes can afford,” driving the neighborhood youth to steal—not for sustenance but for status, an apparently unassailable motivation (93). Of course, the entire elite-driven model of inner city conditions denies individual agency and betrays a lack of familiarity with inner city culture that engenders the romanticizing tendency (For what its worth, I grew up in the inner city beneath the poverty line and presently live in an economically depressed inner suburb–albeit slightly above the poverty line). Though such a tendency seems charitable, it drips with its own brand of condescension and is ultimately dehumanizing. No community can be reduced to the sum total of opportunity structures provided by elites, whether they are wealthier suburban residents, local business leaders, national-level dispensers of public services, or regional land-use planning commissions. Nor is such an exogenously-driven perspective of inner city ills necessary to motivate policy measures that might prove beneficial. Indeed, more even-handed diagnoses might elicit broader cooperation across the ideological spectrum.

One final note before concluding. The authors cultivate a practice throughout their work of lumping individuals into groups according to the authors’ own taxonomic criteria in ways that can be insulting. This practice is fundamental to the premise of their book, e.g., “the rich dominate the poor” (26). However, they make simplifying categories on the basis of race as well. In one passage from chapter five where they examine black political representation (which apparently is synonymous with the number of officeholders who are black), the authors state with a sense of irony that “class difference within black suburbs sometimes undermine blacks’ ability to act cohesively, even where they are a majority” (210, italics original). This passage speaks of blacks as an otherwise undifferentiated mass who sadly allow differences in income—of paramount concern elsewhere in the book—to undermine their natural unity and uniformity of interest. Such lumping is common to group theories of behavior but are no less insulting to members of putative groups, who may not recognize the demarcations which place them in one “imagined community” and alienates them from all others[4]. Such groupings always raise the question of whether it is the individual who cognizes his own interests and demonstrates them through his actions or whether some well-meaning observer may simply impute interests according to his or her own criteria.

Overall, this work by Dreier, Mollenkopf and Swanstrom is well-researched and informative. The authors provide detailed historical and statistical data that can aid policy makers and members of the reading public to think more critically about the political economy of metropolitan life. Their recommendations about rethinking local jurisdictional boundaries shows promise. Where the authors are weakest is in the unnecessarily biased narrative they construct from the data they collect. A just-the-facts approach would have been equally helpful, more concise, and perhaps even more broadly read. What makes this book a worthwhile read despite its limitations is that it challenges the reader to see that the lines we draw around communities are not to be taken for granted; these are policy decisions with consequences for local residents, especially those least able to “vote with their feet.”

[1] For example, the authors note that over a period of economic expansion, the nation’s poverty rate dropped from 14.8 percent to 11.3 percent, and median household income rose substantially across all groups. They follow this paragraph with: “Some trends, however, were less upbeat. Despite falling poverty and increased incomes for low-skilled workers, the gap between rich and poor continued to widen” (142).

[2] See “A few years ago, Popkin chaired a meeting of experts on the health effects of food deserts. The farmers markets didn’t seem to have a measurable effect on the health of people in that neighborhood. Nor did bringing in a supermarket.”

[3]  See “If an income increase of approximately $400 per month is associated with an additional $4 in spending on fruits and vegetables at the grocery store, providing these households with an extra $100 in monthly income (or potentially, in food stamps benefits) may spur fruit and vegetable purchases by $1 per month for the entire household, or roughly one extra apple or banana every week for the entire household.”

[4] Benedict Anderson refers to the nation-state as an “imagined community.” See a quotation from his seminal work here.


4 thoughts on “Review: Place Matters: Metropolitics for the Twenty-First Century

  1. This review is fantastic. However, I find myself a bit torn of the book’s very premise–this idea that the core of cities is poor and the rich seek to escape it. I wonder, what does Dreier, Mollenkopf and Swanstrom declare as “rich”? Often the very rich do live in cities… in large high rises, penthouses etc. where-as the middle-class escapes to the cheaper suburbs. The core, then, is really the poor and very wealthy, while the moderately wealthy and middle-class may move outside. However, it is not clear that it is because they want to escape the poor or that their preferences for housing options do not fall within the same as the poor’s or the utterly rich’s.

    Another interesting point you describe in Chapter 3 is that the author’s are writing with an urban poor bias even when it conflicts with a bank’s economic decision. This makes me feel as if the very premise of the book aligns much more with Piketty–an agenda to publicize economic inequality without strong indicators that it is the supreme cause of many problems. Like Piketty, they appear to have strong data and instead of speaking the facts they add undocumented subjectivity.

    • Yeah, Danielle. The book is supposed to be about the ways in which certain urban demographic patterns and the proliferation of smaller self-contained municipalities outside the central cities tend to exacerbate the problem of inequality. They do this in a way that really makes the reader think “Place Matters!.” But they also claim to explore the consequences of the inequality, and it is here they run into the same difficulties a lot of scholars do. Because the fact of acute wealth disparities is self-evidently bad to them, they spend much less effort identifying the negative consequences and drawing a compelling causal link. At points, the latter argument reduces to something like inequality is bad because it leads to more inequality. Or they will show a correlation between income and social ills without a compelling account of how the “income effect” is a cause of the social ill rather than its consequence–or perhaps the relationship is more complex. This, of course, is the primary way the so-called left and right speak right past one another: good research is weakened for failure to fully address the questions which do not align with established orthodoxies.

  2. Danielle,

    As for your point about where the poor live, it really depends on the city. Research in this area shows that the decline of many cities is related to migratory patterns of the tax base to smaller municipalities incorporated separately in rings around the city. Often this takes place over a generation or two and sometimes the trend can reverse itself. But many central cities are depleted of tax paying residents and left with residents that rely heavily on city services but can contribute little to revenue. Even many previously middle class suburbs just outside central city limits have begun to decline as higher income residents move further out and are replaced by lower income residents. So then the problem becomes not simply a decaying central city but decaying “inner ring” suburbs on the periphery.

    The Metropolitan Opportunity series over at Brookings released a report yesterday on the Paul Ryan poverty plan. Elizabeth Kneebone largely applauded the effort, but also offered this caution which should have a familiar ring:

    “In our work on suburban poverty, time and again we have seen communities trying to craft more scaled, integrated and outcome-driven solutions to confront growing suburban poverty, only to be stymied by a fragmented and inflexible federal anti-poverty policy framework. Not only has the system failed to respond to today’s shifting geography of poverty, it has often impeded more efficient and effective strategies to address poverty in struggling communities.

    In some ways, Ryan’s Opportunity Grant pilot is similar to the Metropolitan Opportunity Challenge Alan Berube and I proposed in Confronting Suburban Poverty in America to address these challenges. Both proposals aim to provide greater flexibility and integration to federal funding streams and to use evaluation to figure out and build on what works. However, our Metropolitan Opportunity Challenge would require states to partner with metropolitan and local leaders to target funds strategically within and across regions in ways that measurably increase access to opportunity.

    Because Ryan’s plan stops with states it misses the chance to ensure that reforms to the federal system translate into better implementation. It ignores the reality that access to opportunity varies depending on where you live. Different regional labor markets offer different types of jobs, and not all pay wages that offer a path out of poverty. Those jobs that do aren’t spread evenly across places, and may not be accessible to low-income workers who can’t afford to live nearby or maintain a reliable car to make a long commute. Even his proposal of an integrated caseworker and a one-stop-shop for services overlooks the fact that many communities, particularly in the suburbs and in rural areas, lack access to safety net services to begin with.

    Many commentators have voiced concerns about the structure of the Opportunity Grant (including the pitfalls of block granting and the challenges of getting outcome measurement right) and about Ryan’s plan more broadly. Hopefully these are the opening salvos of a real debate in Washington about how to fight poverty more effectively in this country. But to make real strides in improving opportunity in America, that debate should be grounded in the understanding that place matters.”

    You can read the full piece here:


  3. Pingback: Opportunity and Choice | Economics & Institutions

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