The Price of Paradise is a closely-argued and carefully-documented accounting of the social segregation and inequality of services that are at the core of the ideal of “local control.”
Troutt argues that “economic collapse pulled back the curtain on the flawed ways we finance schools, public safety, and infrastructure repair, foreshadowing decades of limited services, unstable budgets, and grossly unequal communities.”
Troutt claims that these “flawed ways” are primarily a matter of a sense of place, a function of how defining the space in which one lives as a middle-class citizen dooms other, less fortunate citizens to reduced or absent opportunities for access to that middle class.
In other words, the very existence of middle-class towns and suburbs generates and perpetuates inequality: “Generations of inequitable localist policies have favored the places currently occupied by a fortunate few over those of the emerging majority. This distribution of public resources is unfair, unreasonable, and unsustainable.”
It doesn’t matter very much if this unequal distribution of resources is an intentional policy of racial separation or if it’s an unintended consequence of understandable social goals. The result is the same. And the political engine of this separation is localism: “Localism teaches a reluctance to share unless it is directly in the self-interest of the municipality. Localism leaves equitable considerations out of most decision-making. Like a corporation pursuing shareholder gains, individual municipalities ignore the regional effects of their internal decisions.”
The result is an aggressive mix of boosterism and protectionism: “Localism teaches a reluctance to share unless it is directly in the self-interest of the municipality. Localism leaves equitable considerations out of most decision-making.”
When we think about such common suburban equity conflicts as opposition to affordable housing, interdistrict choice for school children, or the siting of environmental hazards, the fundamental battle is almost always about localism. Stronger municipalities usually object, leaving the distribution of things nobody else wants unfairly concentrated in the places too weak to deny them.
Troutt muses that “it’s hard to explain why, for example, the benefits of large public-sector economic development investments are not typically shared by regional neighbors. Localism’s political fragmentation promotes the balkanization of interests as well as identities. In the inefficiency that results, losers outnumber winners more and more.”
And while the winners are likely to credit their success to their own industry, to their superior educations or skill sets or even personal character, Troutt argues that the main cause of the explosion of the overwhelmingly white suburbs was not personal worth or effort but, ironically, massive government support. This support ranged from building the highway infrastructure that made suburban life practical to a suite of mortgage rules and practices that favoured one kind of borrower over another, and the new suburbs to existing urban neighbourhoods: “The postwar boom responsible for making the United States a middle-class nation effectively demanded that the middle class leave the city if they wished to remain middle class.”
Those inner city enclaves quickly deteriorated, making lenders even more reluctant to back new home construction or needed renovation projects. At the same time that property values — and tax bases — collapsed in the cities, housing that was bought cheaply on easy-to-bear home loans rose steadily in value, until now the typical picture is large enclaves of white families backing their middle class lifestyles with home equity, while the majority of their black fellow citizens are locked into poverty-level subsistence in economically and socially impoverished cities. Of course this scenario is a simplification, but it’s not an essentially inaccurate picture.
Troutt writes: “The idea of self-sufficiency embroidered suburban life with a sense of righteous can-do-ism that deserved and received formal autonomy from the government and courts. Self-sufficiency is an assumption deeply embedded in the idea of place and the American Dream, and … it is largely fictitious.”
The inevitable outcome is a further irony, and a too often ignored major negative outcome of the suburban dream: Once the suburbs have drawn off most of the money, most of the services, and most of the jobs, the subsidy spins around and the poverty of the city becomes a drain on those whose incomes and assets are taxed to provide band-aid solutions to the depleted core. Although local taxation pays for the parks and schools and civic centres that make suburban life so pleasant, state and federal taxes flow to the food stamps, welfare, emergency services, drug rehab, public hospitals, and large police forces that are the necessary adjuncts of a largely externally-imposed poverty and underemployment.
Troutt argues that we’d all be better off if those inequalities were reduced. And, with more than a bit of a warning, he reminds the suburban winners that before long they will be outnumbered by the mostly Hispanic and African-American losers — how long will their own shrinking numbers and over-stretched resources be able to support the unequal system that they currently enjoy?
That’s a very good question. And The Price of Paradise is a very good book.