William Morris is a gentleman scholar and principal voice at A Motley Vision, the leading blogosphere destination for Mormon arts and culture commentary, discussion and news. This guest post is the product of years of begging and cajoling to get him to participate here at BCC.
American Metropolitics: The New Suburban Reality by Myron Orfield* deals with issues that are familiar to (and in many cases directly experienced by) most Americans — urban sprawl and central city decay, obsession with school district boundaries, long commutes, worry over crime stats, etc. In fact, that’s part of the point of the book: this stuff affects everyone.
An evolving pattern of intense, unequal competition and inefficient, environmentally damaging local land use threatens every community and region, undermining the nation’s promise of equal opportunity for all. Geographic stratification has already has devastating consequences for the minority poor. Now it has begun to diminish the quality of life of working- and middle-class Americans and to circumscribe opportunities. Sprawling development is gobbling up land with no corresponding growth in supporting infrastructure — schools, roads, transportation, sewerage. This unplanned growth endangers public health, the environment, and the quality of life for people in every region. Protests against the current pattern of development show that no group — not even the wealthiest suburb — is fully satisfied with the status quo. (1)
One of the things that Orfield does well is to back up his diagnosis of the problems (and his prediction of future problems) with color coded maps based on data like percentage of children receiving free or reduced price lunch, communities tax capacity, etc. All of these maps can be found on the Metropolitan Area Research Corporation Web site (you can also download a 24-page summary of the book there). I came into the book expecting to have some of the conventional wisdom I had accumulated over the years to be disputed. Instead, I was surprised to find that the CW about which cities were “good to live in” for the two areas I’m familiar with (San Francisco Bay Area, Twin Cities) was spot on. And to a surprising degree of specificity.
Let me back up for a second. The concept of white flight isn’t new or unique to Orfield. But he isn’t afraid to show that changes in the suburbs (and the problems of sprawl, specifically) are very much tied in with racism. The pattern is this:
As central cities decay, African Americans and Hispanics who are able to (usually those with a higher level of education and thus a higher income) get out. They move to inner ring suburbs. This fact doesn’t cause immediate white flight. Most whites aren’t going to leave because a black family move in to a house on the block. A few might. But once the percentage of non-Asian minorities in the local schools reaches a certain level (about 20%), white flight begins in earnest. It doesn’t matter if the performance of the school actually hasn’t changed, the perception is that it’s not as good and that leads to white flight from the inner ring suburbs to the outer ring suburbs. And then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As whites leave, more minorities move in and more houses are left empty (or aren’t built — no in-filling of housing units) and the tax base is hurt and it becomes possible for minorities who may not have the resources and educational base that the initial move-ins did to move. Many of these families may have been able to improve their status if the suburb was healthier (and Orfield discusses some examples in Chicago where families who had been living in the projects got moved to suburbs that were in good shape and their kids did very well), but it isn’t. And finally, if the suburb becomes vulnerable enough gang activity moves in which only worsens the downward spiral. Meanwhile, the suburb itself doesn’t have the resources and infrastructure to cope with “inner-city” problems. And this is a process that is supported by real estate agents who steer whites away from such suburbs and steer non-Asian minorities into such suburbs, thus accelerating segregation in the housing market.
On the one hand, that’s not a problem, right? As long as you can afford to live in the nicer areas, your family is fine. But Orfield shows how the problems with our metropolitan areas affect everybody. And this was the part of the book that surprised me the most and led to this post.
Specifically, Orfield looks at the data and categorizes metropolitan municipalities as:
At-Risk, Lower Density
Affluent Job Center
I won’t go into detail about the at-risk suburbs. They should be pretty obvious. But Orfield points out that Bedroom Developing suburbs are also at risk — and these are the areas where most people (and, in my experience, most Mormons) live. Bedroom Developing is the category most outer ring suburbs fall in to. They seem like healthy suburbs. They generally have good, even great schools. A lot of young to middle-age families. Thriving retail sections. Lots of working professionals and skilled blue collar workers.
However, such suburbs suffer because their tax base doesn’t adequately support all the services they are expected to provide. They are often comprised of lots of single family homes and larger town houses which are not money makers for a community as they soak up a lot of resources. Since they are in the outer ring, their utilities infrastructure (especially sewage) is not what it should be which can lead to problems down the road. And, above all, their schools are crowded because so many families live in the area. And schools are a huge drain on a community’s resources. The reason their tax base is weak because it relies on retail and on developing new housing developments. And as more people pour into a Bedroom Developing community the difficulties increase — and if something happens to kill new development and retail, the stresses to the tax base increase. In addition, these communities, because of the tax base vulnerability, end up competing with each other, offering tax incentives to businesses that, for the most part, wouldn’t be leaving the metro area but can get major breaks by playing one suburb off another. This dilutes the overall tax base for the area as a whole. These are not bad places to live (except for the long commutes) by any means. But they are vulnerable.
Affluent Job Centers also suffer from the way that metropolitan areas have developed. First of all, there are less of them than one might think. I was surprised to see that Orfield classes many of the suburbs that I had though of as affluent as bedroom developing. Places like the Lafayette-Orinda-Moraga and Danville-San Ramon in the Bay Area. Granted some bedroom developing suburbs are more vulnerable than others, but they are all vulnerable. Affluent Job Centers have a lot of non-retail businesses. They have fewer small single-family homes and more apartment buildings, town homes and large homes. All of this leads to a much stronger tax base. These communities also often aggressively slow down development in their area in order to preserve what they have. But, of course, what happens is the metropolis grows around them, gobbling up the open space that they weren’t able to protect (because it falls outside their city boundaries) and increasing traffic in the affluent job center.
If it’s not obvious by now, I bring all this up in this context because the problems with American metropolitan areas have a direct impact on the Church. In fact, I’d say the LDS Church is more vulnerable to these issues than any other denomination because of the Church’s policy of geographic congregations and its’ practice of a lay ministry.
As inner ring suburbs decay, stress is put on LDS wards in those suburbs. Wards in At-Risk Older suburbs (and central city neighborhoods) are filled with old people and (if there are apartments/cheap town homes) very young families. These are the wards with no deacons. Wards in At-risk Segregated suburbs tend to be small, lack experienced leaders and have a lot of convert families (many of whom are minorities). I love such wards, but they can put heavy burdens on the members living there who are best equipped for leadership positions. They also tend to have very low activity rates.
Meanwhile, Bedroom Developing wards are the bread and butter of the church. They are usually thriving, active wards. But just like the schools in these communities are bursting at the seams and take up a lot of resources so the primary and youth programs take up a lot of resources. And because they are outer ring suburbs and the men (and some women) are working professionals, long commutes and work hours make it all the more difficult to meet church obligations. Turnover can often be high in such wards, and because of the turnover rate and the sheer number of families, some families may not integrate into the ward and go inactive.
And although they are few, Affluent Job Center Wards are great places to be, but they also tend to mean a lot of stake callings for their members (because they have the time and means to serve) which means that they aren’t immune to the issues going on in the other suburbs since they aren’t ever big enough to be their own stake.
In addition, ward buildings are often in the inner ring suburbs which means longer commutes to the building for those living in the outer ring and the possibility that the neighborhood around the building will decline. And if buildings are built in the outer ring suburbs and especially if they are stake centers, then the members in the inner ring have to get there for any stake activity or business (and these are the members who are the most likely to have transportation difficulties).
We recently moved from an At-Risk Older ward to a Bedroom Developing ward. We very much enjoyed our time in the Oakland First (first and now only — it is a classic example of how white flight has shrunk and even killed off what once were thriving LDS wards). It is one of the great liberal wards of the Church. However, our friends kept leaving for the suburbs once their children were of school age. And we did the same. Our current ward is one of the most active, thriving wards in the Twin Cities area. Our suburb hits that sweet spot of good schools and affordable housing that attracts Mormon families. We love it. But at the same time, I can see how the same issues that affect the suburb also affect the ward.
I won’t go in to detail about Orfield’s solutions as that as the part that gets political (although I was heartened to see that he criticizes many of the “classic” Democrat solutions to these problems, including empowerment zones, and takes the main minority advocacy groups to task for putting emphasis on the wrong things). If you are interested, see pages 16-22 of his free summary of American Metropolitics. But basically, he sees the need for regional approaches to the issues of sprawl and land-use, transportation, housing, and basic services (such as sewage, garbage and public safety). And in some ways, this what the Church does — or at least where the percentage of members is low enough that a stake comprises several of the various types of communities.
But I wonder how much the housing market crisis and the acceleration of sprawl that has happened since this book was published in 2002 is going to affect negatively LDS wards. And I wonder what, if anything, we as members can do to affect both the health of our wards and our metropolitan areas. I welcome all anecdotes, proposals, corrections, and alternative views.
(1) The book is published by the Brookings Institution, Orfield is a professor at the University of Minnesota and was elected to serve in the Minnesota Legislature as a member of the DFL. I guess that makes him a “liberal” for the purposes of teh Internets. I have no idea if the solutions he offers would work. I’m not an economist, sociologist or political scientist. Orfield does, however, stress that some of the biggest champions and implementers of what he views as good policy have been Republican governors and mayors. But me — I’m using this book as a source because it’s the one that crossed my path and because the diagnosis of what’s wrong and the data used to back that up seems pretty right on to me. Feel free to dispute the diagnosis in the comments, but be cool and follow BCC’s comment policies. But I’ll say straight up now: I don’t know enough to strenuously back up Orfield so don’t be disappointed if I don’t play along.