Magazine article Brookings Review

Race and Urban Poverty: Comparing Europe and America

Magazine article Brookings Review

Race and Urban Poverty: Comparing Europe and America

Article excerpt

In the past decade, a new specter has haunted Europe. The intertwining of race and poverty, once considered a distinctively American problem, has become a European concern as well. In the face of racial conflict and ethnic disadvantage, the press and some politicians have warned that Europe's cities are developing American-style ghettos populated by ethnic minorities cut off from the mainstream of social and economic life.

No one contends that Europe's cities today face the extremes of ethnic and racial segregation, violence, and poverty that blight American cities. But many fear that Europe is on the same trajectory as the United States, only a decade or so behind. And they have cause for concern.

Racial ghettoization does not "just happen." National political arrangements profoundly affect the way people and economic activity are organized spatially, either uniting or dividing people of different income levels and races. In the era after World War II, the forces shaping the way groups and economic activities sorted themselves out on the local level established distinct metropolitan spatial patterns in the United States, Britain, and France. American political structures invited extreme segregation within cities and the suburbanization of the white working and middle class, while British and French political structures tended to allow more mixing by race and income. But the sorting out was not immutable. Policy responses in the United States, Britain, and France since the late 1970s have influenced the development of concentrations of poor ethnic and racial minorities in each nation.

Are France and Britain now "10 years behind the United States"? In some ways the similarities are striking. Government promotion of homeownership and the ensuing suburbanization of the middle class, which took off in the 1950s in the United States, were simply delayed for a decade or so in Britain and France. Over the years poor minorities have become more concentrated in public housing in Britain and France. Likewise, the construction of highrise public housing has generated similar problems in all three nations.

Yet important differences in the design of housing policies and continuing distinctions in the political factors that shape population movements suggest limits on the process of "Americanization" in Europe. Despite significant policy changes during the 1980s in both Britain and France, neither is likely to develop the scope or the intensity of ghetto poverty seen in the United States.

America's Cities: Shaped after World War II

The political feature that most distinguishes the United States in the shaping of metropolitan spatial patterns is the power of local governments. Although municipalities in the United States lack formal constitutional recognition--they exist at the discretion of state governments--they exercise substantial powers. Among the most important is control over land use. Through zoning and other measures formally meant to ensure local health and safety, localities determine what kinds of people can live and what kinds of businesses can operate within their borders.

Not only are municipalities powerful, they are relatively easy to form. Areas often split away from existing jurisdictions to form new ones. By contrast, expanding existing jurisdictions, by way of annexation or consolidation, is usually much more difficult. And chief among many incentives to form separate political jurisdictions is the importance of local property taxes in financing public schools.

Precisely those features of American local political organization hailed by public choice analysts as allowing local residents to choose the mix of services and taxation they most desire--the organization of social policy, the power of local government, and the ease of forming separate political jurisdictions--provide powerful incentives for whites to separate out by income and by race.

Rather than counterbalancing local fragmentation, the federal government has reinforced it. …

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