Localized Government May Lead to Inequality

January 1, 2000
Lory Hough

Americans’ propensity for localized government may be promoting segregation and inequality, argues Alan Altshuler, director the Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government.
"We empower local governments to build legal walls of segregation," he says, "at least economic segregation, which has an implicit racial component."
This observation and many others concerning the health of American cities comes on the heel of a new book called Governance and Opportunity in Metropolitan America, put out by the Committee on Improving the Future of U.S. Cities Through Improved Metropolitan Area Governance, which is co-chaired by Altshuler.
The fragmented system of government most common in this country compounds problems like crime, addiction, dependency, and family breakdown, the book points out. The result is that the poor living in "central cities" are becoming increasingly disadvantaged, even as the nation as a whole is becoming more affluent. Statistics alone paint a grim picture.
In 1990, for example, the poverty rate of central city households was 18 percent compared with 8 percent for suburban households. Median household income in the central city was less than 75 percent that of the suburbs and the unemployment rate was 70 percent higher. The book also notes that, while disparities in employment and education were somewhat smaller, "central city residents appear to be more deprived in these realms as well."
This is not necessarily the case all over the country. The wide gap, reports Altshuler and his colleagues, seems to be greater in the Northeast and Midwest and lower in the South and West. In fact, on average, the per capita income of central city residents in the South and West nearly matched that of their suburban counterparts.
While Altshuler and his colleagues note that the underlying causes of inequality cannot be blamed entirely on the fragmentation of governance, some steps can be taken to address the problems of unequal opportunity while "preserving the basic American fabric of small-scale local government." Altshuler includes increasing the role of state government, particularly in preventing exclusionary zoning behavior, stronger enforcement of anti-discrimination laws and access to housing credits, improving education (including charter schools), and providing access to suburban jobs.

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