Why You Should Live In A Middle Class Neighborhood - Even If You're Rich

February 7th 2015

Nothing succeeds like success. But what if success comes with a price tag?

Americans have always liked to see themselves as an egalitarian society, where if you simply worked hard enough and want it enough, you can do anything. And this belief system is rooted in some truth, if you were born sometime after WWII when the lines between rich and poor weren’t as stark as they are today.

From the 1940s to the 1960s, success could be found in a move to the bustling Midwest or the emerging Sun Belt cities like Houston, Atlanta, Miami and Phoenix. Affordable homes could be found in the suburbs, along with good schools. But today, those Midwestern industrial cities that attracted aspiring workers have crumbling infrastructure. The children born in Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland or St. Louis have a tough choice about whether or not they can stay there and also find the same success their families historically once had.

My parents were among the millions of children born shortly after the Great Depression who literally came from nothing to make it to the once prosperous American middle class. Both of them came from the segregated, Jim Crow South. My mother spent her formative years in a four room shack off of a plantation where her parents were sharecroppers. By the time I was in elementary school, we were solidly middle class. By junior high, we were doing even better, thanks to my father’s successful career in the then booming aerospace industry.

As kids, we had all the advantages. We went to good schools and our parents paid for our college so we wouldn’t be saddled with debt. Despite these things it’s still been a long slog for all three of us to stay anywhere near the middle class lifestyle, but at least we have had our parents helping out when they could and we had no serious debt. Our peers, on the other hand, didn’t have the "Bank of Mom and Dad" to turn to when things got tight, making their claim to the middle class even more precarious. I could always take comfort that in my unpredictable career as a writer I could always go home; but for some people, a return to the nest is simply not possible.

What do those people do?

Increasingly, the best schools, the best living spaces have become the providence of only those who can afford them. The impact is severe. Those who grow up in lower income areas end up at poorer, less adequate schools. Those who have poorer schooling find fewer opportunities to get to college or better paying careers. And even those who manage to make it to college, still find themselves in poorer surroundings than their born-on-third-base competition.

From The Atlantic:

Since children of low-income parents typically are less prepared for high school and get less guidance when preparing for college, these kids can benefit immensely from going to school with kids whose parents are college-educated and know the ropes a bit better. Both types of problems are important. “But peer influences were far stronger than school effects,” said Gregory Palardy, who has studied the impact of socioeconomic segregation on high school achievement.

What's worse, the effects of socioeconomic and racial segregation linger even for the students who do manage to make it to college. These strivers graduate at far lower rates than their counterparts from more affluent families.

Today, in the United States, to increase your shot at class mobility – both for yourself and your offspring – you have to move to the coasts to work in the best job markets, places like San Francisco or New York City. But all those places, unlike how Detroit or Cleveland were for your grandmother, come with a hefty residential price tag. Everything from the groceries to education can take on a new prohibitive cost, as you must buy your way into your mobility. Add in some student loans and no safety net in the form of well-off parents, and it’s a tremendous climb to America’s middle.

Derek Thompson recently wrote for CityLab:

The cities with the least affordable housing often have the best social mobility. And the cities with the worst social mobility often have the most affordable housing. When good jobs for the middle class and affordable homes are living in different cities, it represents a slow-motion splintering of the American Dream.

If class mobility in America is dying or already dead, it starts here.

Things don’t have to be this way.

Much of what makes coast cities so unaffordable comes down to wealthy people pushing up the real estate prices when moving to a once affordable area – like the city of Washington, D.C., where housing costs have boomed in the past decade. Older neighborhoods are being gentrified and most new housing is created to cater to D.C.’s rapidly growing young, upper-income professional class.

Last year, Lydia DePillis wrote about how difficult it is to find an affordable apartment in the District for The Washington Post due to developers focusing on luxury housing.

Economic forces in the city make it all too easy to supply housing for high-income urbanites, not the cheap kind that once was plentiful in D.C. What’s more, even the ways in which the city harnesses the taxes from those luxury buildings — by subsidizing developers who build units affordable to low-income people — hasn’t filled the gap.

So what should be done? Well, cities can start with better planning that goes beyond appealing to the rich. 

Co.Exist writer Ben Schiller recommends that more cities tie their development to transit, opening up unused public land for development, then tying that land to a new subway station line, instead of allowing cheaper housing to languish on the outside of cities with no access to public transportation, creating patches of poverty. As for education costs, President Obama’s plan to make community college free is a nice step. But funding structures for public education should change so that a school's quality isn’t solely based on the real estate taxes that surround it.

Getting back to being a more equitable society starts with education and housing. Without affordable, quality versions of both we will continue to see the American Dream deferred.