The Desperate need For The Vanishing Middle Neighborhood
Discussions of income inequality frequently focus on the extremes — the poor versus the ultra-wealthy. However, as the reaction of voters in both parties should have reminded everyone last year, many places between the two poles are hurting and need attention.
I spoke recently with Representative Dwight Evans, a Democrat from Pennsylvania's 2nd congressional district, which includes various sections of Philadelphia, some parts of South Philadelphia and Center City, and some suburbs to the west. The median income is just under $31,000 a year, more than $20,000 below the national median.
We were discussing income inequality with a focus on the middle. Evans breaks neighborhoods into three categories. "[There are] those that are strong neighborhoods where the housing prices are stable and rising," he said. "Then there are the distressed neighborhoods where the quality of life had declined and public safety is a serious problem."
The inability to perform important repairs and upgrades — especially when the issue is something significant and potentially pricey, like windows, a roof, or the electrical or plumbing system — helps put middle neighborhoods in danger. They begin to decline.
"There should be a recognition that in order to keep these communities viable, middle neighborhoods have to be part of the equation," Evans said. "Stability is extremely essential to economic growth and investment." Unless you've been isolated in a gated community, chances are good you have seen deteriorating neighborhoods. People care, at least early on, but they struggle with finances and put off what seems to be the easiest thing to ignore for now. "They don't necessarily have the money to do the little things you need to do with a house to keep it viable," he said.
It makes me think of my time in the trucking industry. Some contractors would ignore routine vehicle maintenance because it could run a few hundred dollars at a time when things were slow. But when you delay upkeep, more problems develop. Because no one is looking and the basic maintenance is missing, you don't catch or stop those problems in time and they turn into something large that is far more expensive and even more unaffordable.
The result is a vicious circle. Houses start to get run down. Property values fall. Fewer people who are in their own path of personal economic growth choose to move in. There's less money in the area and a smaller customer base, which affects local businesses that either leave or cut back on hiring, providing fewer opportunities for people, and the wheel keeps turning.
Evans thinks that communities and government have to pay attention not only to poor areas but these middle neighborhoods as well.
"My theory is to bring the declining neighborhoods up to where middle neighborhoods are ," Evans said. But to do that, the middle neighborhoods need to be shored up. "This is like preventative healthcare. It's like an exercise program where you build up your core because it affects everything else. From priorities, from a federal perspective, it's a lot easier to add stability to the middle neighborhoods. You don't want these communities to move in the wrong direction because that's going to add larger [demands and need for] entitlements and larger investments."
If you fail to address the middle neighborhoods as well as those declining, it's like the truck that hasn't had maintenance. First one system then another starts to break down. Eventually the problems are so numerous and expensive that there is no hope for to catch up. The state of both the distressed and middle neighborhoods needs attention because they're part of the larger dynamic that eventually enables greater economic and social mobility.
There are ways to address the issue. In Evans' district there's a public-private partnership called Rebuild Philadelphia. As the website describes the organization:
Rebuilding Community Infrastructure (Rebuild) is a seven-year, $500 million investment in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. The money will be used to improve neighborhood parks, libraries, recreation centers, and playgrounds with the goals of promoting equity and encouraging economic growth across the city. These improvements are also expected to promote educational opportunities for children, support healthy lifestyles for all, improve public safety in our shared spaces, and create jobs for Philadelphians.
Businesses and foundations help provide the money while volunteers do the work. The stronger they make the entangled parts that are neighborhoods, the more viable those areas are. The more viable the neighborhoods, the more economic activity with good quality jobs that offer opportunity and an income growth path.
More communities, and the country as a whole, need to consider issues of poverty, inequality, middle class, and infrastructure differently than previous approaches that haven't solved the problems. Vibrant neighborhoods, with property values supported by upkeep and anchor employers that help create good jobs, are as much part of the infrastructure as roads, water systems, the electrical grid, and broadband connectivity. We've become used to thinking that better things are what we need when, rather, it is stronger neighborhoods and people who must come first and put the rest into perspective.