October 30, 2023

Place Matters: Inequality and Geography

Karen sternheimer 72523By Karen Sternheimer

The history of the places we live matters. From the infrastructure that provides access to roads, water, sewer systems, and utilities, often built long before we live someplace, to things like nearby schools and hospitals, where we live is a window into our life chances.

In their recently published book, The Injustice of Place: Uncovering the Legacy of Poverty in America, Kathryn J. Edin, H. Luke Shaefer, and Timothy Nelson examine the factors that lead to “deep disadvantage.” They define this as having an income of less than half of the poverty rate, health disadvantages, and limited opportunities for children (p. 4). These spaces are mostly rural, and often overlap with places of enslavement in the past (p. 10). Throughout their book, they explore the link between past injustices and the lack of opportunities in the present.

Some of the factors they examine in detail include:
  • A history of school segregation, and the movement to resegregate schools through the creation of “private academies” after the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that found segregated public schools unconstitutional (p. 54);
  • The history of blocking access to relief programs, particularly to Black and Latinx people, in order to maintain cheap labor sources for farming, mining, and other low-paying and often dangerous work (p. 32);
  • Enabling land ownership for some (mostly white settlers) during the 1862 Homestead Act, while never implementing 1865’s General Sherman’s Field Order No. 15, which famously would have given freed slaves forty acres of land (p. 226);
  • Patterns of corruption, most notably a 2016 investigation into misspent relief funds in Mississippi, where about $77 million was siphoned off to go to state’s program director and celebrity athletes, including former NFL quarterback Brett Favre, who reportedly received over a million dollars from the fund meant to help people in poverty for a speaking engagement. (He apparently returned the money after a 2020 report.) Meanwhile, Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation and yet has a 98 percent rejection rate for people applying for cash assistance (pp. 122-124);
  • Disaster relief aid is harder to obtain for poorer families, even homeowners, due to lower property values and often difficulties proving ownership for family homes passed down over several generations (pp.154-155, pp. 161-162);
  • The lack of jobs as coal mines close, for example, and former miners grapple with the impact of injuries sustained on the job with limited access to health care (p. 143)

These factors bely the common belief that upward mobility is solely based on personal attributes and individual morality (p. 139).

The results of these patterns are stark, creating what the authors refer to as colonies within the U.S. In several of the communities they studied, violence makes people wary of public spaces, leading to sedentary lifestyles indoors watching a lot of television, isolation, and in some cases drug use (pp. 74-75, pp. 104-105). These factors further fracture communities and reduce the possibility of social cohesion. Often people in such communities can’t afford to move, and even if they could, they have few marketable job skills to implement in a new location (p. 144).

While this may sound depressing, the purpose of examining the history of a location is meant to unravel the causes of inequality in order to increase opportunities going forward. The authors explore what they call “thriving places,” which are not necessarily wealthy communities, but places with low levels of inequality, higher levels of home ownership, limited violence and corruption, and more social cohesion (p. 229).

The book made me think a lot about the place I grew up and the place I live now, both places that would fall into the thriving category.

My hometown was a newly developing suburb when my family moved there, affordable enough for a young couple to buy their first home. The community was primarily residential, with another section of town zoned for commercial, with plenty of restaurants, shops, grocery stores, and low-rise buildings that would become offices for local doctors, attorneys, accountants and the like, as well as corporate outposts that would add to the community’s tax base. Public schools were thus well-funded, among the highest per student rates in the state.

It wasn’t a perfect place—my Black classmates tended to live in the neighborhood on the other side of a busy thoroughfare due to illegal steering practices (when realtors would only show homes to people in areas where the buyer was the same race as most of those in the neighborhood) which created residential segregation, probably reducing property values for their families for years to come.

My current home probably couldn’t (shouldn’t?) be developed today because it is surrounded on three sides by a state park, and although very tranquil and scenic, is at high risk for wildfires. There are even more restaurants nearby than where I grew up (one just a 10-minute walk away), several grocery stores and a nearby shopping center. My doctors’ offices are mostly in the community too. It is a place where people feel safe being outside and homeownership includes membership to a recreation center, and where neighbors interact on tennis courts, a gym, pool, and at a playground.

It too isn’t perfect; it has become unaffordable for most homebuyers. The Los Angeles Times recently reported the median home in the city as a whole is approaching $1 million, and in my neighborhood it is hard to find a condo for that price. It is also 83 percent white, while according to the U.S. Census Bureau the city of Los Angeles is only 45 percent white.

As you might imagine, my former and current home offer many opportunities for work, recreation, community engagement, and education. Yes, people must still work hard within these communities. Being a college professor is challenging and requires a lot of work just to have the credentials to be considered for a position. But the place where I grew up helped me thrive.

What about where you live? How does the history of place play itself out in your life today?


Thank you for spending your precious time sharing this rewarding information! We really need the same information! I hope you can share more.

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