Thursday, April 28, 2011

Globalization in my Neighborhood

Many people are talking about how there is no budget crisis, elites are using a supposed budget crisis to make fundamental cuts in government budgets supported by certain corporate interests. Here, I will not talk about this argument. Instead, I talk about the global trends happening in DC. Sociologists and other social scientists have documented two global trends: 1) the reduction in financial inputs into government budgets since the late 1970s and 2) increasing inequalities both within and between countries (see the work of sociologist Saskia Sassen, on inequalities see the absolutely brilliant work by World Bank economist Branko Milanovic or his video).

In DC, since the late 1970s, there has been a decrease in tax rates and thus a reduction in financial inputs into the city budget. According to a DC Fiscal Policy Institute report, the top DC income tax rate was "reduced from 11 percent to 9.5 percent in the late 1980s, and all tax rates were reduced further after 2000 under the Tax Parity Act." Since that report was written, the top DC income tax rate was further reduced to 8.5%. Property taxes also fell from $1.83 per $100 of assessed value in 1975 to $0.85 now. DC tax rates remain the lowest in the region (see DC FPI chart to the right).

Of course, economic growth could off-set decreasing tax rates. However, the economic recession from December 2007 to June 2009 and the continuing lagging economy has undermined this potential, which means that the DC government is receiving less financial input.

In DC and globally, there has also been increasing inequality. The standard measure of inequality is the Gini coefficient, which ranges from 0 (lowest level of inequality) to 1 (highest level).
  • According to the Census, DC now has the highest Gini coefficient in the US and thus the highest level of inequality nationwide: .532. We also have the most households in the nation making over $200,000 (8.4% of households or 21,194 households).
  • According to the Census, in DC at least in 2006, the share of income going to the poorest 20% of the population was by far the lowest in the country (1.9% as opposed to the national 3.4%) and by far the highest for the wealthiest 20% (56.3% as opposed to 49.9%).
  • For DC, the Gini index increased from 1979 (.450), to 1989 (.492), to 1999 (.549), which meant more inequality. We see a slight decrease from 1999, but the current Gini index of .532 is still well above its pre-1990 level. From the UN data, it seems that this level might be on par with Brazil, Honduras, and Papua New Guinea, countries with the highest levels of inequality in the world. The majority of countries in the world have lower levels than DC.
The economic crisis only exacerbates these inequalities. The decreasing financial inputs to the DC government budget and the upcoming budget cuts will further increase these inequalities. Reducing tax revenues to the DC government increases the wealth of the wealthiest and decreases the wealth, attained through public education and income assistance, to the poorest, thus expanding inequality. These trends are not inevitable. People create policies, jobs, and so on. What can we do to change these global trends in DC?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Today's Special Election (update)

Here's an update on the candidates in regards to tax policy. Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells said a few months back (according to the Examiner), "I think the way the budget is structured ... pits the rich against the poor." You can vote until 8pm tonight. Click here for info on where to cast your vote today.

According to the DC Office of the Chief Financial Officer, the top tax bracket starts at $40,001 with a 8.5% tax rate. From various sources, here are the candidates who will not raise taxes "to close a projected fiscal 2012 shortfall of $400 million to $600 million" and thus propose to cut services:
Here are the candidates who seek to rewrite the tax code so that there are more tax brackets (such as a $125,000 tax bracket) in order to avoid cutting services:
Does cutting the budget create jobs in DC? Does cutting the budget provide more money for DC schools? Today's vote means a lot to a lot of people, so vote with and for your neighbors.

Here's info on where to cast your vote today.

Today's Special Election

From Facebook:
Has anyone received the all-important Sociology in My Neighborhood endorsement in tomorrow's "special" election? Over in the Lola Park neighborhood, some folks consider the SINM endorsement the "invisible primary."
The SIMN endorsement for today's special election isn't really an endorsement.
According to the DC Office of the Chief Financial Officer, the top tax bracket starts at $40,001 with a 8.5% tax rate. The Federal poverty line for a family of four is $22,050. The DC government's level for "very-low income" housing assistance is $43,500 for a family of four. From various sources, here are the candidates who will not raise taxes "to close a projected fiscal 2012 shortfall of $400 million to $600 million" and thus propose to cut services:
Here are the candidates who seek to rewrite the tax code so that there are more tax brackets (such as a $125,000 tax bracket) in order to avoid cutting services:
What is on the table to be cut? According to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, the proposed 2012 budget cuts "$130 million from human services and other programs that support low-income residents. Although human service programs make up 26 percent of the locally funded budget, they accounted for 67 percent of the Mayor’s cuts." These cuts are added to the $340 million cuts in human services and other low-income programs since 2008. With over 9% unemployment in Ward 6 and over 20% unemployment in Ward 7, these services, as well as jobs programs and education funds, are needed now more than ever. As of Feb. 28, 2011, 12,000 city youth have already applied for jobs through DC's summer job program, and there are only 12,000 positions. Could other kinds of innovative jobs programs (that offer real jobs) be created in DC? Or do they already exist? Do lower income taxes on those making $40,001+ create jobs in DC?

Today's vote means a lot to a lot of people, so vote with and for your neighbors.

Here's info on where to cast your vote today.

Two Thoughts about Inequality from a Busy Sociologist

A sociologist's letter to the New Yorker editor about an article by Paul Tough on a San Francisco clinic run by Nadine Burke:

"Tough quotes Nadine Burke as saying that "in many cases, what looks like a social situation is actually a neurochemical situation." But, at its origins, the case is the opposite: Burke's patients presenting neurochemical problems, such as anxiety and depression, initially suffered from social problems, such as impoverished, violent, or otherwise toxic family and community situations. These neurochemical responses are the symptom, and what we need to attack is the disease -- social disparity. Disparities are characteristic of a society, not an individual. If these disparities are "treated" through social policies that reduce inequalities or, at least, their negative consequences (lack of access to a secure environment, nourishing food, health care, quality housing and neighborhoods, decent jobs, and time for family and leisure), then whole populations benefit, rather than just the few lucky individuals who land in Burke's clinic. The United States ranks highest in social inequality compared with other advanced countries, and highest in health disparities as well." Deena White, Professor, Dept of Sociology, U. Montreal.

Post Q: Did it take a lot of extra money to help the red zone (areas in Montgomery County worse off economically and academically)?

Jerry Dean Weast, superintendent of Montgomery County schools: Just a couple thousand dollars a student. It's a 10 to 15 percent difference. If I've got to pay 10 to 15 percent extra and get a similar or close-to-similar outcome, I'd keep investing...We set the highest scores in the history of the district. The highest SAT scores. The highest graduation rates. The highest college attendance and college graduation rates -- and we have the evidence to prove that.

Students pay $34,465 to attend St. Albans, while the DC Government will pay $8,770 in 2012 to educate each student. What if a couple thousand dollars per public school student could reduce the achievement gap? Does St. Albans have an achievement gap?

Friday, April 22, 2011

A Nation of Homeowners?

Last night, outside under the stars, I was the beneficiary of the company of fascinating conversationalists. Our conversation was wide ranging, but one topic we discussed was affordable housing. While there is great discussion about the benefits and costs of home ownership, home ownership is out of the question for those with low salaries. Nationwide, one needs a $61,732 salary to be able to buy a house. Looking at the national median household income, 50% of US households make below $50,221 and 50% of US households make above this amount. In general (disregarding regional house price differences, generational differences, etc.), home ownership is not possible for 50% of US households.

Based on a completely unverifiable online calculator, I found out that to buy a house at the Ward 6 median sale price ($535,000, 50% of the houses sold at prices below this, 50% sold at prices above this) one would have to have a $168,000 salary. The data on jobs is from another online service, so who know how accurate it is, but you get a general view of salaries. (I don't know why NeighborhoodInfo reports average household income and not median.) No matter the calculation, home ownership is out of the question for those with such full-time jobs as receptionist, home health aide, and so on, as well as for the unemployed (DC's 10% unemployment rate, Ward 6's 9.4%, and Ward 7's 20.7%).

Median Household Income (2009)
Annual Income Needed to Buy House (2008)
Hourly Wage Needed for 2-Bed. Rental
$ 17.85
Home Ownership Rate (2009)

Ward 6
Avg Household Income (2005-9)
Median House Sale Price (2010)
Estimated Income Required for Median House
Home Ownership Rate (2009)

Full-Time Salaries of Selected DC Jobs
Hair Dresser
Line Cook
Security Guard (unarmed) $27,000
Cashier $28,000
Home Health Aide
School Bus Driver
Auto Mechanic
Administrative Asst.
Police Officer
University Professor
DC Council Member (part-time)
Chief Executive (national)
Surgeon (national)
Transocean Pres. (2010)
$1.1 million

OK, so the Transocean president is not a DC resident, but it is just there for comparison. If people wish that we were a nation of homeowners, what might we do to realize this? Or is home ownership the wrong goal?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Delays and Academic Life

The past three days George Mason University has hosted the Southern Conference on Slavic Studies. What a glorious three days in which which we learned about the 20th anniversary celebrations of 1989 in Eastern Europe, the sublime Soviet director Andrey Tarkovsky, transnational Baptist communities moving between Moldova and the US, new forms of Russian grammar, the lives of Russian and Yugoslav dissident exiles in the US, and so on. The conference is mainly a venue for we professors to expand our own knowledge and train graduate students. Sunday is now devoted to class prep for Monday's classes. Then the week is full of lecturing, grading, guiding our students as they write their research papers and finish their theses, attending lectures by visiting professors, honoring our most successful students with their families in ceremonies, hosting visiting graduate students, evaluating grant proposals, applying for grants, writing and sending off articles -- two in my case -- to journals, evaluating articles for journals, writing letters of recommendation, talking about developing new research centers, generally running our departments, university, and professions, and, in a couple of weeks, graduating our students and sending them off into the world. Professors may appear absent minded -- the Post very ignorantly wrote that someone "looks like a college professor lulled into a kind of zen complacency by the anesthetic of tenure" -- but this is because we are multi-tasking madly. I have never seen a professor not racing around trying to keep up with an ever expanding number of tasks. Some tasks we take on because we have to, while others we take on because we love our research, we believe in our universities' missions, and we are dedicated to our students. We also spend much of our lives in multiple time periods and in far away places. I have spent the last year "living" in the 1920s in Berlin and Vienna, then moving around the 1970s in Budapest, Belgrade, and the US, when not teaching about Tanzania in the 19th century or the Philippines today. Completely overwhelming and utterly sublime work. Take-away point: my next posting will be a bit delayed.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Destruction of Authenticity since the 1980s (continued)

Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places by sociologist Sharon Zukin is a must read and a fascinating, enjoyable book. She writes as a devoted New Yorker, exploring community gardens, Latino pupusa vendors, Harlem, IKEA, cafes, farmers' markets, and public spaces, all relevant to debate here in Ward 6.

Much of the debate about DC development is structured by three unhelpful dichotomies: 1) density vs. historic preservation/NIMBYism, 2) change is inevitable vs. nostalgia for the past, and 3) inhuman, modernist urban renewal (à la Robert Moses, left photo) vs. the nurturing of urban neighborhoods (à la Jane Jacobs, right photo). These dichotomies, as with most, obscure significant trends and urgent debates. My post "When is Density just the Density of the Wealthy?" discusses the first dichotomy. In her discussion of the second and third, which I describe below, Zukin demonstrates her amazing observational powers.

After the Second World War, Robert Moses came to represent the powerful urban planner, who bulldozed the past and recreated the city (and the suburb) for the car building new bridges, public housing projects, and highways. By the 1950s, communities resisted this demolishing "urban renewal." In 1955, the Capitol Hill Restoration Society began its fight against plans to destroy row houses to make way for highways, large government office buildings, etc. Jane Jacobs represented this resistance and the desire to create real, authentic community in opposition to faceless development. Zukin documents how the dichotomy of Moses vs. Jacobs no longer applies because developers and government officials have now fused Moses' corporate/government city with Jacob's urban village.

Zukin does a wonderful job criticizing the narrowness of our term "gentrification" because it does not capture the collective investment at stake. Not only developers, but even more importantly members of community organizations, public housing leaders, new immigrants, artists, hipsters, community gardeners, and so on have turned sometimes dangerous, crime-ridden areas neglected by any investment ("planned shrinkage") into places where many people now want to live. And this is the problem.

Worldwide, cities and developers have realized that they can attract new businesses, tourist dollars, developer investment, the wealthy's extra income, and so on by creating neighborhoods that people like to visit and live in. The Washington City Paper just had a glowing article on the benefits of developers creating such neighborhoods. DC officials, developers, and businesses work together to brand and develop such new neighborhoods or, for example, the Capitol Hill Historic District and "make markets" that draw, hopefully, large corporate investments. All these cities are in competition with each other, desperately trying new strategies to appear really different and unique, when, in fact, they are becoming more and more the same. Cities are becoming more homogenous with their food trucks, similar restaurant scenes, quirky parades and festivals, screen on the green, and statues of donkeys/elephants/other city-brand mascots. In the end, "upscale development triumphs over authenticity," a corporate city has been built around the core of an urban village.

We consumers are part of this too because we seek neighborhoods that seem authentic to us -- with dive bars, quirky cafes, high-end restaurants, sleek lounges, great bookstores, underground art spaces, and so on. When identities are unstable, we turn to authenticity, which "differentiates a person, a product, or a group from its competitors; it confers an aura of moral superiority, a strategic advantage that each can use to its own benefit." Some people's authenticity is recognized as acceptable or more profitable and changes the neighborhood by driving up rents and driving out check-cashing stores, fish-fry restaurants, cheap diners, and mom-and-pop stores to be replaced by "a cultural climate where older, poorer residents fell unwelcome, if not downright threatened." Thus, city officials, developers, corporate businesses, and the creative classes have used authenticity to create a city that many of us might not want to inhabit.

Zukin is not a pessimist. She sees our desire for authenticity as a great resource. We must go beyond the old Moses/Jacobs and all the other dichotomies. Zukin argues that we should preserve not only historic buildings but also historic, diverse communities. DC's median household income is $58,553 (2008), which means that 50% of District residents make below $58,533. This means that most DC residents cannot afford the upscale communities being created. How might we think more broadly about authenticity to include all residents' right to the city? Zukin suggests "limits on rent increases, government-backed mortgage guarantees for store owners," low commercial rents, "special privileges for start-up businesses and young apprentices that will maintain crafts and trades, street vending, and even gardening." To my mind, we should also not allow all the energy that we have put into creating a community we want to live in be privatized, corporatized, homogenized, and up-scaled.

The Destruction of Authenticity since the 1980s

Brooklyn College sociology professor and wildly famous urban sociologist Sharon Zukin made these observations about NYC in her most recent book:
But the city's historic diversity of uses, local specializations, small stores, and cheek-by-jowl checkerboard of rich people, poor people, and people broadly in the middle has been submerged by a tidal wave of new luxury apartments and chain stores. Global investment firms have bought thousands of low-cost apartment houses and prepare to raise the rent or sell them as condos, driving out older and poorer tenants. The fertile urban terroir of cultural creation is being destroyed by the conspicuous displays of wealth and power typical of private developers and public officials who build for the rich and hope benefits will trickle down to the poor, by the promotions of the media who translate neighborhood identity into a brand, and by the tastes of new urban middle classes who are initially attracted to this identity but ultimately destroy it. These forces of redevelopment have smoothed the uneven layers of grit and glamour, swept away traces of contentious history, cast doubt on the idea that poor people have a right to live and work here too -- all that had made the city authentic.
Her view of authenticity is that it has two mechanisms -- the protection what is seen as "original" (think historic preservation) and continual cultural innovation -- that are in tension, but are also in tension with (and used by) the homogenizing forces of redevelopment that we see in all cities today. The 1980s are a particularly important starting point for these homogenizing forces.