In the United States, unlike urban patterns in many other countries, inner cities across the nation have long contained crime infested slums unfit for human habitation.
While much of the American population believes the United States is "the greatest nation on earth," "chosen" and blessed with "unique" wisdom (a theme that gets mixed reviews from foreign observers), few possessing this optimistic vision actually live in America's urban slums. Yet these conditions are, in fact, part of "the American way of life."
Further, the very fact that these conditions have persisted so long indicates that their real causes have some deep connection precisely with the actual content of "the American way of life," in the forms it has long taken.
There has been a misunderstanding as to what "residential areas" actually are. They are not simply places where people "reside" to carry on their present lives; they are places where the future is shaped through the socialization of on-coming generations. This means self-images, horizons, goals, and motivations. Residential areas breed the future proportions of assimilation into the "mainstream" vs. social pathologies, including drug addiction and violent crime, with benefits or costs to society at large extending decades into the future.
A major part of socialization is role models. One requirement of socially decent communities--quite generally, but not always--is role models of middle-class types, broadly conceived, and hence mixed-income neighborhoods, or at least avoidance of heavy concentrations of the lowest classes. This social fact is widely recognized in much of Western Europe.
Residential patterns are a huge factor affecting the character of public schools. In the United States, many of the struggles to reform inner-city public schools have focused on the schools and teachers and gone too far in blaming them for the outputs, i.e. poor student performance, without altering one the key inputs, residential patterns, which powerfully influence the culture of parents and students. Various of these school-reform efforts have applied considerable resources, and draconian supervision of teachers, but then produced only minute improvements in student performance--because of lack of student motivation. This can be traced, in large measure, to the role models that prevail outside the classroom. Inner-city students tend to think and behave differently from middle-class students because they were not raised in middle-class neighborhoods.
In the United States, despite all the departures from laissez-faire from the l880's through the New-Deal era and beyond, and while racial discrimination has been addressed by legislation and the courts, there has been little urban social planning in spatial terms to reduce extreme economic segregation in residential patterns.
The lack of such social planning inside the United States has long imposed costs, in some cases enormous costs, upon other nations, for one of the largest markets for hard drugs has long been in the inner cities of the United States. The costs in Columbia and Mexico have included assassinations by drug gangs of huge numbers of courageous local police agents, judges, and other officials.
Americans tend to assume that general economic prosperity "lifts all boats." But in the last half of the 20th century conditions in American inner cities grew worse, because of two great changes in American society:
First, massive losses of manufacturing jobs occurred, because of economic development in other parts of the world, leaving an American "rust belt" of devastated communities.
Second, the American civil rights revolution of the 1960's allowed middle-class Blacks to move from inner-city ghettos out to suburbs. Previously, many of these inner-city ghettos had a multi-class character, as illustrated by the "Harlem Renaissance" of the 1920's and other similar communities. But as the walls of racial segregation were dismantled, this out-migration left behind heavier and heavier concentrations of the lowest classes in inner cities. American public policies did little to compensate for the success of the civil-rights revolution. The very notion of "compensating" for "success" is difficult for Americans to grasp, because of their (misguided) faith in spontaneous forces in society.
What should done:
(1) Move the economy to high levels of general employment.
(2) Expand use of public funds to promote relocation of people out of depressed areas, including depressed urban areas, to places, near or far, where jobs are more plentiful.
(3) Expand training and retraining; and, to this end, abolish tuition at community colleges.
(4) For low-income groups, achieve minimum standards of housing by expanded use of housing subsidies, not discrete public housing units; and abolish the (universal) tax deductibility of mortgage interest, which is a subsidy that for decades has gone to middle and upper classes.
(5) Promote, on a large scale basis, mixed-income neighborhoods, in both urban and suburban areas.
(6) Expand governmental planning capabilities to shape urban residential patterns on a regional basis, integrating inner cities and suburbs. This can be greatly facilitated by municipal ownership of land in and near urban areas. For detailed information on long experience with such policies in The Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, and Finland, see my Land Ownership and the Social System.
America's great business oligarchy
What, then are the attitudes of the conservative business community in the United States? It has the fixed political aims of obstructing use of government for popular well-being and maximizing opportunities for private investors to pursue enormous personal wealth. This includes speculation in the full capitalist repertoire of assets, including speculation in land.
Progressive urban policies in the United States could be strategically advanced by getting rid of that oligarchy--through the type of socialist transformation proposed in detail in the writings cited above.