One must applaud Owen Fisss admonishment to end, lock
stock and smoking barrel, the isolation and disempowerment that currently
characterizes life in Americas urban ghettos. Likewise Professor
Fisss description of the deplorable history of state-sanctioned
racist policy that created and maintained the urban ghetto is a necessary
but all-too-often ignored part of any policy discussion that addresses
the conditions of the urban poor. This history should be part of any high-school
education, but distressingly few Americans know of it or care to learn.
And I agree wholeheartedly with Fisss argument that the compulsory
isolation of the ghetto is morally analogous to Jim Crow segregation and
that the imperative that society find and implement an effective remedy
is analogous to the imperative to desegregate public schools that was
(partially) addressed in Brown v. Board of Education.
Better yet, Professor Fiss is not content simply to describe
the problem, as so many have already done. He insists that justice demands
a viable solution, and his proposal is as bold and sweeping as the challenge
is pervasive and daunting. Fisss proposal: a comprehensive, although
voluntary, program of relocation, funded by the state and available to
anyone living in a sufficiently distressed neighborhood. Fiss faces unflinchingly
the enormous cost of such a program: he recognizes that not only moving
expenses for millions of families but also sizable rent subsidies of indefinite
duration would be required to insure that low-income families could move
to middle- and upper-income neighborhoods.
Still, it is not clear that Fisss proposal will serve
all of the people he hopes to help. Fiss correctly notes that the blacks
who benefited most from civil rights reform were those already well poised
to do so--those with skills and education. These successful blacks left
their former neighborhoods in what William Julius Wilson calls "black
middle class flight," exacerbating the isolation and powerlessness of
those left behind in the ghettos. We could expect a similar result if
Fisss proposal were enacted: those inner-city poor with some skill,
experiences outside the ghetto, mainstream acculturation, and internalization
of the work ethic will be more likely to take the initiative and leave
the ghetto, and more likely to succeed when they do. Those worst off,
both in terms of wealth and, more importantly, in terms of skills, will
stay behind or when they try to move will meet with failure and alienation.
They will then most likely retreat to their former neighborhoods or form
new enclaves in the suburbs that will rapidly become the suburban ghettos
Fiss hopes to avoid.
In this scenario, Fisss reform will of course have
helped those who move and succeed enormously. But it will leave an even
more concentrated, even more desperate, and even more isolated super-underclass
All of this is to say that Fisss solution cannot be
the only solution. Fiss criticizes William Julius Wilsons suggestion
that public policy revitalize inner city communities through WPA-style
public investments and jobs programs. He notes that such an approach fails
to reckon with the lack of work ethic that, according to both Fiss and
Wilson, is pervasive in the ghetto. But Wilsons proposal does have
the merit of incrementalism: he envisions providing steady work for the
poor where they live and are, if not comfortable, at least familiar. Fiss
by contrast demands that these socially isolated poor not only develop
a work ethic and mainstream social skills sufficient to win them jobs
in the private sector of a middle-class suburb, but also that they
do so while simultaneously acculturating themselves to a new social milieu.
Moreover, there is a serious omission in Fisss analysis
of the ghettoization dynamic. Fiss asserts that problem of ghettoization
is structural and self perpetuating: social and economic isolation promote
joblessness, despair, and socially dysfunctional behavior, which promote
poverty, which insures social and economic isolation. But he omits a significant
element of that structure: the laws governing the very middle-class and
wealthy suburbs he hopes will become welcoming havens for the underclass.
Wealthier suburbs have strong incentives to exclude poor urbanites and
the means by which to do so, both supplied by the legal regime of American
Incentives? In most states, American cities and towns fund
public services primarily through property taxes. They also are entitled
to limit access to those services to residents of the jurisdiction. This
means that cities have an overwhelming incentive to encourage in-movers
who will increase the value of property (and therefore tax revenues) and
consume little in services, and to discourage in-movers whose presence
will decrease property values and who will need a lot of public services.
It scarcely needs to be said that the urban poor fit the latter description.
Means? Although American local governments do not have explicit
immigration policies, they do have broad powers to restrict land uses.
By excluding all or most high density or multi-family housing, middle
class and wealthy suburbs can effectively screen out low income potential
residents by prohibiting the housing that they can afford. Local governments
also can and do resist regional public transportation, halfway houses,
group living arrangements, and rehabilitation centers--all services that
many low income people require in order to make the transition from troubled
or dysfunctional lifestyles to success in the job market.
The engine of ghettoization is not entirely internal to
the ghetto, nor are its root causes exclusively historical. Although Fiss
recognizes the responsibility of the explicitly discriminatory policies
of the past for the present reality of the urban ghetto, he does not consider
the salience of present day public policy in reproducing the ghetto and
reinforcing its borders. While Fisss proposal is laudatory, it is
incomplete. Without the reform of local policies that reinforce the isolation
of the ghetto from outside, it would be like running the furnace with
the windows open.
is professor of law at Stanford University.
for other New Democracy Forum articles.