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Stop Segregating the Rich

by Miriam Axel-Lute on January 30, 2013


“Gentrification will reduce crime and violence—but only if poor people stay.”

That’s the title of an interesting recent blog post on MetroTrends describing a move some urban researchers are making toward taking a public health approach toward street crime.

Roughly, they assume that a wealthy area is less susceptible to “catching” an infection of crime from an adjacent neighborhood than a poor neighborhood is. “Crime is contagious,” John Roman writes in the post. “Of that, there is little doubt. A central predictor of crime levels in a neighborhood is how much crime there is in the neighborhood next door.” Thus, they argue that we take as a thought experiment the worst case scenario, where all you can do to prevent crime is move where people are living. In that case, perfect income segregation causes maximum spread of crime, as all the most susceptible neighborhoods are next to each other.

“While we know that isolating our poorest residents is really bad for them,” says Roman, “it turns out that segregating the rich and poor leads to the worst outcomes for a city as a whole. Economic integration, where the rich and poor live side by side, leads to the safest cities.”

I like his conclusion, but I think his thought exercise so far leaves something to be desired. First, it seems a bit of a stretch to say a poor neighborhood and a rich neighborhood adjacent constitutes economic integration. I mean, I guess it is an improvement from even more drastic segregation, but I grew up blocks from a much poorer city, and believe you me, those boundaries can be well enforced. In most cities there are plenty of sharp income gradients at neighborhood boundaries. Perhaps they mean that this is in fact reducing crime in those cities?

Second, gentrification is not a moving of neighborhoods, but a moving of people with more options and more income into a previously low-income neighborhood and displacing original residents (albeit usually unintentionally through rising prices). If the poor people stay, it is questionable whether that would be called gentrification, but semantics aside, it would also pose a much more complicated question for the whole crime and public health approach. If you start off arguing that an all-rich neighborhood is most resistant to crime, how do you then get to arguing for economic integration?

I think that the problem is just that the thought experiment is a little too simplified. Reducing disinvestment and displacement at the same time and creating stable mixed-income communities absolutely sounds like a recipe for safer, healthier cities. Involuntary displacement from community and social networks does terrible things to people. I think the line of reasoning should be pursued, with the required subtlety.

But I’d like to recommend one additional lens: Why just focus on street crime? Why should the inoculation work only in one direction?

Rich people commit plenty of crime, and in fact are more likely to commit quite a few types: tax evasion, violation of minimum wage laws, wage theft, union busting, embezzlement, securities fraud, bribery, buying votes, predatory lending, consumer fraud. . . . You get the point.

These things absolutely spread faster in an all-rich environment. Numerous writers have described cultures where “the rules don’t apply to us” and “you won’t get succeed if you don’t cheat.” Recent studies have found that on average, the wealthy actually have less empathy than others.

I realize it’s a long shot, but perhaps a little economic integration (which has been sharply decreasing since 1980) would also help with that crime wave. They could still have bigger houses and fancier cars. But perhaps if their neighbors represented a variety of income and wealth backgrounds this could “inoculate” the wealthy with a little empathy, with a little reality check. Maybe if they let themselves rub shoulders in the corner store, on the stoop, at the community garden, in the PTA, in the neighborhood association, at the farmers market, with a range of people who would be affected by their crimes, they would become a little more resistant to peer pressure. If their landscapers, nannies, and chauffeurs shared their neighborhood, perhaps they would be a little less quick to prescribe policies that reduce services, knock down homes, or underfund schools.

It reminds me of something I once heard D.C. community organizer Linda Leaks say in a discussion on mobility and concentration of poverty: “I don’t want to live next to gun violence. I also don’t want to live next to a professor who is dealing in child pornography or doing cocaine all the time. I don’t want to live next door to a corporate owner who is stealing the wages of the people in this hotel. I don’t want to live next to that kind of criminality.”