May 31, 2017

The Basis of Human Endeavor

By In Essays

“What is a city? You could say that a city is many things, but one of the things that a city is, is a home to it’s people. When you think of the great cities of history: Athens is glory, Rome is grandeur or power, let’s say Paris is culture. What is New York? New York is a home. New York’s great gift to the world was the peoples from all over the world could come here. They could come here and create their own communities, their own neighborhoods. So, people felt a sense of community, a sense of belonging, a sense of neighborhood. That’s really the basis of human endeavor. If people feel that they belong, they can go on to other things. Now, all of a sudden that was going to be harder for New York than ever before because at this crucial moment in the city’s history, the city loses its way. Whereas before neighborhoods were created, now neighborhoods were destroyed.”

– Robert Caro, 1999

Of the many brilliant non-fiction writers throughout the world today, Robert Caro would be my nominee as the best. Caro’s first book, The Power Broker, which was published in 1974, told the story of the incredible power acquired and consumed by Robert Moses in the first half of the twentieth century. Since then, he has authored four volumes of his biographical series about Lyndon Johnson. Caro is rare in combining exceptional investigative talent with a beautiful and lyrical writing style.


The quote that introduces this article, however, did not come from any of his publications, but instead from an interview with Caro captured in Ric Burns’ 1999 documentary New York: A Documentary Film. Caro was lamenting the post-WWII culture in New York City of urban renewal where functioning neighborhoods were scrapped for development projects, white families were financially encouraged to move to the suburbs, and industrial jobs began vanishing.

Caro is in a position to understand the impact that these policies had on largely poor families in New York City. He poignantly described Robert Moses’ own construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway in The Power Broker. The expressway cut directly through a neighborhood in the South Bronx called East Tremont that was home to a poorer, but close knit community – primarily Jews whose families escaped pogroms in Eastern Russia and later had enough resources to move north from the Lower East Side of Manhattan[1]. Today, the area of the South Bronx is perhaps the poorest Congressional district in the country. When the expressway was built, property values plummeted and many left the area. Landlords, unable to charge adequate rent, started burning their buildings down to collect the insurance on them. The Expressway also bisected the neighborhoods to the north and south, separating them and creating an almost physical ghetto.

East Tremont was a microcosm of the difficult period urban centers faced after the Second World War. New York City nearly went bankrupt in the 1970s and Cleveland actually did. Although a precise level of contribution from various factors in causing this urban decline is not available, we know in general terms exactly what happened.

An aerial view of the Bronx illustrates the large area of land cleared to make way for the road.

Beginning around the time that the First World War ended, a huge migration of southern blacks to large urban centers took place, as black families sought to escape Jim Crow segregation and limited economic opportunity.

Demographic of New York City, 1940-2010. Source: U.S. Census Bureau.

The National Housing Act of 1934 placed the Federal government in the mortgage business in a way it had never been before through the creation of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). Designed to make mortgages less risky, the FHA insured mortgages made by lenders. Obviously, some standards had to be drafted to prevent the agency from being on the hook for bad loans, since lenders themselves had shifted part of their risk to the government. A system was created whereby maps were color coded to reflect the health of neighborhoods and the desirability of lending there. The most desirable areas were green and the least desirable areas, the ones that were least desirable to lenders and where mortgage capital rarely flowed, were in red.

At the same time, the automobile was becoming an obtainable necessity for American families. Mass automobile ownership coupled with huge funds available for highway construction made place less important and allowed for an enormous migration from cities to the suburbs. Those migrating outward from cities were almost entirely white. Urban blacks were mostly unable to get mortgages because of redlining practices and even if they could, title covenants often meant white families were legally barred from selling to a black one.

Contemporaneous to this institutionalized racism was urban de-industrialization. Industrial jobs were once the reason many migrated to cities. But, as place became less important and urban centers came with high costs, industrial jobs fled first to the south and west and then out of the country altogether.

Redlining, the rise of the automobile, and de-industrialization combined together to form the urban “ghetto” – a place where poor blacks had almost no means to escape. Compounding the issue, the mass exodus of the more affluent from cities left municipal governments with dwindling funds for social services and basic infrastructure.

Then there were the men that Caro wrote about it – men like Robert Moses – who looked at cities as a flow chart, a means of channeling traffic, and that many of the people who lived there as irrelevant.

The twentieth-century decline of urban centers resulted from an abandonment of what allowed cities to become the cornerstone of modern civilization: the sense of community that existed there and the shared sense of success and failure. It was also marked by the decay of institutions that had long helped people – regardless of their background – to climb the ladder and pursue success. Institutions like national and local government, the educational system, and family. In short, institutions transmitted care and concern to those it served, albeit imperfectly. Once that ended, communities were left to disintegrate.

What do we gain from looking again at past urban planning and policy failures? To an astonishing degree, the pattern that played out in cities across the country is now dispersed across the whole United States.

Increasingly challenging conditions for the poor and even middle class in the United States is not a very controversial assertion and mountains of data support that contention. Nearly fifty years ago, median income among the lowest fifth of wage earners was $9,929 in 2015 dollars while it had risen by only 25% to $12,457 in 2015. The comparable figures for the highest fifth of wage earners were $100,606 and $202,366 respectively – an increase of +83%. Growth in incomes among the bottom wage earners has not budged since 1990.

Median Income, 1960-2017, for the top and bottom quintile of earners. Source: U.S. Census Bureau.

Our problems, though, run much deeper than just rising inequality, just as the prior decline of cities was about far more than that same metric. More so than in a very long time, if you are born poor, you are likely to stay that way.

The probability of a child born in a particular year of earning more than their parents in the U.S. Source: Equality of Opportunity Project.

If you were born in 1940, you had about a 90% chance of earning more than your parents did, but if you were born in 1984 the figure falls to just 50% – an incredible statistic, but not a surprising one. Overall growth has slowed and class mobility is lower than its been in a very long time. Much like people trapped in physical surroundings in decaying cities, a growing portion of the country is being trapped in their current economic status.

All of this has been previously presented and while there are policy approaches to attacking the problem what is most concerning is that, in the main, people are not concerned. And those who have become trapped know that, in the main, people are not concerned. How do they know that?

There are only hints of that fact if you review aggregated statistics on how the government receives and spends tax dollars over the last few decades. For example, looking at federal, state, and local spending as a whole between 1980 and 2017 reveals the simple truth that health care and pension spending has squeezed practically all other priorities, including non-health care related spending for the poor. While we now spend about $.04 for every dollar of national income on health care programs for the poor, we only spend about $.02 for every dollar for all other forms of welfare – including SNAP and public housing programs as well as safety net programs like unemployment insurance.

Aggregated spending in the U.S. across local, state, and federal governments by category compared to GDP. Source:

A review of the amount of income tax paid by income levels does not show a severe contraction in the progressivity of the income tax code. People at both the top and bottom of the income spectrum pay a little less in taxes than they used to – for both cyclical and secular reasons.

How, then, can we say that they know that?

One clue might be in our education system, in which the gap between the education of rich and poor is growing wider, perpetuating already existing income inequality. Many teachers and other observers agree that some of the problems faced by public schools stem from declining parental involvement. It is tempting to lay the blame for this on declining morality or maturity among those now having children – of course, ironically, believing those facts would also mar the education system that raised them. About a quarter of all children are now born to single mothers. Those single mothers continue to earn about 78% of what their male counterparts do and if they are in a minority group, the gap grows wider still. African American women earn about 64% of African American men and Latina women earn 56% of their male counterparts. It may be true that it is the responsibility of parents to take an active role in their children’s lives, but it is not so easy when you are working multiple jobs, taking the bus to work and trying just to survive. For the first time, more than half of all children in public schools now receive free or reduced-price lunches from their school. The fact that the program is offered is some indication that there are people who care about these children, but the poverty they live in swamps the small concern.

The way we fund public schools also makes high-level spending comparisons impervious to analysis. Our public school districts are funded at the local level, mainly through property taxes. This means that children in rich and poor areas receive vastly different educational experiences. According to the Department of Education, high poverty areas spend about 16% less per child than other areas of the country.

And what happens to those children once they leave school? More than half of young black men attending urban schools do not graduate, and 60% of those students will be imprisoned at some point in their life. Still, about 80% of students overall do graduate from high school, but not all of those have a realistic chance at college. Part of the reason is that four years of public university now costs at least $40,000 and is $100,000 or more at a private institution. Student debt in the United States now far exceeds $1 trillion. Those who do graduate from college are finding that jobs to pay those debts are not so easy to find.

The Justice system also makes it plain who is and who is not cared for. Poor defendants are unable to meet bail or find themselves deeply in debt from fines and other expenses. With the rise of plea bargaining, many defendants have no choice but to plead guilty out of fear and then see their chances of future employment dwindle from collateral sanctions deriving from their plea. Of those that do plead guilty, a white defendant receives jail time about half the time, while it is 74% among blacks.

Outcome of plea bargains by race. Source: U.S. Justice Bureau.

Institutionalized animosity towards the poor and racial minorities also serves as a constant reminder for life is like for those whom the animosity is directed towards. If you are stopped by a police officer and you are white, you have about a 2% chance of being searched, but the odds rise to 7% if you are black or Hispanic. A study by the University of California also found that an unarmed black American has about a 3.5x chance of being shot by a police officer than if you were an unarmed white American.

Americans faith in selected institutions. Source: Gallup.

Coupled with these trends is the inevitable loss of faith in institutions by the average American. According to Gallup polling, only about 40% of respondents had either a “Great Deal” or “Quite a lot” of confidence in organized religion; 30% for public schools, 9% for Congress, and 18% for large businesses. Confidence in all of these institutions has been declining for some time.

A stunning 95% of Americans say that the world needs more meaningful love and 74% say that most people would take advantage of others if given the opportunity. In many ways, these results reinforce the reality that everyone is now on an island with only themselves to fall back upon – with no one having great expectations of others and no one believing in others success. Most people have no one to disappoint. That’s a problem. From school age children to adults, people live up to the expectations placed upon them. When we make struggle and poverty a fait accompli, more and more people become satisfied with it.

Robert Caro said something else fascinating in the same documentary that contained the quote giving this essay its title:

“In the 1930s, Robert Moses built 255 new playgrounds in New York City. He built 2 in areas for black children. White children were given sliding boards and swings and beautiful wading pools. Black children could still play with their broomsticks in the street if they wanted to play baseball or splash through the fire hydrants. People know if a city cares for them or not. A playground is a lot more than just a playground…It’s a sign that the city cares, that it’s willing to invest something in your neighborhood. What did the mothers in Harlem think when there was no place for their children to play?”

Indeed, people still are fully aware of whether or not others care for them. The psychological ramifications of understanding that they do not can be every bit as harmful as the tangible loss of assistance. We went through a period of time when large swaths of people in urban areas were made painfully aware that they were not cared for. We have been living in a time more recently when that same message is being delivered to countless of Americans of various ethnic backgrounds.

All too often, policy makers see the world and the country the same way urban planners in New York saw the city – as dehumanized, as a flow chart, as part of a system and not as a home to the people living there.

Unlike during the decay of cities, a flight out of the area means that tax revenues of the country will not be crippled like they were for cities. But, that should not forgive complacency. By distancing ourselves from each other and from those needing help we cost ourselves something more precious: the potential talents, contributions, and innovations of a vast portion of our population.

[1] Why this happened is less important to this particular story than that it happened. But the “why” is no less fascinating. By shifting the route of the expressway slightly, Moses could have prevented the destruction of the East Tremont neighborhood. Two explanations for why Moses would not consider the alternate route are that it would result in the destruction of the Third Avenue Transit depot, which the Third Avenue Transit Company objected to, and that Bronx Borough President Jimmy Lyons owned property along the alternate route. Deputy Mayor Henry Epstein voiced his concerns about the route, but Moses quieted him by threating to expose an affair he was having.


Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: