How the Right Inverts Reality to Blame Obama for the Decay of the Suburbs
by Eric Miller, October 2012
A new book about suburbs in America is on the radar of talk radio host Rush Limbaugh. Just the title of Spreading the Wealth: How Obama is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities has left many scratching their heads. When I pointed out the book to Sustainable City News editor Rick Risemberg, his response was "The title touts the opposite of what really happens. I guess all those low-tax suburbanites must be building roads and freeways with bake-sale proceeds...."
History shows that from highway construction,to VA loans, the government made the suburbs possible through vast subsidies. These subsidies took investment away from the cities. Before the suburban subsidies began, transportation systems were largely private (streetcar companies). Today thanks to low-density suburban sprawl, neither highways nor regional transit systems can produce enough revenue to operate as enterprises.
The evidence is long-standing. Take a 1965 AP article in the Gettysburg Press that quotes Pennsylvania Senator Joseph S. Clark, who told the reporters that through FHA and highway programs the federal government has subsidized the flight of moderate and high-income families to the suburbs (and concentrated the very poor in cities).
Today, however, demographic and technological changes have made the suburbs less enticing. And disgruntled rightwingers have found someone to blame.
I do not own a copy of the book and have not read it. But a commentary published in Forbes by the book's author , Stanley Kurtz, says "President Obama's plans for a second-term include an initiative to systematically redistribute the wealth of America's suburbs to the cities."
My immediate take on this is Kurtz has taken note of a paradigm shift already in play, recognized that the desirability of suburbs is on the wane, recognized people there are being hurt by falling housing prices and stagnant markets, and bingo!, finds a window of opportunity to blame it on Obama.
What has Rush Limbaugh Been Saying?
On an October 4 call with Dan from Connecticut, Limbaugh said the President is upset people who live in the suburbs have the financial ability to leave the city and live in the 'burbs and "don't have to put up with the hellhole of the city as a residence."
Limbaugh continues "So he (Obama) doesn't want to build any more roads and bridges, 'cause he doesn't want any more people to be able to leave the cities. He wants everybody riding mass transit, when you get right down to it, or driving an old Volt for no further than 40 miles."
A Few Things to Keep In Mind
If government investment is increasing in cities, it's following the population. A recent census report found that in the largest cities of the most-populous metro areas, downtown is becoming a place not only to work but also to live. Between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, metro areas with five million or more people experienced double-digit population growth rates within their downtown areas (within a two-mile radius of their largest city's city hall), more than double the rate of these areas overall.
Suburban wealth is moving to the center city. No word on income, but the same report found the center cities are being filled by non-Hispanic whites, usually better-off than other groups. Looking at Washington D.C. in particular from 2000 to 2010, the analysis also found the non-Hispanic white share of the population declined by 10 or more percentage points in many tracts in the surrounding suburbs of Washington, D.C.
Poverty is growing in the suburbs. According to an October, 2011, New York Times article (one of many in the nation's newspapers on the topic), the number of poor in suburbs rose by more than half after 2000. Two-thirds of the new suburban poor were added from 2007 to 2010. This article pointed to Cleveland where 60 percent of the region's poor now live in suburbs. Nearly half of housing choice voucher recipients live in the suburbs.
Young Americans don't want cars. According to the New York Times, less than half of potential drivers age 19 or younger had a license in 2008, down from nearly two-thirds in 1998. The number of 20-to-24-year-olds with a license is also down. Currently, according to CNW research, adults between the ages of 21 and 34 buy just 27 percent of all new vehicles sold in America, down from 38 percent in 1985. (and I am pretty sure there are a lot more 21-34 year olds today than there were in 1985). These young Americans, known as Millennials, are more likely than past generations to live in an urban community where they can bike, walk and use public transit. If they can't afford that, the next best thing is a walkable suburb with a transit connection.
Limbaugh talks about people being able to afford to escape the city and live in the suburbs, but it's the city that has the most expensive real estate. Many New York neighborhoods cost $1200 per square foot. Only uber-exclusive suburbs like Palo Alto in California come close to that. Likewise a look at this map of Seattleshows the most expensive zip code is downtown.
There was a time when the move was outward; then minorities moving into the cities were blamed for a decline in housing values. Now the move is inward. We see evidence of it in studies, reports, the census, and a new interest in urban store development by major retail chains. There are many reasons for it, from household size, age and other demographic factors to high energy costs and technology.
It's clear that today more people want a walkable car-light or car-free environment. It's consumer preference despite suburban subsidies. In this sea change, some suburbs will suffer. The slow to adapt stand to lose housing value, and the blame game—the result of the subsidized suburban swindle—begins.
If you tune in to talk radio, you will know that that game is already underway.