John Edwards has a plan to “revitalize urban America.” It encompasses many important goals, like creating affordable housing, ending poverty, and reducing crime. But this agenda also belies a common conception, especially among liberals, that equates cities with poor minority people, that helping cities means helping the poor, and uses the language of charity rather than the language of a shared vision.
We should help the poor. But we should do so not just out of traditional “bleeding heart” pity, but because a diverse community is a stronger community for everyone, rich and poor. Edwards says that “the middle class is shrinking in many central cities,” yet doesn’t actually attack the problem of cities becoming more segregated into rich white neighborhoods and poor black ones as gentrification pushes long-time residents out. Gentrification is both good and bad at the same time, and cities should focus their policies toward encouraging people to move into the city while encouraging heterogeneous neighborhoods both ethnically and in income levels.
Edwards wants to improve city schools, which we need to do. The arguments in favor in his plan are all about making sure those poor black and Hispanic people have a better shot at opportunity. That’s important. But we also should improve schools so that the people who already have opportunities—the middle class—stay in cities rather than moving out to isolating suburbs in search of good public schools. Quality urban public education will create a healthier, more diverse community.
Edwards also wants to expand affordable housing, but only talks about housing in areas of extreme poverty. Again, that’s an extremely laudable and important goal. At the same time, affordable housing is a problem shared by people at all income levels. “Workforce rate” housing is also important, so people in traditional middle class jobs, like firefighters and teachers, can live in the communities they serve. We should talk about this problem in a way that brings people together to attack this common problem, rather than framing it as just a problem of the urban poor.
I know John Edwards has made poverty a central theme of his campaign. And the middle class already gets plenty of attention from politicians. But when politicians talk about the middle class, they often assume that the middle class means suburbanites (the classic “soccer moms”). A healthier America is one where the middle class, the poor and the rich, black, white, Hispanic and Asian, live together in walkable communities. All people will benefit from better city schools. Safer streets helps everyone. And affording good housing is a nearly universal challenge. Let’s work together to create better cities for everyone.