Making it in America means never having to meet any poor people

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A brilliant story by David Scharfenberg in the Boston Globe recently addressed a subtle but growing issue for Boston and other cities around the country: the increasing segregation of poor and rich. Scharfenberg writes:

The surge in affluence in some areas and poverty in others has wiped out scores of mixed-income neighborhoods. In 1970, 7 in 10 families lived in these places. Now it’s just 4 in 10…

Blue- and white-collar families who once lived close enough to bump into each other in the aisles of the local hardware store or chat in the pews of the neighborhood church live in much more homogenous places now.

Low-income people can go an entire day without talking to someone who has a college degree or a job in a downtown office. And for the affluent, handing a credit card to the gas station attendant or grocery clerk may be their only weekend brush with blue-collar America.

This is an issue pretty much everywhere, as the article argues. That’s not surprising given that income inequality in this country by some measures is at its worst in nearly a century. It’s not just a matter of white and black; poor and rich just don’t live next to each other and interact the way they used to.

You don’t have to think very hard to imagine what type of impact this might have over time. In a recent post on this blog, I discussed how some economists see marriage trends significantly worsening inequality. Given that we tend to meet and marry only people of similar means and education, they argue, wealth and capital tends to get concentrated in families over time. That we are so spatially and geographically separated from one another ties this narrative together.

As you might guess, this issue is deeply personal for me. My wife and I are both from the Boston area, and recently moved back there after spending the first few years of married life in Connecticut. In the short time we were gone, property values in and around Boston seemed to have exploded. The city was becoming a hot destination, our real estate agent told us, with the biotech industry here booming, new construction changing the landscape of downtown, and Boston increasingly seen as hip and fashionable among young professionals.

We eventually got a house we liked: something with enough space and a yard, in a town with good schools, easily commutable to downtown. What came as a surprise after moving in was that our neighborhood was a lot more diverse than we expected, both ethnically and economically. On our block we’ve got both whites and blacks, both native born Americans and immigrants. Our next door neighbors include a dermatologist, an accountant, and a career social worker. To me, where we live seems like a rare vestige of class and race diversity in Boston, literally on the border between a town that is mostly white and rich, and another that is mostly poor and black.

But the funny thing about our neighborhood is that even people who have lived there for decades hadn’t actually met eachother, a fact we discovered once we went out and knocked on people’s doors to introduce ourselves. Even when we live near each other, it seems, we still don’t tend to mingle across racial, social, or economic lines.

The basic problem here isn’t just that different people aren’t meeting each other, I’d say. It’s that no one is meeting each other, at least not the way they used to. That may be because many of our social institutions have weakened or vanished altogether. From churches to bowling leagues, many of the activities and groups that so commonly tied neighbors together have lost prevalence in American society over the past generation. Meanwhile, the way we socialize has changed, with fewer people slowing down and taking a moment to actually meet in person. To use a stereotypically Boston example: donut shops used to be places where friends would meet to chat over a freshly baked donut and a coffee. But since I was a kid the institution of donut-shop-as-meeting-place has all but vanished, with most converting into pure takeout joints with little or no seating. It’s telling that one of Dunkin Donuts’ most prominent marketing images is now an illustration of people walking briskly with coffee in hand.

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The famed political scientist Robert Putnam — quoted in this particular Globe article, incidentally — calls this phenomenon “bowling alone”. I would call it the “Netflixification of America”, but the idea is the same. As a Baha’i friend of mine once explained during a discussion on why it was so hard to attract people to events, religious or otherwise: “People just don’t go to each other’s homes like they used to. They mostly just stay home.” Somewhere along the way we seem to have lost our tendency towards basic social interaction with those around us, and I sense that the dissolution of that cultural quality is playing an underappreciated role in many of the country’s burgeoning social problems.

As I wrote in the case of marriage and its effects on inequality, we too easily dismiss the way our social lives and individual choices impact society at large. Few people would disagree that the increasing segregation of rich and poor could have disastrous social consequences. But perhaps even fewer are ready to materially change their lives in an effort to push back against the trend. The first step is to recognize that it’s not supposed to be this way. In the words of Abdu’l-Baha: “The surface of the earth is one home; humanity is one family and household. Distinctions and boundaries are artificial, human.” We should not and can not let ourselves think that this is normal.

Regardless of who lives around us, we can all make an effort to make friends with people who are different. If you’re rich and well educated, this could be as simple as striking up a conversation with your dry cleaner, bus driver, or cleaning lady. From there, maybe even invite some of these people over to your house, go out for a movie, meet for a coffee, etc. In other words, start small. Who knows? You may end up with a friend that you never would have known otherwise, while making a small contribution towards repairing America’s frayed social fabric.

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