Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
A new report finds where post-1980 economic growth has been accompanied by inclusion of low-income residents and communities of color.
Heads up, cities: Economic growth does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with economic and racial inclusion.
That’s the finding of a new, in-depth analysis by the Urban Institute (UI) of the 274 largest cities in America. The report and accompanying data tool show how economic shifts in these cities since the 1980s have corresponded with “inclusion”—the ability of low-income residents and people of color to benefit from and contribute to the city’s economic gains.
To demonstrate that, the researchers first measured whether the city recovered its economic health between 1980 and 2013, a period that saw a series of downturns. Then, they looked at factors like income segregation, housing affordability, educational attainment, and job quality, that give a sense of the well-being of low-income residents. They also examined the disparities between white residents and communities of color with respect to such indicators. With all of this information in hand, the researchers set out to create separate rankings of the economic and racial inclusion in each city, as well as a combined snapshot of both.
One of their top-line findings: The ten cities faring the best on the inclusion metrics in 2013 were also flourishing economically. “There is a strong relationship between the economic health of a city and a city’s ability to support inclusion for its residents,” the authors write in the report.
In UI’s map, all the cities are represented as dots, with the bluer ones being more inclusive:
Fremont, California, tops the list of ten most inclusive cities in 2013, (many of which are in California). Clicking on the dot representing Fremont pulls up details of how it fared with respect to economic health (first image below), as well as on indicators of economic and racial inclusion over time (second and third image below, respectively):
If we were to leave it at that, it would seem like all cities needed to do to become more inclusive was to become wealthier. But other findings from the report challenge that notion. When the researchers zoomed in on the 41 cities where economic conditions had improved in this time period, they found that 23 were more inclusive overall, while 18 became less so. In other words, making the pie bigger didn’t guarantee everyone in the city a piece.
Plus, even where economic inclusion exists, it was not necessarily accompanied by racial inclusion. Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was 38th in terms of economic inclusion in 2013, for example, but at the very bottom of the list when it came to racial inclusion. Camden, New Jersey, was the opposite: in the 13th spot when it came to racial inclusion, but 271st when it came to economic inclusion. Overall, in 2013, more than half of the cities were very far apart on the two scales.
So what could we learn from the cities that were at the top? The end of the report focuses on the commonalities between four cities—Columbus, Ohio; Louisville, Kentucky; Lowell, Massachusetts; and Midland, Texas—all of which improved their racial and economic inclusion, as they recovered economically. One central theme throughout was that these cities appeared to emphasize racial and ethnic inclusion in their plans for economic development. Initiatives included bringing immigrant groups to the table, empowering local community organizations, and crafting education policies catering specifically to students of color. This approach appeared to promote a better economic future not just for the groups that had been historically disadvantaged, but for everyone in the city. (Previous research has shown that inclusive, diverse cities helps foster a better future for all residents.)
In a time of widening inequality, the findings of this report provide a roadmap for a deliberate effort to mitigate the forces that have created unequal communities. The authors conclude:
As this research illustrates, not all cities have made intentional progress, and, for some cities, economic conditions changed and prosperity was more widely shared. However, sustaining this progress toward more shared prosperity requires intentional effort, transparency, and policies.