A duplicitous, self-righteous double standard in the “burbs
Often arguments rest, not on biblical grounds, but realities constructed by everyday life outside concentrated areas of poverty, namely the ability of the non-poor to have taken the “opportunities” presented in their socio-economic system to develop wealth and prosperity. The poor in the cities only need to do the same. Equal opportunity, not equal distribution of wealth is just, they reason. But this is not a fair picture, for the so-called “opportunity” has had a history and an opportunity that has been largely absent from social-locations with the most concentrated poverty, a consequence that is more akin to the injustice described by the prophets than simply the results of a good Christian work ethic and the invisible hand of the market. The exurban non-poor benefit from histories and institutions that have developed in favor of the suburbs and, for the most part, at the expense of central-cities—for decades. The shift from urban to suburban came with an intentional redistribution of efforts and transactions ranging from Federal subsidies to government policies to perceptions of urban and non-urban life. The ability to enjoy prosperity today, especially in upwardly mobile exurbia, is built on socio-economic transactions that have contributed to the current socially constructed reality of many non-poor (not just a good work ethic).
Since the end of WWII, suburban development has been “celebrated,” while urban decline was often “explained away as inevitable.” The “industrial cities’ obsolescence” and the flourishing of the suburban way of life, for many, has been “a sign of progress” rather than “a national defect,” even necessary for continued economic growth. Young married couples were “confident enough of the future to flee apartments in the cities for homes with mortgages in the suburbs,” while at the same time “the industrial cities were undergoing precipitous decline.” Urban-centers, along with their infrastructures and economies, were failing and residents who could afford to do so left for the suburbs in great numbers. The industry clusters, particularly manufacturing that supported much of the urban population, closed and left for “more favorable locations.” Jobs left the central cities en mass and there was negligible workforce and corresponding educational development supportive of those who could not afford to leave. Urban-municipalities became overly burdened with a dwindling tax-base and an ever-increasing demand for services. The shift toward suburbia was not simply “an inevitable evolution or a historical accident,” but “the direct result of a number of policies that conspired powerfully to encourage urban dispersal,” which would create two almost alien segments of society, with two distinctively estranged realities (i.e., habits of everyday life).
The sociological pressures resulting from the end of WWII, the “released pent-up demand for starting families and buying consumer goods,” a housing shortage in the central cities, the availability of low-cost mortgages for new homes, the mortgage-interest tax credit, mass production techniques in the housing industry all contributed to a rapid expansion of the suburbs. The shift in regulatory policies for long-term-little-down mortgages, government subsidized development of major highways for access in and out of central-cities, the GI Bill (a government funded education/training program), and other Federal aid to the newer exurban regions made prosperity possible as we know it today. Zoning laws and affluent developers, not just the invisible hand of the market, protected the preferences of those with power. Furthermore, advertisers of home-related products, women’s magazines, the FHA, and bank officials all sought to make, as Robert A. Beauregard explains in When America Became Suburban, “the sharpest possible contrast between the private, comfortable, safe, and protected environment of the suburbs and the open, competitive, dangerous, and seductive world of the central city.”
The invisible hand had and continues to get help—sometimes through Federal, State, and municipal efforts; sometimes through creative marketing; sometimes through celebrity-trend makers; sometimes by politically empowered zoning codes. Growth and decline, expansion and contraction, growth in one area at the expense of another area—all unavoidable within a socio-economic system that prizes “progress,” supported by desire for upward-mobility (and, too often, greed), promote the ultimate goal of “the Suburban Way of Life.” It is an empirical fact, the system and its mediating institutions ignored its central-cities and promoted life in the “burbs” as the ultimate goal of prosperity, all for the gods of growth, progress, and the new.
*adapted from chapter 5 of my book, Wasted Evangelism: Social Action and the Church's Task of Evangelism
I am the author of Wasted Evangelism: Social Action and the Church's Task of Evangelism, a deep, exegetical read into the Gospel of Mark. All royalties from this book go to support our church planting ministry in the Hill community of New Haven, CT. The book and its e-formats can be found on Amazon, Barns'n Nobel, (and most other online book distributors) or through the publisher, Wipf & Stock directly.