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David Troutt Explores the Geography of Poverty

David Troutt
David Dante Troutt

Geography is destiny, says Professor David Dante Troutt, and many working and even middle class American communities suffer from an inequity of place. These communities are burdened with high unemployment, failing schools, health challenges, disproportionate foreclosures, and outsized incarceration whose roots, he argues, can be traced to unresolved conflicts around race and class. In his forthcoming book, The Price of Paradise: The Costs of Inequality and a Vision for a More Equitable America (NYU Press, 2014), Troutt shows how our tendency to separate into enclaves in urban areas or to sprawl off on one’s own in the suburbs undermines the notion of America as a land of opportunity. He explores the legal, economic and cultural forces that contribute to the squeeze on the middle class, the dangers of growing income and wealth inequality, and environmentally unsustainable growth and consumption patterns.


In your scholarship and teaching, you have often addressed how racial and economic segregation has perpetuated poverty. How did this become the focus of your career?

Poverty – and especially persistent poverty – represents the core failures of a bountiful culture. Understanding poverty at a visceral, personal level revealed to me what a collection of deficits it is. It makes everything harder — illness, stress, loss, getting from here to there. With so much promise all around us, persistent poverty reminds us of how much better we have to become. So, I became dedicated pretty early to doing something about it. As my analysis grew richer, I focused more on the structural dynamics that produce and sustain persistent poverty. Segregation, as old as that term sounds, remains the linchpin to persistent poverty. Segregation is often the first step in creating structural marginalization. Legal analysis is particularly helpful in teaching us more about segregation and how to overcome it. I may not yet be hopeful, but I am optimistic.

Your forthcoming book discusses the concept of “mutuality.” Can you expand upon this?

Mutuality is a term I borrowed directly from the writing of Dr. King. He often preached about “the inescapable network of mutuality” that binds our fate as people. It turns out he was right about interdependency, and the results are increasingly visible at the municipal level. Despite decades of organizing our communities around parochial interests in which our laws help internalize the good and externalize the bad, the fiscal health of localities is increasingly dependent upon the health of others in the region. Inequality has very real and measurable costs. For instance, crime is expensive and paid for regionally; poor schools are more expensive than strong schools and are paid for regionally, as are the costs of diminished social capital and weaker labor markets. At a neighborhood or local level, these costs affect how much opportunity a given place can sustain for its residents, which in turn affects the capacity of households there to thrive. At a regional level, the costs indicate whether desired levels of growth and opportunity will sustain a broad middle class.  

This fundamental mutuality has been become more critical in light of rapid demographic changes. Most metro areas are now a majority minority; their rates of suburban poverty are now higher than urban poverty. Still they are primary job centers. This tells us that as we become a racial plurality, we will have much greater need to promote each other’s success. Our state and local laws, for instance, can be reformed to recognize our interdependent interests on a more equitable basis. Recognition of mutuality is overdue. Our rules are playing catch up.

In doing research for The Price of Paradise, you visited several major U.S. cities that, to varying extents, embody many of the stresses on urban America. Were you surprised by anything you found?

Yes, I was surprised by the extent of vigilance among some struggling places. A first-ring suburb like Trevose, PA has a lot to fear amid the current economy, but people there are tirelessly finding new ways to stay relevant and to grow. The same was true in Miami Gardens, FL, a working-class town made of people who felt Miami no longer offered them a future. I learned of unexpected resilience among Katrina survivors in Houston, too. It is important for people like me who research the laws of misery to get out and meet people who refuse to be miserable. Detroit, I have to say, is one of the country’s greatest challenges, but I would never quit on its people.

You’ve written extensively on Hurricane Katrina and its devastating effects on the poorest residents of New Orleans. In following superstorm Sandy, have you seen similar equity issues?

Yes and no, but the research is ongoing. Disasters are complicated things from an equity standpoint. They reveal huge inequities while promising rare opportunities to unwind past practices. Early on in New Orleans, we developed a pretty good sense of which questions to ask. Although we learned from that, we still have a ways to go with Sandy. The disparities may be almost as large yet they have not been laid as bare. The opportunity here may be two fold — to correct for the profound inequities that created so much vulnerability among Sandy’s victims, but also to reach some consensus among the public about just what to look for amid the rubble. The two might come together in a broader definition of “sustainability.” That term should mean as much about our social ecology as it does our physical environment.

You created a Center for Law and Metropolitan Equity at the law school. What is its mission and what type of projects will the Center undertake? 

It turns out that the work we’ve been doing for almost two decades in “Race, Class and Metropolitan Equity” (formerly “Inner-City Economic Development and Community Planning”) brings students a lot of hope about how to use the law. Rising inequality among places and households has only brought more student interest. The Center – or CLiME – allows a select group of fellows each year to go beyond the hard work they do in RCME and other classes and to engage in serious questions of clinical research on projects we design together. Some of these are our own – such as our current equity analysis of the Sandy recovery and whether it “affirmatively furthers fair housing,” or our examination of shared services agreements and municipal tax base relief — and grow out of our unique position in New Jersey. Others are inspired by work occurring in other parts of the country, like our analysis of the state of exclusionary zoning in New Jersey during the current legal impasse over the fair share doctrine.  

The point is to become a leading source of original analysis, serious student scholarship and collected interdisciplinary research on an emerging area of law and policy. We want to develop a national resource as issues of metropolitan equity gain national attention. We want to ask difficult questions and publish impressive work. We want to respect and incorporate the work of other disciplines while developing the lawyer’s role in metropolitan equity work. CLiME will provide a challenging learning opportunity for law students in the public’s interest. Perhaps our greatest strength is that, as lawyers, we do not shrink from our obligation to offer considered criticism and prescription on the basis of firm evidence. Some call this “praxis.” I think of it as doing social justice in the service of the social contract. We aim to re-define interest convergence.

Posted 6/5/13