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Professor David Troutt: Fixing the Broken American Dream Demands Greater Interdependency

For many, the American dream includes not only the house with the white picket fence, but also excellent public schools, proximity to decent jobs, and good recreation and shopping opportunities in a diverse and stable middle-class community that itself is part of an economically vital region.

Troutt book

For numerous reasons, that dream, says David Dante Troutt, Professor of Law and Justice John J. Francis Scholar at Rutgers School of Law–Newark, is less feasible than it has ever been. In his new book, The Price of Paradise: The Costs of Inequality and a Vision for a More Equitable America (New York University Press, 2014), Troutt argues that many of the entrenched problems facing working and middle-class families – failing schools, high unemployment, disproportionate foreclosures – are a product of the “culture of localism” in legal decisions and public policies. The antidote, he believes, is a regional or metropolitan equity framework that recognizes the interdependent relationship among towns and cities.  

In field visits to cities such as Detroit, Houston, Oakland, New Orleans and their first-ring suburbs, Troutt heard from residents, caseworkers, and other professionals about what has been termed “the biosocial effects of segregated poverty.” Since at least the 1960s, he says, the premise behind every program designed to alleviate poverty has had in common “the fundamental separateness of poor people in place.” Metropolitan equity strategies that allow for the sharing of burdens and benefits on a more regional, less localized basis have a greater potential to expand opportunity for the next generation, Troutt argues. 

The Price of Paradise explores the legal, economic and cultural forces that contribute to the squeeze on the middle class, the increasing disparities in income and wealth, and environmentally unsustainable patterns of growth and consumption. In the final chapter, Troutt offers several general and specific approaches to remedying the problems he has highlighted.

Issues of race, poverty and inner-city economic development are the primary focal point of Troutt’s teaching, writing and scholarship. He is the author of both fiction and non-fiction, including most recently After the Storm: Black Intellectuals Explore the Meaning of Hurricane Katrina. A member of the Rutgers law faculty since 1995, he also serves as director of the Rutgers–Newark Center on Law in Metropolitan Equity (CLiME at www.clime.newark.rutgers.edu). 

Troutt discusses his work and latest book in the following Q&A:

What led you to leave corporate law and public interest practice to become a legal academic? 

I never intended to be either a corporate lawyer or a legal academic. The first happened out of serendipitous necessity, the latter from fortuitous practicality. I was going to be a civil rights lawyer. My debt load out of law school suggested otherwise. I returned to public interest advocacy for a year, then spent a few years in a pretty good corporate firm. I learned a lot, but knew I was there on loan. It introduced me to intellectual property law, which I love. By the mid-1990s, however, a career as a civil rights lawyer looked a lot different than it had when I entered law school. Eventually, it became clear to me that there were a lot of questions that needed a fresh work out—the nature of inequality, the role of traditional advocacy, interdisciplinary approaches, whether rights-based paradigms would lead anywhere, the conundrum of colorblindness. This is what turned me toward teaching and scholarship, the need to find a place to do that work.

We no longer live in a country where poverty and economic disadvantage are accurately defined by an “inner city.” Ours are truly metropolitan problems.

You have described yourself as “an urbanist law professor”? What do you mean by that? 

I probably wouldn’t use that term now for reasons that go to my deepening sense of how geography and marginalization work. However, it’s true to my essential nature as a son of Harlem. I really do love cities and urban dynamics. I love the edge and critical sensibility of urban life. I discovered a strong sense of place by living in and fighting for cities, which informs my place-based writing and advocacy today. Coming from an urbanist perspective, I embraced comparative approaches, which led me to suburban legal dynamics, which in turn coincided with more attention on regions. We no longer live in a country where poverty and economic disadvantage are accurately defined by an “inner city.” Ours are truly metropolitan problems.

Now, after 19 years of developing what I hope is a coherent approach to teaching about cities and suburbs, I will be moving on to other priorities at the law school. I will truly miss the classroom work, especially the committed students I’ve been fortunate to learn with. Yet I hope I will always be considered an urbanist at heart, tempered by change and the years but with that same edge and outlook.

In The Price of Paradise, you write that changing demographics are “turning segregation into a tax that more and more people and places can’t afford.” What are those demographic changes? 

These mainly reflect migration and fertility. The amazing reality is that ours is about to become a nonwhite nation—in 2011 a majority of all births went to nonwhite mothers. The parents of these babies are increasingly living regional lives, not inner-city, but suburban, exurban and urban lives. 

As more people of color cross traditional boundaries in search of opportunity, there are perceived housing market effects. Some places become increasingly diverse; some people flee for more homogeneous places. This latter group represents a long pattern of American segregation—both racial and economic. Segregation is expensive because it concentrates both wealth and resources. It was always a tax, but it’s becoming increasingly unaffordable for a greater number of Americans. With the realization of how wasteful sprawl is, the collapse of the housing bubble and with greater concern for a sustainable environment, people who promote segregation by fleeing residential diversity are running out of places to go. The behavior of these two groups—broadly speaking, those seeking opportunity yet bringing diversity, and those seeking homogeneity and maintaining privilege—reveals our long-contested patterns of residential organization.  

Localism is not all bad; it’s democratic self-determination, which is the soul of the republic. But it’s also the durable successor to Jim Crow, perhaps the unacknowledged part of the country’s civic personality.

At the heart of it all is the persistence of segregation. The difference now is that what used to benefit the segregated now drives up costs for everybody. As the metropolitan area becomes more important to economic opportunity in general, internalizing benefits and externalizing costs becomes a lot harder to do. That’s the new reality of interdependency, and it’s evident in more and more places. Those places are unprepared for it. This is a real test of American social inclusiveness and the extension of the dream of middle-class stability. We need new rules, because not only are many old ones not working, they are making matters worse.

You identify six common, incorrect, assumptions that control how residential communities are organized. Which one do you think has been the most damaging to the promise of the American dream?

The most damaging one is probably the one that’s most widely shared: The assumption that maintaining one’s middle-class status requires keeping the poor at a distance. Behind this assumption is the principle of exclusion. Behind exclusion is the notion of the Other. If the Other is perceived to threaten your gains, you can develop a pretty complicated system of keeping him out. That hurts him—repeatedly, as others also perceive him as Other and, therefore, excludable. He becomes the repository of other things you think hurt your prosperity—landfills, factories, jails. His surroundings become what I’ve called an “antimarket.” He’s trapped in this dangerous context. Meanwhile, you’re convinced of the self-won merits of your own paradise.

These are the seeds of legal localism, the race-neutral rules supporting local sovereignty and the power to exclude. Localism is not all bad; it’s democratic self-determination, which is the soul of the republic. But it’s also the durable successor to Jim Crow, perhaps the unacknowledged part of the country’s civic personality.  

What is worth imagining is what our society would look like if we hadn’t based the dream on this assumption. That is, what if we believed in the importance of living mixed lives, if, for instance, parents put a premium on their children learning in classrooms with an economic and racial balance among students there? If the Other, especially the poor Other, were not routinely marginalized but included in neighborhoods, workplaces and social settings, imagine how materially unimportant Otherness would be.

Is there one statutory reform that you believe would be most effective in reducing concentrated poverty?

Deconcentrating poverty is the single hardest feat. It most reminds us that there are all kinds of inequality, but inequality that results from inequitable laws and policies is the most problematic. 

Therefore, I’m persuaded that the most effective statutory reforms do three things to deconcentrate poverty. First, they facilitate and fund residential access and mobility; there are a number of initiatives that do this around the country by using vouchers or, as in New Jersey, fair share housing obligations. Second, they target areas of concentrated poverty with greater, more equitable resources. This is akin to the Obama administration’s “promise zones” or New Jersey’s Abbott districts—that is, a recognition that deeply disadvantaged areas carry a burden for all communities and deserve much greater public support. And third, they have to protect poor people from the displacing effects of redevelopment. Gentrification is a redevelopment success story until one counts its displacement costs for the priced-out poor. Legislation that preserves affordable options for poor families in redeveloping areas promotes just the kind of mixed-income environments we need to make normal.  

Beyond legislation, our lawmakers have to recognize that we all need each other’s success, especially that of the poorest among us. Policy that promotes the growth of institutional and personal resources is central to a fairer, more efficient social contract.