At the heart of today’s political gridlock is a sense of disconnect. Too many Americans feel disconnected from their government, their economy, and even their fellow citizens.
Gone is the collective bond that united us in war and in peace, the sense that we rise together and fall together. In its place is a deeply divided America.
We talk a lot about the partisan divide in this country, but we don’t talk enough about the geographic divide. The citizens who feel the greatest disconnect from collective institutions are often the ones who live farthest away from them.
The latest evidence of this fact comes from a new study by the Equality of Opportunity Project, a team that includes some of the most celebrated young economists in the country. They found that one of the greatest enemies of economic advancement was sprawl.
The more concentrated a city was, they discovered, the more likely its citizens were to climb the economic ladder. Conversely, the lower and middle classes had fewer opportunities to advance in cities that were more spread out.
The release of their findings just happened to coincide with the bankruptcy of Detroit, an episode that illustrated their point quite tragically. Detroit is one of the most spread out cities in America — and one of the most economically segregated. At its core, the average household earns an income that’s half of what suburbanites earn just outside the city’s borders.
This is yet another consequence of the extreme inequality that is rending this nation’s social fabric. Not only have the richest One Percent taken almost all of the income gains in the past thirty years, but they have isolated themselves in communities where they never have to see the pain of the 99 Percent they left behind. Walled up behind their iron gates, they become less and less aware of the struggles of the average American, until one day when the elites who run our country no longer know what our country even looks like anymore.
Nowhere is this disconnect more clear than Washington, D.C., which boasts six of the nation’s ten richest counties alongside one of its poorest cities. Our legislators never seem to notice that the people who need their help the most are in their own backyard.
The famous political scientist Robert D. Putnam made this case beautifully in a sad new essay about his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio. He talked of how stable and connected the community once was and how that all disintegrated when the manufacturing jobs disappeared. He marveled at how far his classmates had come and how different their experience was from the poor generation that followed them.
Port Clinton no longer lives as one community but two.
“In the last two decades,” writes Putnam, “just as the traditional economy of Port Clinton was collapsing, wealthy professionals from major cities in the Midwest have flocked to Port Clinton, building elaborate mansions in gated communities along Lake Erie and filling lagoons with their yachts. By 2011, the child poverty rate along the shore in upscale Catawba was only 1 percent, a fraction of the 51 percent rate only a few hundred yards inland.”
In this fractured world, it’s easy to see how the average American would feel abandoned — by the government, by the economy, even by their own fellow citizens — and why they would distrust anyone who asks them to bind together in common cause.
I know whereof I speak. This month marks my seventh anniversary of moving from the country to the city. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania and suburban Florida. Since then, I’ve lived in Philadelphia, New York, London, and Los Angeles. I’ve seen the world through two very different lenses, and I don’t blame the one for being suspicious of the other.
But we must overcome this disconnect if we are to rebuild these forgotten communities and resurrect our ailing economy. The more isolated we have become, the more we have all suffered. We must find ways to connect the rural and urban regions, whether through physical connections like high-speed rail or social connections like labor unions. We must work together, and that means we must put our trust where it has always done the most good: in each other.
This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.