Three ways to overcome inequality

Inequality problems are easier to describe than inequality solutions. That’s in part because there are so many more problems than solutions, especially ones that have been successful enough to work at scale.

It follows that most books that address inequality focus mostly on problems, too. Problems are material for the main chapters; solutions are for the epilogue, if they appear at all. Even when authors do attempt to suggest solutions, they tend to get discarded or dismissed even by the most supportive readers. Case in point: Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.

This bracing history of American housing segregation is being celebrated by reviewers from the New York Times and Slate to The American Conservative. It’s the rare book that can unite such publications, and Rothstein’s has done it.

But the reviewers don’t have much to say about the book’s proposed solutions — even though they get a full chapter, not just an epilogue.

Solutions are hard to evaluate. They’re actually even hard to suggest, because they’re easily open to criticism as unrealistic, impossible. Most workable segregation and inequality solutions will be years, even decades in the making. But solutions are necessary, and the work of articulating them, thinking about and talking about them, and advocating for them is work ahead for anyone invested in addressing inequality.

So here are three of the solutions Rothstein recommends for our consideration. Note that Rothstein’s focus is not inequality in general, but in the way United States housing policies and practices created social and economic segregation, which in turn helped drive a lot of the inequality we see today. His proposed solutions therefore speak to overcoming that segregation:

1. Educate middle- and high-schoolers about the American history of segregation.

Rothstein looks at two American history textbooks widely used in schools today and finds that they contain virtually no mention of housing segregation. That’s a disgrace. The story of 20th century America cannot be told without accounting for how we developed our cities and suburbs, which includes how we forced people of color — especially African Americans—into segregated, subpar neighborhoods and limited their ability to purchase homes.

As Rothstein puts it, “If young people are not taught an accurate account of how we came to be segregated, their generation will have little chance of doing a better job of desegregating than the previous ones.”

2. Sell homes in formerly restricted areas to people of color for mid-20th century prices.

This one is more creative and more controversial. Rothstein suggests that the federal government could purchase “the next 15% of homes that come up for sale in formerly restricted neighborhoods and [sell] them back to African Americans for prices that their grandparents would have paid had they been allowed to do so” (adjusted for inflation).

Imagine what such a move would mean for, say, San Antonio’s Terrell Hills, a neighborhood where non-whites were prevented from owning or occupying homes before the late 1960s. The neighborhood remains 82% white today, in a city that is 27% white. A policy like this could result in a gradual trickle of currently vulnerable families into low-poverty neighborhoods.

3. Create policies that bring low-income housing into higher-income neighborhoods.

Notoriously, middle-to-high income neighborhoods have resisted the inclusion of subsidized housing. (See Melissa Stoeltje’s report on one such San Antonio neighborhood.) But recent studies suggest that moving low-income families into stable neighborhoods may be one of our most powerful antidotes to economic segregation and generational poverty.

Rothstein mentions a few ideas for moving low-income families into high-opportunity neighborhoods. He praises a State of Illinois policy that “extends a property tax reduction to landlords in low-poverty neighborhoods” who rent to families holding Section 8 vouchers. He also calls for the Department of the Treasury to “require states to distribute the Low-Income Housing Tax Credits to developers building in integrated high-opportunity neighborhoods.”

Rotstein mentions other ideas, too, including reworking the mortgage interest deduction, an entitlement that never manages to receive much scrutiny even though it’s one of the largest forms of housing assistance offered by the federal government. We ought to be debating that idea along with those above, and get more solutions-oriented in our approach to inequality.

Note: Rothstein rejects this phrase. The history he tells and the policies he suggests focus exclusively on African Americans since they were the primary target of racially restrictive housing policies in most of the country. I’m expanding my discussion here to include Hispanics because San Antonio’s exclusionary housing history strongly impacted Mexican Americans and Native Americans as well as African Americans.

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