Since the beginnings of civilization, cities have been crucibles of progress both for societies and individuals. A great city, wrote Rene Descartes in the seventeenth century, represented “an inventory of the possible,” a place where people could create their own futures and lift up their families.
What characterized great cities such as Amsterdam—and, later, places such as London, New York , Chicago, and Tokyo—was the size of their property-owning middle class. This was a class whose roots, for the most part, lay in the peasantry or artisan class, and later among industrial workers. Their ascension into the ranks of the bourgeoisie, petit or haute, epitomized the opportunities for social advancement created uniquely by cities.
In the twenty-first century—the first in which the majority of people will live in cities—this unique link between urbanism and upward mobility is under threat. Urban boosters still maintain that big cities remain unique centers for social uplift, but evidence suggests this is increasingly no longer the case.
This process reflects a shift in economic and social realities over the past few decades. For example, according to a recent, New York and Los Angeles have, among all U.S. cities, the smallest share of middle-income neighborhoods. In 1980, Manhattan ranked 17th among the nation’s counties for social inequality; by 2007 it ranked first, with the top fifth earning 52 times that of the lowest fifth, a disparity roughly comparable to that of Namibia.
President Obama’s hometown of Chicago shows much the same pattern, according to a recent survey by Crain’s Chicago Business. Conditions have improved for a relative handful of neighborhoods close to the highly globalized central businesses. But for many neighborhoods things have not improved, and in some cases have deteriorated. Even before the recession there were fewer jobs than in 1989 and fewer opportunities for the middle class, many of whom—including more than 100,000 African-Americans—have left the city over the past decade.
This pattern does not reflect perverse conditions unique to the United States, as many academics and progressive pundits often suggest. Between 1970 and 2001, the percentage of middle-income neighborhoods in Toronto dropped from two-thirds to one-third, while poor districts had more than doubled to 41 percent. According to the University of Toronto, by 2020, middle-class neighborhoods could account for barely less than 10 percent of the population, with the balance made up of both affluent and poor residents.
Similarly, Tokyo, once widely seen as an exemplar of egalitarianism, is transforming. The city’s post–World War II boom yielded a thriving middle class and remarkable social mobility. That is now giving way to a society where wealth is increasingly concentrated. The poverty rate, including some 15,000 homeless people, has risen steadily to the highest level in decades.
Much the same process can be seen in great social democratic havens of Europe. In Berlin, Germany’s largest city, unemployment has remained far higher than the national average, with rates at around 15 percent. Some 36 percent of children are poor; many of them are from other countries. The city, notes one left-wing activist, has emerged as “the capital of poverty and the working poor in Germany.”
To a large extent, urban poverty in Berlin and other European megacities is concentrated among Muslim immigrants. Muslims constitute at least 25 percent of the population of Marseilles and Rotterdam, 20 percent of Malmo, 15 percent of Birmingham, and 10 percent or more of London, Paris, and Copenhagen. Over the next few decades, according to a recent Pew Research Center study, Muslims will constitute a majority of the population in several of these European cities.
The Case of London
Perhaps nowhere is the growing class divide more evident than in London, perhaps the world’s most important megacity. Despite a massive expansion of Britain’s huge welfare state, the ladder for upward mobility seems broken, especially in London. This represents a dramatic shift from the period after World War II. In the ensuing decades, incomes for most Londoners grew, access to education expanded, and the sharply drawn and notorious class lines began to blur.
But contemporary London’s emergence as the headquarters of globalization has had widely differentiated impacts on class. On the one hand, it has paced the emergence of the West End. Many once hardscrabble neighborhoods—including Shoreditch, Islington, and Putney—have gentrified. Yet walk a bare half mile or less from the Thames River, particularly to the south, and you encounter many marginal, and often dismal, districts. These areas have not much benefited from the global economy and are inhabited largely by those who survive at the expanding bottom of the wage profile.
Equally troubling, globalization’s benefits have disproportionately accrued to those already possessing considerable means; the ranks of top professionals, according to a 2009 report by the British government’s social mobility task force, have been increasingly dominated by the children of the wealthiest families.
Even less noted has been London’s deepening concentration of poverty. Today more than one-third of the children in inner London are living in poverty, as are one in five in the outer ring communities. London has the highest incidence of child poverty in Great Britain, even more than the beleaguered Northeast.
Poverty also affects 30 percent of working-age adults, more than one-third of pensioners in inner London, and roughly one in five in outer London. The inner London rates are the worst in Britain. More than 1 million Londoners were on public support in 2002. These figures are certain to become worse as a result of the recession that began in 2008.
The conditions are certainly not as extreme as those recorded in Friedrich Engels’s searing 1844 tome, The Condition of the Working Class in England, but there remains a macabre relationship between mortality and geography. Steve Norris, a former Conservative Party chairman and onetime head of London Transport, notes that public health data published by the King's Fund demonstrates that life expectancy in the poorer parts of east London is 4.5 years lower than in West London. That's six months for every station east of Waterloo on the Jubilee Line. This poverty, Norris adds, extends to many white Londoners. They often live cheek to jowl with immigrants, and feel themselves competing for housing, jobs, and government services. The rich, Norris adds, “Buy their way out of poor quality education and healthcare” while the working and middle classes “queue for public housing for themselves and their children.”
Of note is the rise of the phenomena among the white working class described as “yobbism.” Large parts of Britain—including less fashionable corners of London—suffer among the highest rates of alcohol consumption in the advanced industrial world. London School of Economics scholar Dick Hobbs, who grew up in a hardscrabble section of east London, traces this largely to the decline of the blue-collar economy in London. Over the past decade, job gains in Britain, like those in the United States, have been concentrated at the top and bottom of the wage profile. The growth in real earnings for blue-collar professions—in industry, warehousing, and construction—generally has lagged those of white-collar workers.
One other thing is clear: the welfare state has not reversed the growing class divide. Despite its proletarian roots, New Labour, as London Mayor Boris Johnson acidly notes, has presided over what has become the most socially immobile society in Europe.
The Role of Housing and ‘the Green Factor’
Housing costs have exacerbated these conditions. Due largely to restrictions on new housing on the periphery, London now ranks, next to Vancouver, as the most expensive city to buy a house in the English-speaking world. Estimates by the Centre for Social Justice finds that unaffordability for first-time buyers doubled between 1997 and 2007. This has led to a surge in waiting lists for government-funded “social housing”; by mid-2008, some 2 million households (5 million people) were on the waiting list for such housing. In London, this number reached one in ten in 2008.
Broad-based economic growth might seem the most logical solution to this dilemma. In the past, socialists, liberals, and conservatives might vigorously have debated various approaches, but generally agreed about the desired end result: shrinking slums and expanding opportunity for the middle or working class. Today, however, many urban “progressives” do not trouble themselves overmuch about the hoi polloi. Instead, they are more likely to devise policies to lure the much-ballyhooed “creative class” of well-educated, often childless, high-end workers to their cities. This goes along as well with an increased focus on aesthetic and “green” issues.
In many ways, these approaches actually work at cross-purposes with upward mobility. Green-oriented policies are often hostile to “carbon intensive” industries such as manufacturing, warehousing, or construction that employ middle-income workers. Green policies implicitly tilt towards industries such as media, entertainment, and finance that employ the best-situated social classes.
Indeed, some climate change enthusiasts, such as The Guardian’s George Monbiot, see their cause in quasi-religious terms. In Monbiot’s words, he is waging “a battle to redefine humanity.” In his view, we must terminate the economic “age of heroism,” supplanting the “expanders” with anti-growth “restrainers.”
This is not just the latest edition of British “loony Left” thinking. President Obama’s own science advisor, John Holdren, long has embraced the notion of what he calls “de-development” of Western economies to a lower level of affluence. Such approaches impose enormous costs on both the middle and working classes in European and North American cities, particularly given the unlikelihood of similar restrictions on competitors in China, India, Russia, and other countries. A huge shift to renewable fuels, for example, could quadruple the cost of energy in Britain, forcing a large percentage of the population into “fuel poverty.”
Key Focus: Economic Growth
The emerging class conflict in the great global cities ultimately could have many ill effects. Persistently high unemployment and underemployment in British metropolitan areas, for example, has spurred nativist sentiment and intolerance towards immigrants. This is true in America today as well. But views towards immigrants generally soften as an economy improves. Broad-based prosperity is a good antidote for intolerance.
Attacking the class gap requires a redefinition of current views about the overused term “sustainability.” This concept needs to be expanded beyond its conventional environmental definition to reflect broader social and economic values as well. It is one thing to consider how, in an era dominated by dispersed work, core cities might still attract those elite workers needing direct “face-to-face contact.” It is quite another to develop strategies so that the vast majority will be able to find work doing anything other than servicing the needs of the upper echelons.
In turning away from the fundamental issues of economic growth and upward mobility, these cities are in danger of permanently undermining the very thing that has made great cities so attractive over the centuries. The ultimate worth of urbanity lies in its ability to deliver a better life, not only to the established affluent and the most skilled, but to that broader population who, like others over the millennia, come to a big city to create a better life.
This article originally appeared at The American.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.