Untroubled by Inequality

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Dana Goldstein writes about a new report naming DC the “third most unequal” city in America. Here, I think, we’ve come to the level of analysis at which it stops making sense to care about inequality or even poverty rates as such. DC could, after all, probably reduce its poverty rate by razing public housing, slashing public services, eliminating all jobs programs, and handing out bus tickets. That, though, wouldn’t solve anything in particular. Similarly, it would be easy enough to adjust tax policy in such a way as to induce all the rich people to move to Bethesda, thus reducing inequality but also wrecking the city’s tax base, eliminating many jobs, and ultimately leading to declining services and well-being for the poor.

Many Americans towns probably have a low poverty rate not because they’re doing something awesome to fight poverty, but just because they’re too expensive for poor people to live there.

The specific aspect of inequality in the District that should worry people is that our public schools perform poorly (much worse, even, than the average urban district — one of the very worst if not the worst big city in the country) which makes it an unattractive place for middle class families with children to live. Even so, given that school reform is hard it makes perfect sense for a troubled city (like DC 15 years ago) to focus first on the relatively easy task of turning itself into a place that’s appealing to a larger number of prosperous single people thus creating circumstances (more revenue, less crime) and then pivot to the more challenging problem of the school system. That seems to be about the point we’ve reached as a city, with Mayor Fenty’s campaign focused mostly on education-related promises and people seemingly enthusiastic about Michelle Rhee‘s efforts in tha regard, and that’s all to the good.

Still, while a country featuring a huge gap between haves and have-nots is probably a sign of bad national policy in my view, a city having such a gap tells us very little other than (a) some very poor people can afford to live there, and (b) some very rich people deem it a good place to live. It’s not clear that making either (a) or (b) cease to be the case would advance the cause of justice in any real way, and the prospects for a municipality trying to undertake wealth redistribution are very bad.