In Praise of Beto O'Rourke

Can you imagine our excitement when Beto O’Rourke seemed to echo our call to create:

...cities that are smarter, denser, that have people living close to where they work and where their families are to reduce our impact on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions but also just to improve the quality of life in these built environments

He even stated he thought living close to work should be a right! Wow! We were excited to see someone taking on the same serious problems we see in America today. In particular, Beto described the importance of financial diversity in our communities, a topic of discussion and research on our blog again and again. 

But although he has outlined a crucial problem and suggested positive solutions like mixed income housing, it’s concerning that these suggested solutions cannot change the fate of low-income neighborhood communities on the whole. In fact, he mentioned the idea of trying to “force rich Americans” to live in certain places as if the American housing market could be controlled like assigned seating in a classroom. In reality, there are two ways to change the state of financial diversity and opportunity in our neighborhoods while allowing people to live closer to where they work. 

One option, he mentioned, is to create ways for low-income families to have spaces in more financiallsecure neighborhoods. But mixed income housing or programs like Move-to-Opportunity only create opportunity for a few people. As Economist, Raj Chetty, put it, “We cannot move everyone out of neighborhoods lacking in opportunity.” And there’s no guarantee we can force rich Americans to keep living near poorer Americans once poorer families begin to move in. Not to mention, subsidizing family relocation into high-priced neighborhoods is expensive.

Instead, this country needs a solution that improves the social and financial circumstances of more than just a lucky few. One way to accomplish this would be to incentivize living in low-income areas. There are already many government incentives that encourage investment in low-income communities in other ways: tax breaks for businesses who build in these areas, loan forgiveness for teachers and doctors that commit to working in these areas. 

But to date, there are no incentives that encourage well-off families to to live side-by-side with the poor. We can’t force them to, but let’s acknowledge that the world would be better if the doctors, teachers, and business owners were living in these lower-income communities, connecting with the population they serve. Wouldn’t it be better if they considered these areas with less of a “mission field” mindset and more an attitude of “loving their neighbors?”

Research often explains that to help families and children in low-income neighborhoods, we must make the communities more financially diverse to grow opportunity.  But what type of incentive would encourage financially-secure families to overlook crime, low property values, bad schools etc.? This piece suggests that if there were location-based scholarships available to families in low-income neighborhoods, more financially-secure families would be willing to live in low-income neighborhoods. Having the fallback if the assigned school was not a fit for their child would keep families from moving away from poor neighborhoods with failing schools. This type of incentive would have direct and indirect benefits for the original residents of low income communities.

  1. They too could attend the school that best fits their needs.

  2. They would gain all of the benefits that living in a more financially diverse neighborhood brings - lower crime, higher property values, stronger schools, more jobs in the area, more opportunity to experience social mobility, etc.

Why not create incentives that help people live closer to work and school AND that enhance opportunities for children in low income neighborhoods? Thanks Beto O’Rourke for reminding us that allowing people to live close to where they work and where they can spend more of their time with their families would be a step in the right direction for greener, thriving communities.