28 May 2021

Social, Political and Legal Barriers To Progress

Frequently, our society fails to achieve the progress it is technologically capable of providing for social, political and legal reasons. Often social issues drive political action or inaction, which in turn, creates legal barriers. Most often, the social issues are driven by fear.

The Case Of Affordable Housing

For example, the reason that affordable housing is scarce is not because we don't know how to build adequate housing for modest prices. In fact, a wide array of ways to do so are widely known. Instead, affordable housing is scarce is due to NIMBY (not in my back yard) political pressure at the local government level that officials at higher levels of government have chosen not to address. This is usually effectuated through land use regulations such as zoning and building codes, subdivision limitations, and similar municipal ordinances.

Affordable housing triggers a NIMBY response primarily because existing residents of neighborhoods don't want people who can only afford "affordable housing" living near them. In other words, people oppose affordable housing because they fear poor people. It is the poor people, and especially, concentrations of poor people, that they feel will make their neighborhoods less desirable places to live. 

Also, property owners believe that if their neighborhood is less desirable, because it has more poor people in it, that the value of their property will decline, causing them economic harm. And, property owners who reside in a neighborhood at risk of become less desirable are disproportionately wealthy and disproportionately capable of mobilizing local government political action in local governments, compared to the hypothetical people who would move to the neighborhood if affordable housing were built there, for whom real estate developers are the main political proxy. But, real estate developers can often be encouraged to focus on new luxury housing that does not prompt a NIMBY reaction, in lieu of affordable housing with fairly modest tweaks to land use regulations and the hassles that can arise in both the short and long terms when there is community opposition to development.

The fears are often greatly exaggerated and are frequently fueled by socially shunned rationales, like racism and xenophobia. But they aren't entirely baseless either.

People who seek to live in affordable housing, almost by definition, have average or below average incomes. 

When a neighborhood has more lower income people, especially when concentrated in an income segregated community, rather than blended in with more affluent neighbors, the neighborhood tends to have homes that are less well maintained, more unruly behavior, less respect for minor social norms like picking up dog poop and not littering, more rudeness in the community, more crime, more gang activity, more domestic violence, and more child abuse and neglect.

Most of these impacts of lower income residents also drive up the cost of taxpayer provided services in the neighborhood that must be paid for, in part, with local tax dollars that disproportionately paid by higher income residents (even when local taxes are regressive) who don't directly utilize the services that those tax dollars finance.

Lower income people are disproportionately black, Hispanic, low skilled immigrants, or "white trash" (i.e. culturally Appalachian and/or poor Southern and/or poor rural in their origins). They are disproportionately less educated. They are disproportionately single parents and unstable cohabiting couple who have some children who aren't shared by both parents. 

Higher income people are disproportionately, Anglo whites with urban and "Yankee" origins, or are East Asian or South Asian, and/or are highly skilled immigrants. They are disproportionately more educated. They are disproportionately stable married couples who if they have children have only children shared by both members of the couple.

When a neighborhood has a mix of lower income people and higher income people, especially when there are stark demographic differences between them, members of these two communities often don't share the same social norms and priorities in ways that manifest in the community from parenting practices displayed in public to ideas about how it is appropriate to behave at home when one is home and how to maintain one's home and how to interact with neighbors.

Another factor that adds potency to opposition to affordable housing, where this factor is present, is that most U.S. jurisdictions determine which public schools that a school aged child may attend from of charge at taxpayer expense based upon where a child lives. Rightly or wrongly, parents and community members routinely evaluate school quality by the absolute academic performance level of the children at a school (rather than "value added"). The best and predominant predictor of the absolute academic performance level of children at a school is the socioeconomic status of the parents of the children at the school. So, when affordable housing allows less affluent people to move into a neighborhood, this is perceived as reducing the quality of the local schools, which also makes the neighborhood less desirable. Further, rightly or wrongly, many parents fear that exposure to children who are culturally different from their own children will be a "bad influence" on their children.

When these socio-economic and cultural divisions are absent, neighbors are often unconcerned about housing that they would normally oppose.

Colleges routinely house students in dorms that have very high residential density and don't provide residents with even their own bathrooms or kitchens. Military bases routinely house soldiers in barracks that have the same character. But neither kind of housing generates the same kind of opposition in neighboring communities.

Neighbors rarely mind "granny flats" (a.k.a. "accessory dwelling units) that are actually used to house the parents of the residents of a primary home, or are used to house older children of the residents of a primary home, or are used to house household servants of the residents of a primary home, likewise, rarely generate community opposition.

The main reason that there exists a class of "senior housing" restricted to older residents, which is almost always relatively high in residential density and is often relatively affordable, is the neighbors don't fear elderly neighbors who need someplace affordable to live as much as they fear younger people and families who need an affordable place to live. Elderly people are perceived (mostly accurately) to be unlikely to be significant sources of crime, unruly behavior, gang activity, troubling parenting practices in public display, incivility, and neglectfulness in maintaining their homes.

The Case of Transit

These issues discourage the level of residential density that create an environment that is favorable for transit, and for communities that are geographically compact enough to make getting around by walking and bicycling very viable for a large share of daily trips.

In addition to the indirect effects that socially driven barriers to high residential density and affordable housing create, similar factors also directly discourage well functioning transit systems.

In the United States, with just a handful of exceptions, such as resort communities, some college towns, and extremely dense large central cities (mostly in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest), municipal bus systems are predominantly used by people too poor to be able to afford to have a car of their own, by people whose illegal conduct has caused their driver's licenses to be revoked, and by low to middle income disabled people who can't drive.

One of the main barriers to increasing municipal bus ridership by people who have other options is the fear of incivility, unruliness, and crime from fellow riders. Prospective riders also disinclined to mingle with riders who they observe are often so ill kept that they are smelly because they haven't had the ability to shower or wash their clothes, beg of money, or otherwise simply make them uncomfortable to be around.

But unless one can overcome a tipping point caused by these barriers, the fact that only those people who absolutely must take the bus do so, means that the frequency of service is lower, especially in communities where fewer people have no choice but to take the bus, and that the ridership per bus that does arrive, especially in these more affluent communities, is often much lower. But the resulting low frequency of service makes taking the bus a slower and less viable alternative to driving, and the low utilization level makes the subsidy per passenger mile higher, increasing the tax burden created by the bus service and generating political opposition from the more affluent people who provide the taxes that pay for these subsidies.

This happens, to a lesser degree, in intercity buses, which people avoid in favor of trains and planes and driving when they can.

The very same people who are loathe to take city buses, have no problem at all traveling by a chartered tour bus, or a school bus to a sports event or field trip, or to sending their children on a school bus to school. The issues are not technological, they are social.

Similarly, Israelis continued to make heavy use of buses even when suicide bombing tactics were common. Europeans, Latin Americans and the Japanese, all of whom mostly have systems that have surpassed a tipping point that prevents their systems from falling into a vicious cycle, make much heavier use of municipal buses and fixed route transit systems.


I'll address solutions and ways to address social, political and legal barriers to progress in a follow up post to this one.


Dave Barnes said...

Mass transit is doomed.
Autonomous cars will kill it.
It will be cheaper to give transportation vouchers to poor people than to provide semi-empty buses.
RTD will shut down by 2070.

Guy said...

Hi Andrew, The key factor in most of this sorting is violent crime. Most middle class folks with families will not tolerate a neighborhood with a high crime rate. Not absolute crime rate, but relative to the crime rate they could experience if they moved. Until the crime rates for the various classes and ancestral groups converge people that can, will vote with their feet. The convergence is happening, but it's still a while off... (decades?).

andrew said...


I don't think that you are correct.

I think that high frequency, much less serious interaction and fears are much more important than violent crime rates.

Also, the important factors are mostly perceptions and not realities. A perception of disorder or foreignness vastly overwhelms any actual data about what rates of serious crime actually are in reality. Unjustified fear with no basis in fact overwhelms reality most of the time. People will put up with higher high rates of violence if they don't feel culturally disconnected from the offenders, even when they could easily relocate to safer environs.


Convergence is happening, but the convergence that matters is the blurring of cultural boundaries and perceptions of commonality on insider v. outsider dimensions, and not convergence in actual levels of any kind of particular serious criminal activity.

Cultural distinctions are surprisingly persistent over time and don't erode very much with merely a shared political system over a long period of time. When convergence happens it happens for specific causal reasons and not just out of generalized erosion of differences.

The county level Presidential election maps in the 1870s and in the 1970s lined up almost identically on conservative-liberal lines except in newly settled areas, and the relative political and cultural leanings of states at the state level on this dimension in the original thirteen states have changed very little from the time that the U.S. Constitution was drafted to today. Historians have traced many of these divides back to cultural divisions that predate colonial era migrations to North America.

This isn't a case of American exceptionalism either.

For example, the ethnic and cultural tensions between the Paekchong of Korea (an ethnic minority there) and the general population of native Koreans from roughly 1217 CE until the end of World War II. http://evoandproud.blogspot.com/2013/10/the-paekchong-of-korea.html

Similarly, the cultural divide between the ethnic group colloquially known as Gypsies in Europe and the rest of the European population has lasted at least 700 years. Jew-Gentile divides in Europe were similarly persistent.

Guy said...

Hi Andrew,

I don't think that convergence in culture is required. Here in Houston Asian ancestral groups and Hispanic cultural groups are accepted and in some cases respected in the general Euro population. And there has been a lot of recent change (last 50 years) in the acceptance of the non-Euro groups without them having to give up their distinct culture. Maybe more of a sense of everyone playing by the same top level rules.

WRT to the Roma I would conjecture a deliberate rejection of Euro culture as a method of preserving their unique identity. The Paekchong (thanx for pointing them out) seem to be a special case (aren't we all) or caste. Perhaps that lesson somehow corresponds to the 1000 different nations in India, however I'm not sure that India's circumstances translate well into 20th century USA.

The eventual end of the Troubles in North Ireland also corresponded with a convergence in income levels between the Catholics and Protestants. Implying the conflict was partially class based.

I think we all agree that cultural groups have a right to attempt to preserve their unique heritage via methods that don't overtly violate universal human rights. But we also expect that at the top level everyone plays by the same rules. And maybe those rules include support for law enforcement for violent crime and respect for contracts. And some variant of the Golden Rule. Maybe...


andrew said...

"I don't think that convergence in culture is required."

Whether or not it is required, I think we are seeing it, after a sustained period of comparative cultural stability.

It isn't a matter of being forced. It is a matter of the dominant, more northern, more urban, more cosmopolitan culture luring people away from a secondary, more southern, more rural, more traditional monoculture. The culture shift we are seeing tracks the same patterns you see in a bilingual society where speakers of one language are better off socioeconomically than another. One increases its share of the population and the other declines, defying top down efforts to the contrary for the most part.

But it is a generational process and moves at that pace. People don't change much culturally from age 25 to 85. The change happens because the old die and are replaced by the culturally distinct young, and at a local/regional level due to migration both international and internal.

Recent immigrant populations are assimilating into a melting pot as rapidly as any previous waves of immigrants did, and probably more so. The extent to which many 1.5 generation immigrants (i.e. immigrants who migrate to the U.S. as minors) and second generation immigrants (i.e. U.S. born children of immigrants) to the U.S. are predominantly assimilated is striking, and the departure from the rest of the native born population by the third generation (i.e. grandchildren of immigrants) is slight. Their foods, traditions, etc. are in turn assimilated into dominant general U.S. culture just as fast.

Millennial and Generation Z youths in the South and in rural areas ("red areas") are more environmentalist, more feminist, more secular, more economically liberal, and more LGBT+ tolerant than their parents and grandparents, and they aren't getting more conservative as they get older. Gen X is intermediate. As Boomers and their elders die off, it seems that we will see significant cultural drift in this population towards the Northern norm.

Interracial marriage rates are up. Country music is less different from rock music than it used to be. Declining fertility is concentrated among the less educated and less affluent. Appalachia continues to depopulate as does most of rural and small town America.

Elites at selective colleges who go onto run big businesses, tech startups, higher educational institutions, big non-profits, and to serve as senior government managers and professionals show the same trends but more more intensely. Military service, farming, mining, and religious institution employment, all of which are conservative bastions, is falling.