Last week on this page, Anthony Downs argued that drivers, not development, were to blame for traffic congestion. Today he discusses another aspect of local growth.
The controversy over development in the Washington area -- a controversy between residents and real-estate developers -- largely ignores a deeper issue connected with it: continued exclusion of the poor from the suburbs and thus from nearly all the benefits of suburban growth.
The way this metropolitan area and most others are structured prevents low-income residents from gaining access to the jobs, better schools and better residential environments of the suburbs. Such exclusion does not seem to be the deliberate result of any particular policy, but rather the result of a combination of local zoning rules and market forces that cause high land costs. Big subsidies would be required to make housing in most of Arlington, Fairfax and Montgomery counties affordable to low- and moderate-income households.
As a result, large subregions of the Washington metropolitan area are inaccessible to households with low and moderate incomes. This has created an acute shortage of workers for relatively low-wage jobs in these regions, and the shortage will get worse because of the smaller number of young people now growing up and because of the new immigration laws.
Suburbanites themselves cannot effectively open their borders to low-income households -- even if they wanted to -- without major housing subsidies. Such subsidies must be financed by the federal government. Only the federal government can tax nonpoor residents to aid the poor without driving many nonpoor residents beyond its boundaries to escape such taxation. Yet the Reagan administration has been trying to shift the financing of such resource-redistributive activities from federal to state or local levels. In effect, its policy is to cut those activities way back.
America has always been a land in which newcomers invaded the established territories of others. And we have profited immensely more by accommodating newcomers and the changes they bring than by shutting them out. The desire of the last-arriving suburban family to leave the local environment unchanged may be natural, but we should resist it.
There is no political force behind calls for a "balanced" society in the suburbs. The nonpoor majority has rigged the game so that the poor are not represented there. Hence they cannot vote against their own exclusion. I do not see much likelihood of this unjust situation's changing until nonpoor suburbanites suffer an intense shortage of unskilled labor that costs them much more dearly than it does now -- if then.
Until federal subsidies for low-income housing are again increased to a more reasonable scale, not much progress can be made toward opening suburban economic and other opportunities to most low-income households in this area.
-- Anthony Downs is an economist with the Brookings Institution. These remarks are adapted from a speech last month to the Greater Washington Research Center.