Class: The Unmentionable Topic

The recent brouhaha about Barack Obama calling small-town Americans “bitter” brings up an issue Americans rarely talk about: class. Unlike Britain, America does not have an inherited aristocracy, and we like to think we are economically mobile, so we don’t think about class.

Certainly, we use terms like upper class, middle class, and lower class, but these are strictly economically defined, and since (we tell ourselves) we are economically mobile, the labels do not permanently stamp anyone as one thing or another.

But there is another term we sometimes use: working class. Perhaps because of my egalitarian American upbringing, this term puzzled me when I first encountered it. Most families have at least one worker, so how is the working class distinguished from any other class? Are working-class incomes higher or lower than middle-class incomes?

There is a good reason for my puzzlement. Whereas working-class incomes were distinctly lower than middle-class incomes before, say, 1940, by the time I was growing up they were often pretty comparable. “Working class,” of course, refers to families of what are sometimes called blue-collar workers, while “middle class” refers to families of white collar workers. Other distinctions are that working-class workers earn wages while middle-class workers earn salaries and that working-class workers tend to have high school and technical school educations while nothing less than a college degree will do for the middle class.

Thanks to (depending on whose histories you believe) either unions, the increased worker productivities resulting from mass production, or both, by the 1970s many wage earners easily collected as much annual income as many salaried employees. What Obama was pointing out, and what Clinton and McCain pretend to ignore, is that the working class nevertheless has different values from the middle class. In many ways those values are so different that members of the two groups have a difficult time communicating.

Perhaps these value differences stem from the differences in education: for better or worse, college instills some broader, or at least different, outlook on life. Perhaps they are due to the differing job conditions: for the working class, working overtime means more money, while for the salary man it merely means the possibility of greater recognition within the organization. For the working class, a layoff may threaten permanent unemployment; for the middle class, it merely means putting the verbal and analytical skills that they learned in college to use in some other way.

In any case, the differences are real and they were closely observed by Herbert Gans when researching his great books, The Urban Villagers and The Levittowners. Gans lived for a year in a dense, working-class neighborhood in Boston and then for a year in a new Levitt-built suburb in New Jersey.

Gans put his observations to work in his brilliant review of Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities (published in Books in Review in 1961 and not available on line). Jacobs claimed that streets in dense areas like her Greenwich Village were “vibrant” because of the design of those neighborhoods. Gans, however, disagreed.

“The street life of these areas stems not so much from their physical characteristics as from the working-class structure of their inhabitants,” wrote Gans. “In this culture, the home is reserved for the family, so that much social life takes place outdoors. Also, children are not kept indoors as frequently as in the middle class, and since they are less closely supervised in their play, they too wind up in the streets.” These “vibrant streets” may attract “intellectuals, artists, and bohemian types” like Jane Jacobs, noted Gans, while other middle-class families may visit them as tourists.

But if members of the middle class liked to visit such neighborhoods, most did not want to live in them. “In middle-class neighborhoods, there is no street life, for all social activities take place inside the home, children play less often on the sidewalks, and the street is used only for transportation. Such neighborhoods look dull, notably to the visitor, and therefore they may seem to be less vital than their ethnic and bohemian counterparts. But visibility is not the only measure of vitality, and areas that are uninteresting to the visitor may be quite vital to the people who live in them.”

Gans expressed the fear that Jacobs’ book would lead planners to try to remake all cities into her urban villages, which is exactly what is now happening. “In proposing that cities be planned to stimulate an abundant street life, Mrs. Jacobs not only overestimates the power of planning in shaping behavior, but she in effect demands that middle-class people adopt working-class styles of family life, child rearing, and sociability,” continued Gans. “But middle-class people, especially those raising children, do not want working-class — or even bohemian — neighborhoods.”

Of course, even as Gans was writing, working-class families were rapidly moving to middle-class suburbs. According to planning historian Peter Hall, the resulting clash of cultures is at least partly responsible for the antisprawl movement.

Hall’s book, Cities of Tomorrow, shows that the first people to complain about the suburbs “were all upper-middle class and the offenders were mostly lower-middle class in a typical such suburb,” says Hall.

Hall quotes one critic complaining about “hordes of hikers cackling insanely in the woods, or singing raucous songs as they walk arm in arm at midnight down the quiet village street. There are people upon sea shores or upon river banks lying in every attitude of undress and inelegant squalor. . . . There are tents in meadows and girls in pyjamas dancing beside them to the strains of the gramophone, while stinking disorderly dumps of tins, bags, and cartons bear witness to the tide of invasion for weeks after it has ebbed.” This reminds me of Sierra Clubbers complaining about snowmobilers or off-road-vehicle users.

Hall’s critics were British, but Harvard historian John Stilgoe has traced similar roots to America’s antisprawl movement. In essence, the critics were saying, “We have enough esthetic taste to appreciate the countryside, while these newcomers do not.” The solution, according to one of the critics quoted by Hall, is “great new blocks of flats which will house a considerable part of the population” — a solution put into effect in Britain by the Town and Country Act of 1947, and which smart growth is attempting to put into effect in the U.S. today.

This raises an interesting conundrum. To keep working-class people out of the suburbs, today’s middle-class smart-growth advocates are designing the kind of neighborhoods that working-class families fled in the 1950s and ’60s. These New Urban neighborhoods are not attracting the working class but are proving attractive only to the bohemian (i.e., childless) middle class and people too poor to live anywhere else.

Which brings up a new class: the underclass families permanently stuck in the lower economic class. America is economically mobile, but mainly for people who have the education to earn a good income. That mobility is denied to many people, a high percentage of whom are black.

Forty years ago, black per-capita incomes were 57 percent of white incomes. Today it is still just 59 percent. The reasons for this relative immobility are beyond the scope of this column, but they aren’t going to be fixed by light-rail projects or mixed-use developments. Nor does it make more sense to put more barriers in the way of efforts by working-class or underclass families to join the middle class, which is exactly what smart growth does.

Smart growth can easily be interpreted as a white, middle-class program to keep its culture safe from working-class influences and black invasion. Make suburban housing too expensive for working-class and black families to live in. Build dense enclaves in the cities and people them with young whites not ready to settle down in the suburbs and blacks supported by the section 8 federal housing program. Force all but the wealthy out of their automobiles and onto rail transit lines that only go to selected areas during selected hours.

As writer Joseph Perkins said at the 2007 Preserving the American Dream conference (above), “smart growth is the new Jim Crow.” Whether intentionally or not, smart growth “is a way of insuring that the haves remain the haves and the have-nots remain the have-nots.” It reduces economic mobility and mobility between the working class and middle class and reduces the chances for blacks and other members of the underclass to get out of their cycles of poverty — all because of an exaggerated notion that urban design can shape behavior.

Planners, of course, are all pretty much in the middle class. They have middle-class values and are no less likely than other people to think that everyone thinks like them. Many of them are clueless about the impacts of their decisions on others, particularly people whose values are different from them. Since we don’t have open discussions about class, they end up oppressing other people without even realizing what they are doing. To the Antiplanner, this is just one more reason why government planning should be banned.


21 thoughts on “Class: The Unmentionable Topic

  1. msetty

    In expensive coastal cities–which would be expensive with or without the growth controls that Randal always complains about–large lot zoning also keeps out the middle class, or forces them to commute very long distances from places like San Joaquin County, Dutchess County, etc., if they are to have a chance at owning a house.

  2. D4P

    I hope the Antiplanner will join the effort to eliminate large minimum lot sizes and low maximum densities that combine to make housing unaffordable and to exclude the working class.

  3. prk166

    D4P —> Large lots do and they don’t. Where my parents live, @13 miles east downtown St. Paul their township had an ordinance for lots to a minimum of 5 acre lots. For years there were plenty of working class people buying lots and building their (Anderson Windows was nearby, among other manufacturers). Granted the working poor couldn’t afford it but land prices were low enough that it wasn’t a problem. And without much in the way of other restrictions they could build most anything on those lots (e.g. simple split level with an extra large over sized garage to park the semi-truck in; another example, my parents were able to do their own general contracting, their own electrical and plumbing). The lot sizes themselves weren’t an issue.

    Land prices have gone up as the metro has grown. But is it because of the large lot sizes? I would argue it’s a lack of available lots. It’s not easy to find lots around there that are undeveloped and that aren’t owned by a developer (it’s near an interstate). You have to go a lot further north, south or go into Wisconsin to find lots like that.

    As for maximum densities, I’m with D4P. I’d like to see those lifted. In my neighborhood a developer had proposed a 20 story building. It would’ve been near downtown (less than a mile), would’ve fit in with the area (next to Denver Health & other large buildings; golden triangle) and would’ve been near plenty of transit. That was fought tooth and nail. At the other end of the neighborhood on a lot that would make it the closet residential building to the Alameda LRT stop, again some developers had their project opposed by people as being too large and too dense. The same is happening on the part of the Gates Rubber factory site next to the Pearl St. LRT station. Why? Those are perfect places for that level of density & yet it’s being fought. Funny thing is they’re being fought by people who, at least from my encounters, tend to espouse the evils of surburbia and sprawl.

  4. Lorianne

    These New Urban neighborhoods are not attracting the working class but are proving attractive only to the bohemian (i.e., childless) middle class and people too poor to live anywhere else.

    Huh? New Urban Neighborhoods are expensive. Poor people can’t afford to live there. They are even a stretch for middle class people. You have to have some $$$$ to live in a New Urbanist neighborhood. Which means they are a market choice of the well-off.

    I agree there are class distinctions in housing. But this has always been true due to the market.

    More and more, people who have the $$$ are choosing New Urban type developments, either new or existing “close-in” Traditional Neighborhoods that are being gentrified apace.

    Look no further than Portland, Oregon. The “close-in” Traditional Neighborhoods are very expensive. The prices have escalated exponentially in these neighborhoods in the past 10-15 years … and still going up.

    The same thing is happening all over. These are not places poor people or middle class people can afford. The market has sorted that out.

  5. foxmarks

    Wonderful post. Thank you.

    This expression– “…no less likely than other people to think that everyone thinks like them. Many of them are clueless about the impacts of their decisions on others, particularly people whose values are different from them.” seems to capture the essential shortcoming of all government and public policy.

    Despite the current fetishization of diversity, those elected (and those appointed by the elected) are nearly all of the same stripe. Policy is driven by a desire to help some abstraction of some group of “others”. The poor, the taxpayers, the unborn, joe sixpack, the latinos, whoever. The real people under these abstractions, who likely have a significantly different appreciation of their own needs and preferences have no voice of their own. Justice cannot be achieved by telling people who they are and what is best for them.

  6. Ettinger

    Initially many of these high density projects are more vibrant, than they would otherwise be, because of the heavy subsidies that they receive. However, with time, the continuous perpetual subsidies that are needed to maintain this distortion of people’s preferences and artificial economic realities becomes unsustainable, and then, these projects start to deteriorate.

    This has been the fate of the majority of such projects that were built in Europe in the post 50’s through 70’s. Initially rather vibrant new projects that soon deteriorated into places where only people with limited choices would live. The changing preferences of Europeans (starting in the 80’s) who themselves also revolted against high density living and moved to the suburbs, also accelerated the decline of the high density projects.

    Now, some high density projects have admittedly succeeded. But that is not because these projects have done something right which other high density projects have not. It is simply because a market for such living conditions does exist but it is much smaller than what planners, environmentalists and other groups with affinity to totalitarian societal design would have you believe. Therefore, there is not enough demand to fill all the high density projects that were built.

    Ever tried to haul a couple of children on mass transit? My European friends and relatives overwhelmingly move their children in automobiles as opposed to mass transit even in those cases where the auto trip is longer. If you rode mass transit in Europe you would think that only 2% of the population has children. Very few people take their children on mass transit.

    It is also my belief that high density mass transit living is largely responsible for the low European birth rate. It is quite difficult to raise children in that environment.

  7. TexanOkie

    At CNU XVI in Austin, one of the concurrent sessions was titled “The Option of Urbanism”, which talked about the market shift toward urban development (that’s correct, a great majority of N.U. developments are not public mandates but market-driven) now that communities are amending development regulations to include urban-style options in addition to the setbacks and low density requirements common in most zoning ordinances. The speaker, Chris Leinberger from the Brookings Institution, is a market researcher and former real estate developer who now studies urban housing and development markets, showed that practically no urban-style development was built for the greater part of 50 years because zoning laws at the time for all intents and purposes made it illegal to build, despite demand for urban-style living only lagging (Leinberger estimates it was around 18-25% market share) behind slightly until demand increased again to the pre-WWII demand levels (about 33-36% market share) starting in the late 1980’s. However, because while in the meantime much of the existing urban infrastructure was torn down or allowed to decay, there is currently a supply-side problem that is making New Urban developments so expensive. The market will correct the price gap eventually, though, and Mr. Leinberger estimates that with current trends, supply of such developments will should get to the point where it meets the level of demand in approximately 20 years. Then the pricing problem for New Urbanism projects will no longer be an issue, but until then, they are destined to be more expensive than their suburban counterparts.

  8. Dan

    The same thing is happening all over. These are not places poor people or middle class people can afford. The market has sorted that out.


    The process is not complete.

    When there is adequate supply and demand decreases, then you can reach conclusions, not before. When Euclidan zoning is eliminated in many more places and something replaces it, then you can reach conclusions, not before.

    Well, I guess you can reach conclusions if you wish, as long as you caveat them and understand their limitations.


  9. Veddie Edder

    Tom Wolfe made much the same point in Bauhaus to Our House. Paraphrasing, the intellectual planner types threw up massive ant colony housing projects for their idealized “workers”, who wanted nothing to do with them. The workers all decamped for Nassau county with its lawn ornaments and backyard turtle pools, while the only people living in the worker housing projects in the boroughs were people on public assistance who, by and large, didn’t actually work at all.

  10. Francis King

    Ettinger said:

    “Initially many of these high density projects are more vibrant, than they would otherwise be, because of the heavy subsidies that they receive. However, with time, the continuous perpetual subsidies that are needed to maintain this distortion of people’s preferences and artificial economic realities becomes unsustainable, and then, these projects start to deteriorate.

    This has been the fate of the majority of such projects that were built in Europe in the post 50’s through 70’s. Initially rather vibrant new projects that soon deteriorated into places where only people with limited choices would live.”

    I’m not going to speak for countries other than my own. At the end of the second world war, rehousing the working class poor was a top priority of the government. At the time, the poor lived in back-to-back housing, often with an outdoors toilet. Government inspectors went house-to-house, trying to sort out the best tenants for the first tower blocks, surrounded by grass and shrubbery. These developments were successful, but didn’t house enough people. Thus, the pace was upped, the quality of the buildings and the tenants declined, and the result was a mess. At no time did subsidies come into it.

    Things like aerial footways, which made the areas difficult to police didn’t help, nor the fact that the areas of grass around the buildings weren’t defensible spaces. The biggest problems were damp, from poor construction, and the fact that some of the tower blocks weren’t even bolted together. One day, the whole corner of a tower block fell off. Also, the tower blocks didn’t even have security on the front doors, which meant that anyone could get in.

    Some of the worst tower blocks have been demolished, others have been given the security that they needed from the start. The ones that have been demolished have been replaced by two storey housing. It is a pity that we don’t seem to have gone for three or four storeys instead, which is very space efficient, without compromising on the experience of owning a house.

  11. Lorianne

    New Urbanism style developments are both expensive and in demand. That, to me, says that the market it sorting it out.

    Those who want limited/exclusive zoning (of any type) are the ones reaching conclusions not in evidence.

  12. Lorianne

    Let’s look at Portland as an example. The close-in traditional neighborhoods like Irvington (where I used to live) are very expensive and prices have been escalating faster than suburban areas for the past 10-15 years. This area was a streetcar suburb built out between 1890-1930. The homes are old, most do not have garages, people must park (their typically expensive cars)on the street or in tiny one car makeshift garages set into front yards. Most of the lots are 50 x 100, very small yards.

    Yet it is a highly sought after area. Lots of families, lots of kids. The amount of money people put into their homes and gardens and the amount of supposedly negative things they are willing to put up with to live there reflect the high demand.

    Extremely high prices for small lots with no or very small garages and old houses with lots of maintenance costs are not enough to deter demand. The price just keeps going up and up.

    And let’s not forget the close-in neighborhoods just like Irvington in the other quadrants of the city. Same story.

    Yet, even in Portland, you could buy so much more house and lot for so much less in the suburbs. And people do … but not everyone. There is a market Old Urbanism (and New Urbanism is modeled on these older neighborhoods).

    Lots of people want older style (pre WWII)neighborhood planning, small lots, grid streets, walk to neighborhood shops, etc.

    Lots of people don’t.

    Why is this so difficult to understand? We’re not clones. Why do we have to have one-size fits all zoning like we’ve had for 60 years?

    Let the market decide and get zoning out of the way.

  13. Ettinger

    Francis King,
    The English Housing Subsidies Act of 1956 expanded subsidies explicitly for high rise buildings. The subsidy was based on a simple formula which increased the amount of money paid as the height of the building increased. At that time, government was heavily involved in directly providing a large portion of the housing. To this day, about 20% of the housing stock in England is Social Housing, such as Council Housing, either government owned housing or housing owned by non profit organizations. The majority of housing built in England from the mid 1950s to the early 1970s was publicly funded.

    But if what you say is true, seems like the government’s involvement in housing in England went beyond financing the buildings, to actual selection of the residents (I was unaware of that).

  14. Ettinger

    AP: “…Smart growth can easily be interpreted as a white, middle-class program to keep its culture safe from working-class influences and black invasion.”

    But this a double edged sword for the suburbanites. It is their children, and grandchildren who will not be able to afford the same lifestyle as the current generation, and will thus end up in the high rises.

    This correlates well with the fact that most of my pro smart growth friends (a difficult friendship indeed) have no children.

  15. werdnagreb

    This whole post is premised on the idea that class is mobile in the US. This is stated as fact and almost never questioned.

    This graphic in the NYT from 2005 elucidates some surprising notions about class and income in the US.

    It seems that there is more income mobility in many European countries than there is in the US. Americans tend to think that if a person is not wealthy, then there is something wrong with that person (lazy, stupid), but the graphs that I link to show that the largest indicator of one’s wealth is one’s parent’s wealth. This indicator is much more so than in many European countries.

    I know, this is a little bit off topic, but if the Antiplanner were truly concerned about income inequality (and the health and social issues associated with it), then he would be taking a deeper look at inter-generational poverty.

  16. Ettinger


    I think AP is exagerating a bit on the motives, but not the outcome, of smart growth on class mobility in this post. However, his point is exactly that smart growth is contributing to class stagnation.

    Your link would actually support the hypothesis that the smart growth class segregation mechanism is actually working, or at least hampering class mobility.

    Suburbanite smart growth supporters just want to keep as many people as possible out of their neighborhoods, rich or poor. But it is obviusly a lot harder to keep out the rich, so the ones who are in effect kept out are the poor. The rich can still move into the neighborhood and are actually are ones who will, at least to some extent, displace the children of the smart growthers from the neighborhood (by inflating home prices which then the ghildren of the smarth growthers can no longer afford).

  17. Dan

    smart growth is contributing to class stagnation.

    No it isn’t. You’ll want to show that true SG projects – not a developer’s marketing strategy – has no mix of houses, no workforce housing, etc.

    Of course you can’t show this, so you’re making sh*t up.

    The reason the few projects out there now (no fear-based tactics, please, about how something you are afraid of – because it negates your ideology – is taking over) are so expensive is that this type of development is in high demand, and its acceptance and desire for it is growing.

    So people bid up rents to obtain this housing. When supply catches up to demand – surveys consistently show ~25-33% would move to this type of development – then prices will come down. Of course, we can’t have subsidized housing, so we have to wait for human nature to take its course. If subsidies are OK, then it’ll happen sooner.


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