Thursday, January 26, 2012

Suburban thinking

It's everywhere. I'm reading through the 2008 American National Election Study codebook for a project I'm working on. For those who don't know, the ANES is a fantastic survey that looks in to Americans' political views and vote behavior. It's conducted every election year by interviewers who physically go to people's homes, and one of the things the interviewers are supposed to note is the condition of both home and neighborhood.

So, as part of the survey, interviewers are asked to code any of the following "within sight of the housing unit," presumably as an indication of neighborhood decay:*
  • Boarded houses or abandoned building 
  • Graffiti 
  • Abandoned cars 
  • Demolished houses 
  • Trash/Litter/junk in street/road 
  • Trash/litter/junk around buildings in neighborhood 
  • Factories or warehouses 
  • Stores or other retail outlets
The variable is a simple count of the number of things observed by the interviewer, so each item on the list is equivalent in the data set. If you read my blog, you're probably already aware where I'm going with this.
That's right- living in a mixed-use neighborhood, one that contains a factory and a store, is a sign of neighborhood decay in this dataset. It's treated equivalently to living somewhere with graffiti and abandoned buildings. Now, I'm not going to say that there aren't gritty, impoverished places with mixed uses, but there are also some very nice places-- most of the Upper East Side of Manhattan would get a point against it for having stores within sight of a subject's home. Similarly, there are some very depressed single-use neighborhoods in this country, which might have all 7 of the other factors present-- but the most-decayed neighborhood in the study must, by definition, be mixed-use.

This is yet another example of how ingrained suburban thinking is in our conversations about poverty and affluence. In our culture, we link green lawns and row upon row of detached single-family homes with suburbia, and hence prosperity, and small apartments above the corner store with the city, and hence with poverty. See similarly what the phrase "inner city" means in our political dialogue- it's generally a code word used by conservatives to mean low-income and African-American (and, in doing so, generally incite the racial fears and prejudices of their voting base). Set aside the finding of the most recent Census-- that poverty is more prevalent in the suburbs than either rural or urban areas, and poverty is rising faster there as well. There's something wrong here.

I also urge scholars investigating the link between neighborhood conditions and politics to build their own metric based on only the first 7 items in this list (which are coded individually in the dataset), rather than utilizing this variable.
*V084029, 2008 ANES Panel Data Study, for those who are curious.

1 comment:

Helen Bushnell said...

This kind of thinking can discourage financial institutions from lending to people in certain neighborhoods which can cause a neighborhood to decay. This includes the FHA which seems to be returning to a kind of redlining.