Changing Geographies: The Legacy Of Redlining And The Myth Of Prosperity In America’s Suburbs

Poverty, pollution, and access to health care are challenges traditionally associated with city living. However, a closer inspection of America’s neighborhoods reveals that these issues transcend geographic categorization and are prevalent even in ostensibly prosperous suburbia.

Nassau County, located in Long Island, New York, is home to 1.4 million people. Its unemployment rate is low and the majority of its residents have health insurance. In U.S. News’ 2019 Healthiest Communities, which measured “crucial health-related components of society” across roughly 3,000 counties, Nassau County ranked 96th overall. From afar, this county appears to epitomize suburban prosperity. Yet, within it, stark disparities exist at the zip-code level. For example, black babies are about 3.5 times as likely as white babies to die before their first birthday a slightly harsher disparity than in nearby New York City, where poverty rates are higher and the uninsured population is greater. According to The Association of Maternal & Child Health Programs, infant mortality rates denote the overall health and wellness of a population because they indicate the availability and quality of community health services. The variation between black and white infant mortality rates across the country testifies to the enduring structural racism present in healthcare.

Nassau County, although unified at the government level, is regionally fragmented. This fragmentation masks the disparities that exist neighborhood to neighborhood. For 201,000 students, Nassau County has 56 public school districts. In the hamlet of Merrick, the average household income is $147,572, according to census data. White residents constitute 88% of the population. In contrast, the neighboring hamlet, Roosevelt, which houses 16,000 people, has a significantly less wealthy population, where roughly 50% of public school students are eligible for reduced-price lunches. About 98% of Roosevelt’s residents are Black or Hispanic. Due to the lack of interaction between the districts, many of the residents who live in the thriving areas are unaware of less advantaged residents. This makes it difficult for the more impoverished residents to make their voices heard at the government level. What is important for the impoverished residents of Nassau County fails to impress upon the wealthy and vice versa. In this way, residential segregation works to immobilize the impoverished. Racial segregation at the zip-code level is the driving cause of these health and wellness disparities. This residential segregation is rooted in historical housing policies that discriminated against racial and ethnic minorities.

In the midst of the Great Depression, under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, the National Housing Act of 1934 was passed, establishing the Federal Housing Administration. These policies distributed loans to American families buying new homes. The Federal Housing Administration insured mortgages made by private lenders against losses. This involved mortgage underwriting which rated different neighborhoods based on risk assessment. Under the New Deal, government surveyors graded neighborhoods in 239 American cities. The areas were colour-coded, green (“best”), blue (“still desirable”), yellow (“declining”), and red (“hazardous”). The so-called “redlined” areas were discounted by local lenders as credit risks.

The colour-coding system was a hotbed for racial discrimination, as areas that were demographically comprised of predominantly racial or ethnic minorities were labelled “hazardous” in a process known as “redlining.” Bruce Mitchell, a senior researcher at the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, said that “Anyone who was not northern-European white was considered to be a detraction from the value of the area.” Neighborhoods that predominantly housed Black people, immigrants from Asia, as well as from southern Europe, were regarded as undesirable. Those who were Jewish and Catholic were also discriminated against under these policies. Historically, this prevented racial and ethnic minorities from being able to move into suburban neighborhoods. The suburbs became increasingly white and affluent.

Levittown, also located in Long Island, is notorious for being one of America’s first suburbias. The name of the development has become symbolic of the gas-guzzling, baseball-playing, prototypical American nuclear family that haunts the cultural imagination. Levittown is named after the real estate developer William Levitt, who today is known for his racist business strategy, which involved selling exclusively to white families.

The Fair Housing Act banned racially discriminatory housing policies in 1968. To this day, however, poverty still tends to centralize in the areas redlined in the 1930s, according to a study by the NCRC. Almost 30% of neighborhoods redlined in the 1930s are still inhabited by predominantly minority residents today. Meanwhile, 85% of the areas coded green (“best”) remain predominantly white, and 91% of these green areas remain middle-to-upper-class today. Moreover, simply because redlining is illegal today does not mean it has ceased existing. A report from 2015 found that redlining continues to exist in 61 metropolitan areas, based on an analysis of Home Mortgage Disclosure Act records. Banks attribute racial discrepancies in lending to borrowers’ credit scores.

“I think most people believe the problem is not with the rules but with the people,” John Taylor, the president and chief executive of the NCRC, stated. “Most middle-class whites in America don’t have empirical observations of what happens in underserved neighborhoods or understand the historical treatment of poor and minority communities.”

Home ownership is a surefire method for accumulating wealth generationally. Racist policies have worked to stifle economic progress in minority populations. Redlining has left an enduring underclass, that consists disproportionately of racial and ethnic minorities.

The legacy of redlining still impacts the suburban population today, largely in the form of racially fragmented and underserved communities, as seen in even ostensibly prosperous communities like Nassau County. Furthermore, Nassau County is not an outlier. Rather, it is indicative of a larger trend. Among America’s 100 most populous metropolitan areas, in 2015 more people lived in poverty in the suburbs than in the nearby cities. Historically, this was accurate precisely because redlining cordoned racial and ethnic minorities from accumulating wealth and directed them into city centers after they were prevented from moving into suburbia. Today, however, the suburbs, for the first time in history, house more poor residents than either cities or rural areas. In 2015, 16 million low-paid residents lived in the suburbs, outnumbering the poor residents in cities by more than 3 million. The reason for this diaspora is difficult to pin-down and is not attributable to one or two single factors.

The effect, in this case, might be more interesting than the cause. Looking forward, what does the changing landscape of America’s suburbs mean for the historically under-classed? Will this create a more even picture of poverty in America? If the suburbs were ever historically prosperous, then we might ask for who. To an extent it is true that the suburbs have been, and are still somewhat today, prosperous for whites, but the legacy of redlining has created pockets in even generally wealthy areas where minorities remain underserved. Moreover, as the suburbs increasingly become a haven for the nation’s low-paid population, the cultural vision of idyllic and prosperous suburbia falls steadily away to myth.

Jaclyn Pahl


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