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Would You Want to Live in the Most Economically Equal Town in America? Would You Want to Live in the Most Economically Equal Town in America?

Would You Want to Live in the Most Economically Equal Town in America?

by Alex Goldmark

September 20, 2012


The mostly genial birthday party for Occupy Wall Street will draw more attention for the number of arrests (almost 200) than the protesters' stated cause(s), which, broadly speaking, is to lower wealth inequality in America. 

So as Occupy-related headlines play up the civil disobedience, and count heads at Zuccotti Park as a predictor of support for the disparate movement, let's ponder the cause of a flatter wealth curve, with an example.

WNYC has done some wonders with census data in the past. (Full disclosure: I also report for WNYC.) The public radio station offers a tour of the most economically equal town in America. It's fascinating journalism, but life in Country Knolls, NY might sound like soul-stifling homogeneity to advocates of vibrant cities. 

Some quotes in the piece:

"You notice a certain sameness about the housing stock, that creates a certain sameness in the people who move into them,” said Union College economics professor Stephen Schmidt." 

“We really are like Stepford wives,” Dawn Colletta jokes. “Everybody’s the same.” 

The average income is a comfortable $107,000 per family. The houses are all just about identical because they were all built by the same developer. The standardized housing stock keeps both ends  of the wealth ladder. The town civic association website even lists the square footage of the seven most common models of homes. It's a wooded Levittown: pleasant and bland, from the description. 

There are a variety of professions represented there, but 95 percent of residents are white, and about three-quarters of people are married. For the residents, the quality of life trumps any lack of diversity. That's fine for a neighborhood of 1,400 families, but not for the nation. 

Diversity and exchange between classes and backgrounds is vital to innovation, to economic growth, to democracy, and just to an interesting life. 

As OWS crusades for a smaller gap between the 99% and the 1%, a more nuanced footnote might be to consider how rich and poor can live closer together, interact more, and how the walls between the classes and homogenous neighborhoods might be more porous. 

Cities offer this potential more than suburbs, where older housing stocks have evolved over time to offer grand penthouses within short walks from crowded tenements. Schools can, if the community wants it, draw students from several nearby neighborhoods that span economic classes, and 80/20 public housing plans mean families of vastly different means can live in the same buildings. Public transit can offer access to jobs and resources to a wider public. Density offers mobility, but maybe there's another model of equality—or healthy inequality—that isn't so crowded. Tell us. Or dream it up for us. 

If you have an example of a successfully economically UNequal town, please tell us about it. Let us know why you think it mixes rich and poor so well. 

Image via Country Knolls, NY Civic Association.

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