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Was ‘White Flight’ a Personal Economic Decision?

The switch in development pattern the United States experienced after World War II—one where major cities lost population while a new series of auto-oriented suburbs sprung up on their periphery—is often referred to as “white flight”.

When this term is used to describe the results of those decades, it broadly makes sense. But I’ve always been confused when people use the term as a description of motive. As stated: white people did not want to live near non-white people, thus, white flight occurred. I don’t think it’s that simple. Or that reductive.

That’s not to suggest that race, and racism, wasn’t a motive—or even a large motive—for why settlement patterns shifted. The practice of redlining, policies of blight control and urban renewal, suburban housing subsidies only available to white Americans…. these are just three of the public policy realities with racist underpinnings that shaped our post-war development pattern.

It’s just that, if I were to reduce things to a single personal motive, it wouldn’t be racism. It would be rational economic decision-making.

Let’s pretend for a moment that there are no races—just follow me, I’m going somewhere with this—and that everyone living in the United States in 1945 was racially indistinguishable from each other. Would we still have had people move to auto-oriented suburbs? Of course we would, and those people that moved would have been the ones in the best economic position. The people left behind would have been the most disadvantaged, those without the option to move.

That’s because moving to the suburbs in the 1950’s was, individually, a rational economic thing to do. It was horrible public policy, and in the real world, it certainly had racist underpinnings. But for an individual or a family whose home is losing value, when another home on the outskirts of town—one that just happens to be newer, more spacious, and served by better schools—is gaining value, it’s very logical to make that move given the opportunity.

Nearly all of us would make that move, even if we are committed to an egalitarian public policy. Some wouldn’t, just like some send their kids to a poor-performing public school when they can afford a private education simply because they believe in public schools. And we can honor those people. But that doesn’t change the reality that most wouldn’t stay. Race may be an accelerator, but there is an underlying human condition other than racism that is a more basic, logical explanation.

Last week, I heard someone suggest that the people living in the poorest neighborhood in my town of Brainerd, Minnesota have no “pride of place.” This was said by way of explanation for why homeowners in this neighborhood allow their places to fall into disrepair. Supposedly, their motive is that they don’t care. I’ve heard this before and I find it to be a poor explanation.

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A home in the poor part of Brainerd could cost as little as $60,000. Let’s say you are poor, but you’re able to get into that home. However humble, it’s shelter. It serves its core purpose.

That being said, it’s in a neighborhood of similarly priced homes. And unlike homes in other parts of the community, it’s not appreciating in value. In fact, it’s dropping slightly each year. You’re building equity because you’re making payments, but the house is not a great investment.

Why would such a person — regardless of their race or the racial makeup of the neighborhood—put thousands into new exterior paint? Or a new roof? Or to shore up the cracked foundation? Those are not very good investments, because if you can’t sell the house, that money is likely to never be recouped.

Now step back a little further and take into account that, in most of our poorest neighborhoods, the public sector is neglecting their responsibilities as well. The streets have more potholes, the parks have more weeds, and the sidewalks have more cracks and gaps than the ones in our affluent neighborhoods. The signal being sent is that decline is going to continue, regardless of what the property owners do.

Some people in these neighborhoods do take care of their homes to the best of their ability, often in the spare time they have between their second and third job. They mow the lawn and keep things picked up. Nobody in this neighborhood, however, is building huge additions or making expensive upgrades.

That’s not because they don’t have pride of ownership. Maybe some don’t, but we don’t have to assume that motive as an explanation. A more logical motive—and one that is more straightforward and universal—is that the people in this neighborhood are not dumb. No savvy person is going to invest what little wealth they have into something that is going to lose them money. The people there are making a smart decision, and suggesting otherwise sounds rather ignorant.

Let’s deeply discuss policy implications, but let’s stop assuming the motives of individuals, especially when there are other, perfectly rational, universal explanations for why someone would do something we don’t agree with.

Charles Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns [1], has spoken in hundreds of cities and towns across North America. He was recently named one of the Ten Most Influential Urbanists of all time by PlanetizenIn October 2017, The American Conservative cosponsored his “Curbside Chat” in Washington, DC [2].

This article originally appeared at Strong Towns and is republished with permission.  [3]

26 Comments (Open | Close)

26 Comments To "Was ‘White Flight’ a Personal Economic Decision?"

#1 Comment By mrscracker On September 21, 2018 @ 6:47 am

I’ve noticed that neighborhoods have more poorly maintained homes when there are a number of rentals.
Another reason for lack of pride of ownership is lack of ownership.

#2 Comment By Kent On September 21, 2018 @ 9:45 am

Thoughtful, well written article. Thanks for the education.

I live in a southern town with a large and generally poor African-American section. Our town generally does a good job of maintaining our infrastructure. In areas with a large government involvement, the homes in the African-American section are generally kept tidy and immaculate.

The farther away you get, the worse the maintenance becomes. I mention this because the author said:

“Now step back a little further and take into account that, in most of our poorest neighborhoods, the public sector is neglecting their responsibilities as well.”

It is immediately obvious to me that where the public sector does its job responsibly, the private sector follows accordingly.

#3 Comment By Cheryl Ciolino On September 21, 2018 @ 11:48 am

Excellent article and you saved the best for last. In essence, you wrote, “Don’t judge.”

#4 Comment By Anne (the other one) On September 21, 2018 @ 11:48 am

These broken homes are a metaphor for the whole breakdown of society.

Before the mid-1960’s, Brooklyn was a little piece of heaven. Modest, well cared for homes with pretty little front yards. People knew their neighbors. Children played ball in the streets. Subways were safe and clean. The New York City public schools were the best. What happened?

People left Brooklyn (1) to purchased a home instead of renting, (2) to have their a own patch of land, (3) to join family members who left previously, (4) for better schools, (5) uncertainty from the New York City teachers’ strike in 1968 and the Garbage Strike of 1968, (6) increase of violence and crime (7) The Daily News’ “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD” was the final push for many.

The decision to leave was far more than racism or a personal economic decision. Brooklyn was so idyllic, because of its stable middle class culture. These Brooklynites, who lived through the Great Depression, may have worked two jobs, but they still sweep their curbs clean. When the culture changed with the blasting of music at all hours, the unkempt homes and yards, increases in crime, this Brooklyn died.

I’ve asked my mother if she would like to see her old neighborhood. It’s changed too much for her. She doesn’t want to spoil her memories of a well cared house with her mother’s roses in the backyard.

#5 Comment By John McKeown On September 21, 2018 @ 12:42 pm

My father moved his new family from the old Queens neighborhood into suburban Nassau County on LI in 1954. A few years ago I asked him why. He said that moving to the suburbs was “the big adventure of the time.”

#6 Comment By M. Orban On September 21, 2018 @ 1:06 pm

@MrsCracker
Very much so. Also, in declining localities the house is the last thing people hang onto, hoping for a comeback, help or a miracle. As they face multiple stressors, they just don’t have the money, the time, the health for upkeep.

#7 Comment By Myron Hudson On September 21, 2018 @ 1:55 pm

Having been raised in one of the original Levittowns, I recall that the housing was affordable, a lot of guys had GI Bill $$, and the new burbs were proximate to cities and to industry; steel mills for example. These same guys were getting married and starting families, which means population pressure. While racism was definitely present, it was practiced by a minority; most of us would have had our mouths washed out with soap for using the N word.

#8 Comment By Paul Clayton On September 21, 2018 @ 2:41 pm

“Would we still have had people move to auto-oriented suburbs? Of course we would,” Yeah, okay, but why would these people move out of the cities? It wasn’t just economic, or the chance for a newer home. It had to do with culture, the culture of many of the people moving into these (mostly Northern and Eastern cities).

Why were the schools suddenly ‘ poor-performing public schools?’ Ans: the culture of the people moving in.

“Race may be an accelerator, but there is an underlying human condition other than racism that is a more basic, logical explanation.” Yes, and it’s called culture. Why don’t you address it?

I grew up in a modest neighborhood of tiny row houses in SW Philly that seemed paradisiacal. Then it changed, slowly. The people moving in were culturally different. They didn’t have the same values. Not to say whose values were better or worse, let’s just stick with different.

I moved away as a young man at the beginning of this transition. My parents stayed till long after the neighborhood changed. They lasted till some thug jumped in my 72 year old father’s car after he and my retarded brother got in, and robbed them at knife-point.

#9 Comment By James Solbakken On September 21, 2018 @ 3:35 pm

My parents moved us out of San Francisco in 1962; and we lived in a relatively nice neighborhood on Broderick Street. There is no way they moved because of race, or even too many beatniks.

There was a general sense that the suburbs were an all around better place to raise kids, with a yard and a big dog and less overall immediate population density.

I’d say that people are kind of stupid if they can’t see how a lot of people would prefer the suburbs to the urbs. I can see how some people prefer the urbs to the suburbs. It’s just a different scene, man.

#10 Comment By FL Transplant On September 21, 2018 @ 4:53 pm

I lived in Prince Georges County MD during the 80s and 90 when it transitioned for a majority white to a majority black county. From personal experience I can state that many of my neighbors moved away solely because of the change in the racial composition. They were very open about why they were leaving.

#11 Comment By Louis Messana On September 21, 2018 @ 5:15 pm

Individually, people are much less prejudiced than the democrats and media and liberal arts – professors would have you believe.

People in the cities for the most part were happy in the city. There were neighborhoods that were predominantly of a certain ethnicity, or a certain race or a certain religion, or a certain sexual orientation, or predominantly married with children or predominantly single, or predominantly old (senior citizens) or young or rich, or poor, or an eclectic mix of any of the above. People chose their neighborhood based on their lifestyle. If there wasn’t a major change in Post WWII economy to lower density suburbs and cars then the city and its various neighborhoods would have stayed on its old path.

Yes, people have prejudices but contrary to what leftists and democrats and college professors will tell you…all ethnicities, races, incomes, orientations, etc have various prejudices. Its not just white people or Christians or men.

#12 Comment By Teej On September 21, 2018 @ 10:50 pm

“Let’s pretend for a moment that there are no races—just follow me, I’m going somewhere with this—and that everyone living in the United States in 1945 was racially indistinguishable from each other.”

Still not sure where you were going with this. The problem is that there are “races” and that those with money, during this period in particular were generally white. They saw the influx of blacks as detrimental to their wealth. While an economic rationale, in principle, the racial cause was the primary rationale that drove whites out.

This outflux contributed to a decline in the economic base that further reinforced the outflow. Other factors obviously played a part, but to deny the central role of race seems problematic. I would suggest people read (what might now be slightly dated scholarship, but still good), Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis

#13 Comment By genetuttle On September 22, 2018 @ 5:58 am

The author is undoubtedly right in suggesting the economic motive played an important role in decision making. I grew up in the Bushwick/Ridgewood part of Brooklyn, a neighborhood that had undergone a radical ethnic/racial transformation in a single decade (especially during my years in the army in 1966 & ’67.) The reality of wanting to avoid higher crime and racial tensions already apparent in nearby neighborhoods likewise played an important role. The various factors fed on each other.

In seeing a home as merely an “investment,” even though acknowledging that “some people in these neighborhoods do take care of their homes to the best of their ability,” the author nevertheless overdoes the economic argument. There are reasons for wanting to maintain one’s home and even spruce it up other than to merely enhance its retail value.

Following my first visit to Europe in the summer of ’69. I remember commenting to my mother that I was impressed with the tendency of Europeans even in “poorer” neighborhoods to cultivate flowers outside their windows. The flowers happened to be mostly geraniums, a flower which my mother had associated with sadness and poverty since her youth in early 20th century Brooklyn. The reason: the poor recent European immigrants of that earlier epoch often adorned their houses with relatively inexpensive geraniums. The poor may always be with us, but how they deal with their poverty differs, and sometimes culture plays a role. The flowers – missing completely from the poor urban neighborhoods of my time (I drove a taxi in NYC then) — were merely a readily visible reminder of the differences.

Harvard’s late professor Samuel Huntington, from nearby Astoria Queens, recognized that other component of “white flight” in describing the global historical phenomenon of a “Clash of Civilizations.”

#14 Comment By Johnathan F On September 22, 2018 @ 3:05 pm

Maybe people don’t want to deal with the dysfunction of the lower classes, regardless of race, as you know it wasn’t only white folks who moved out of the city, blacks who could also followed suit.

And as someone who recently moved to a urban areas I will be following in their footsteps. Nobody wants to deal with the exhaustion of having to watch you back every day lest you get assaulted by some teenager, or being called a cracker every day on your way to work. God forbid you go on a date, get ready to hear catcalling during the entire walk.

No thanks I’ll take my cracker butt to the suburbs.

#15 Comment By genetuttle On September 22, 2018 @ 4:35 pm

The author is undoubtedly right in suggesting the economic motive played an important role in decision making. I grew up in the Bushwick/Ridgewood part of Brooklyn, a neighborhood that had undergone a radical ethnic/racial transformation in a single decade (especially during my years in the army in 1966 & ’67.) The reality of wanting to avoid higher crime and racial tensions already apparent in nearby neighborhoods likewise played an important role. The various factors fed on each other.

In seeing a home as merely an “investment,” even though acknowledging that “some people in these neighborhoods do take care of their homes to the best of their ability,” the author nevertheless overdoes the economic argument. There are reasons for wanting to maintain one’s home and even spruce it up other than to merely enhance its retail value.

Following my first visit to Europe in the summer of ’69. I remember commenting to my mother that I was impressed with the tendency of Europeans even in “poorer” neighborhoods to cultivate flowers outside their windows. The flowers happened to be mostly geraniums, a flower which my mother had associated with sadness and poverty since her youth in early 20th century Brooklyn. The reason: the poor recent European immigrants of that earlier epoch often adorned their houses with relatively inexpensive geraniums. The poor may always be with us, but how they deal with their poverty differs, and sometimes culture plays a role. The flowers – missing completely from the poor urban neighborhoods of my time (I drove a taxi in NYC then) — were merely a readily visible reminder of the differences.

Harvard’s late professor Samuel Huntington, from nearby Astoria Queens, recognized that other component of “white flight” in describing the global historical phenomenon of a “Clash of Civilizations.”

#16 Comment By Michael On September 22, 2018 @ 7:22 pm

Often unsaid is by the late 40s, housing stock in the cities had seriously deteriorated due to two decades of global depression and global war. In addition, due to the huge demand for oil during the war, massive amounts of dirty coal were used to cook and heat, rendering the air quality in many cities so poor that street lights came on in the middle of the day.

Add to this the new prosperity which allowed those of modest means to own a car. Any wonder people jumped at the chance to locate outside the city?

#17 Comment By Brian James On September 22, 2018 @ 9:03 pm

“The issue which has swept down the centuries and which will have to be fought sooner or later is the people versus the banks.” Lord Acton

#18 Comment By Rossbach On September 22, 2018 @ 9:06 pm

Early in the 20th century, many of my relatives lived in Philadelphia. By the early 60s, the last one was gone. It wasn’t automobiles or economics. What drove them away was crime. The city would neither protect them nor allow them to protect themselves. When you are afraid to leave your house because you know it will be robbed as soon as you do, it’s time go.

#19 Comment By Bryan On September 22, 2018 @ 11:26 pm

I can agree with this. The farming community I grew up in in Wisconsin thought about dropping any college prep courses from the curriculum. My friend’s father (who was on the school board) was so irritated with this, he quit the school board, took at 3 of his kids out of this public school, and put them into the nearest private school (Edgewood in Madison).

I still remember my father talking to me, being so irritated about this, saying “your school’s not that bad, right?” all because my parents did not have the money to make such a move. In my humble opinion, this is more about class and priorities than race, at least now (dunno about the 40’s or 50’s).

I know it doesn’t make headlines but “white flight” moves in all directions.

And even now in the Twin Cities (in Minnesota) talking to my wife “gee, they’ve had a lot of turnover at that school, when out son gets to school age we should probably send him to our other nearby option.” So it continues, it can even be suburb vs suburb.

#20 Comment By Anon87 On September 23, 2018 @ 7:23 am

“But for an individual or a family whose home is losing value”

Why exactly is it losing value? Only a few years before it certainly wasn’t. What changed that caused them to look elsewhere? Did cracks in the sidewalk just start passively appearing?

“The people there are making a smart decision, and suggesting otherwise sounds rather ignorant.”

If you are going to make a huge stretch and reduce this to a purely rational economic decision, do you think we could examine the rest of their financial transactions and find they are all based on such logical risk-benefit ratio analysis? Or is it more likely that they frankly make more “dumb” (your word) decisions?

This article seems to twist and contort itself to avoid the obvious and uncomfortable realities.

#21 Comment By blackhorse On September 23, 2018 @ 6:52 pm

Suggest the author read Ta-Nehisi Coate’s piece on the origins of segregated housing in northern cites, and then report back. Short version: it wasnt by accident.

[4]

#22 Comment By JonF On September 23, 2018 @ 9:07 pm

Another factor not mentioned here yet: Cities were horribly polluted. Growing up west of Detroit, we could always tell which direction was east on a clear day by the gray smudge that hung over the city and marred the horizon. That was probably only decisive only for people with major respiratory issues, but it played a small secondary role for any people I suspect.

#23 Comment By Professor Nerd On September 24, 2018 @ 11:31 am

I like the “Strong Towns” website, but the author should have read some of the many studies of white flight before posting. They are often careful about shouting “racism” while still acknowledging how race played a major factor.
In proto-suburbs such as Chatham in Chicago, for instance, white people had no reason to leave other than race. They had made substantial investments in the area and the black newcomers were middle-class and educated.
They ran anyway.

#24 Comment By J.J. Hayes On September 24, 2018 @ 10:38 pm

It is so strange that something like home/land/real property ownership is analyzed solely in terms of market value, rather than a place to live and raise a family and set down roots. This is why free market capitalism is basically revolutionary and destructive of traditional cultures, values, and virtue. I live in an area that went downhill economically in the seventies; only three families I know of remained. Some people flew who were quite explicit in their racism– I know I grew up with them and heard their parents speak. Meanwhile a host of people come in to the “failing” neighborhood and set down roots and worked hard on the houses. Perhaps theirs was the rational economic motive of buying low with a view toward selling high. Yet very few of these people are selling, they found place to put down roots They seem to like the neighborhood. And the racial composition has not changed much. The value they brought to the neighborhood was not analyzable in cash terms. The worry of course is that it will be found by people with money on their minds and thus make it impossible for people to maintain their roots. As generations pass, it becomes impossible for people who lived in the neighborhood to buy out their brothers and sisters at market value. The temptation to sell at rising prices becomes almost irresistible. For a short time maybe we exchanged the racially fearful for the civic minded, the persevering and industrious which must be considered a net gain of some kind. But history has shown free market capitalism to be such an pure and powerful engine for the destruction of traditional culture, values and virtue, that I fear that we will be driven from the neighborhood our family has lived in since the 1830’s.

#25 Comment By TC On September 25, 2018 @ 2:44 pm

Perhaps this “economic decision” is true in urban areas but in the all-white working class suburb where I grew up, there was a mass exodus when the first black family moved in during the 1980s. It completed destabilized the area and caused home values to plummet. They never recovered.

#26 Comment By Mike S On October 5, 2018 @ 4:36 pm

Your argument in defense of ‘lack of pride of place’ would hold water if it only encompassed the examples you used, i.e., making expensive repairs or improvements. But in reality, in most cases, it goes beyond that. Simply sweeping your porch and sidewalk, washing windows, trimming trees, bushes, etc. Those are things that anyone can do with or without money. My mother used to preach to us that being poor was never an excuse for being dirty.