A teacher friend told me the junior high in an older neighborhood of our suburban town has slipped from top spot in the district. When enrollment declined due to an aging population, students from a newer, less expensive housing development were bussed in. Many homes in the new development have been foreclosed and are being bought by families from Salt Lake City’s lower income neighborhoods. The junior high in the privileged neighborhood must now contend with a substantial increase in fights, thefts, drugs, and gang issues.
My immediate response, I’m ashamed to say, was fear. What if “these people” move into my neighborhood and lower the value of my house? It’s easy to believe that minorities and other lower income people should have the opportunity to move into better neighborhoods where their children can attend good schools—until it’s our neighborhood they move into.
For six decades, middle-class whites have responded to this situation by moving to ever more distant suburbs. This option has closed for many young families. Laden with huge student loans, and faced with the reality of an economy not providing jobs with adequate salary and affordable health care insurance, many young couples cannot afford the segregated, middle-class neighborhoods of their parents.
This may not be entirely a negative. In the past Americans did not isolate themselves by economic status as religiously as we do now. Schools in small towns today have more diverse populations than those in suburbs—and kids benefit from mixing with people outside their family’s small circle. Part of the problem with failing schools in lower income neighborhoods is that resources are seldom divided equally. Administrators tend to allocate more funds to schools with actively involved parents—and to shuffle low-performing teachers into schools where parents don’t complain.
Regardless of who wins the next election, it’s unlikely the economy will bounce back to the boom of the ‘90s anytime soon. The middle-class lifestyle of their parents will continue to elude many young couples. A possible social benefit may be the improvement of lower-income schools and neighborhoods as these families insist on good schools, parks, community recreation, and law enforcement for the communities in which they can afford to live.
Minority and low income parents also want good schools and a healthy environment for their children, but most lack the skills to deal with local government. Educated residents of lower-income neighborhoods could make a positive difference.