Over the past three decades, there has been a war on the middle class. Income went flat, and then, more recently, declined.
By Cindy Frewen Wuellner
Special to The Star
Transportation costs doubled. Health care costs tripled. We pay more than we used to for cellphones, Internet, college and day care. Unemployment remains high, and good jobs are scarce. The Great Recession stole many peoples retirement savings.
Eighty-five percent of Americans used to say they were middle class. Now only half do.
Four out of five of us will be threatened by poverty. Meanwhile the top 1 percent makes a quarter of the annual wages, compared with making 9 percent 30 years ago.
According to a new study by the Equality of Opportunity Project, in Kansas City your odds of rising from the lowest tier of wage earners to the top is around 7 percent. Thats slim.
However, the upward mobility path is smoother in some places than others. In Seattle, Pittsburgh or Denver, you would have a 40 percent better chance of becoming wealthy. But in Atlanta, Detroit or Indianapolis, your chances are cut in half. Kansas City falls exactly in the middle.
Cities with mixed-class neighborhoods, nearby jobs and high levels of social interaction do better. People who need jobs can easily access places with jobs. In contrast, cities with more socioeconomic segregation, a smaller middle class and more concentrated wealth do worse. More inequality means slower growth.
People get trapped by long commutes and declining neighborhoods. Cities that grow at the edge but remain hollowed out in the center eventually implode, taking the entire regions future with them. Detroit illustrates this tragic story.
What tips a city one way or the other? The ability to collaborate, create a regional vision and act on it. According to Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley in The Metropolitan Revolution, rather than a few big heroes, successful cities have robust networks of leaders and residents who believe in one for all and all for one.
Twenty years ago, Denver formed a regional pact that established a transit system and stopped stealing jobs among locals. Dallas, Portland, New York and Minneapolis made similar long-term regional agreements. Now they are all top tier cities. Kansas City never created such a regional alliance. We continue to shift jobs instead of attracting new business.
We have the least congested interstate system, but area residents make the longest commutes. And Kansas City is among the largest cities without a rail transit system.
Yet we still build more highways. We limit choices, resources and guarantee todays middle-class neighborhoods will be tomorrows blight. Without a vibrant center of residents and businesses to match healthy suburbs, opportunities for Kansas Citians will dry up.
We need a city that works for all of us. We need good jobs, housing, education, amenities and services.
We need safe, beautiful neighborhoods and a full range of transportation options. We need our civic leaders to commit to a shared regional vision for an innovative, vibrant whole city.
Thats how we revitalize Kansas Citys middle class and bring the American dream alive again here.
Cindy Frewen Wuellner is an architect and urban futurist. To reach her, send email to email@example.com or write to Midwest Voices, c/o Editorial Page, The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64108.