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“In this, the most diverse big city in America, first kisses cross color lines.” —Michelle Wilde Anderson, The Fight to Save the Town

How do you interrupt an austerity-driven death spiral?

They’re familiar in the U.S. A public agency gets its funding cut. It responds by letting people go and overworking those who remain. Some who get tired of overwork leave. That leads to worse performance, which justifies further funding cuts. Sometimes the justification is explicit, as in performance-based funding; more often, it comes down to either dogmatism or sheer antipathy.

Michelle Wilde Anderson’s recent book, The Fight to Save the Town, examines ways that concerned citizens in four U.S. cities—Josephine, Ore.; Stockton, Calif.; Lawrence, Mass.; and Detroit—have banded together to save their towns from death spirals. It’s alternately heartening and depressing, but I’m choosing to focus on the former.

Wilde Anderson notes, correctly, that all four of the cities she chose are in “blue” states, though Josephine is in a pretty red part of one. In each case, a city or town that had prospered in the industrial era has fallen on hard times. That led to a vicious cycle of declining tax revenues and depopulation, with those who remained (or arrived later) bearing the burden, whether in the form of higher taxes, desiccated services or both. By her telling, for instance, revenues got so thin in Josephine that the police reduced operations to Monday through Friday, 8:00 to 4:00. With the nearest state police sometimes hours away, crimes like DUI and theft weren’t worth the trouble. (Of course, some citizens responded by establishing their own patrols, with varying levels of restraint.) As services got worse, many local citizens took the reduced performance as a sign of futility, and they repeatedly voted down tax increases that would have stopped the bleeding. The local community college had to shut down some pre-employment programs for lack of funding, thereby accelerating the downward spiral.

As property values decline, it becomes easier for speculators to buy up property on the cheap, charge exorbitant rents for it and then abandon it (along with unpaid taxes) to the city when it’s just not rentable anymore. As Matthew Desmond has demonstrated in both of his books, in many cities, rents in the poorest parts of cities are often relatively close to rents in more expensive areas; landlords are extracting what value they can. When cities don’t have the personnel and/or technology to enforce back taxes, scofflaw landlords make massive profits by exploiting both individual tenants and the city as a whole. In the meantime, other values drop, allowing the cycle to accelerate.

As one would expect, racism plays a key role as well. It shows up in the county manager of Oakland County, outside Detroit, referring to the city as a “reservation.” It shows up in political classes of a different race and generation than their voters, often leaning into solutions that reflect a different time or different priorities. And it shows up strongly in the self-defeating idea that the way to stop crime is through ever-more intensive (if selective) applications of force.

Wilde Anderson identifies some signs of hope, though. In each area, concerned citizens got together—usually outside of official political channels, and sometimes despite them—to develop solutions of their own. In Detroit, for instance, some citizens had taken to farming in open abandoned lots. That provided food and a source of side income. When speculators started buying up the land on which they were farming, they started a GoFundMe to buy the land themselves. In Lawrence, community groups worked with the local community college to develop programs and services that worked for the local population as it actually existed.

The movements Wilde Anderson celebrates stand in opposition to the oft-heard libertarian view that when it comes to cities on the losing side of economic changes, we “should just let them fail.” That’s not how cities work. Look at it from the perspective of a low-income adult who grew up in a struggling place. You have little money, and the social capital you have—family, friends, support networks—are all in the struggling place. If you decamp for a more prosperous place, you won’t be able to afford a place, and you’ll be at a disadvantage in competing for jobs. You won’t have anyone to watch your kids. People choose places for many reasons; dismissively waving off those places with an aristocratic “let them fail” means writing off large groups of people.

Community colleges, of course, are largely defined by place. They’re intensely local, even as they prepare students to go wherever they want. To my mind, the analog to Wilde Anderson’s community activists for us is local alumni. They’re connected to their colleges, they’re concentrated locally and they often have political and/or economic pull in their communities. With the right encouragement, or even leadership, they could push back against the trend of austerity. They could ensure that their own children get opportunities like they did.

Wilde Anderson concedes, of course, that some structural forces are far larger than a single community can overcome. But she pushes back against fatalism by highlighting the differences that organized people with a purpose can achieve. There’s a word for that …

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