The Backlash Against Richard Florida is Overblown and Insidious

Writers of all stripes been winding up to give creative class guru Richard Florida a verbal spanking after one study questioned whether his theories, put into practice, offer much help for the poor.

Florida himself brought it up in a column for Atlantic Cities, citing a study showing that “talent agglomeration” in cities did lift income levels broadly. But the study showed that the income gains in these trendy metros were eaten up by increased housing prices.

It’s an important finding, and to give credit where credit is due, Mr. Creative Class himself was the first one to bring it to anyone’s attention. Since then, a parade of writers have basically been calling him a fraud who’s ruining America.

Most, including Florida himself, are alarmed by the study. Those who care about cities and income inequality don’t want to see the sins of the last generation repeated.

So we should all be sensitive to how our cities develop and how the poor are impacted by it. If there is evidence that poor people aren’t enjoying proportional benefits from certain urban development strategies, that needs to be explored, and it needs to be adjusted.

One study found talent agglomeration does lead to wage increases–but those increases are offset by increased housing prices; this doesn’t mean everything Richard Florida ever said was wrong, or that talent agglomeration (basically highly educated, entrepreneurial types moving to the same place ) isn’t a strategy worth pursuing.

Richard Florida never styled himself as a poverty researcher, nor did he claim that his theories were the antidote to urban poverty. Talent agglomeration, trying to attract certain people to your city, was an economic development strategy–nothing more, nothing less. Prior to this whole idea catching on, urban economic development strategies mostly consisted of offering big tax incentives to corporations or building stadiums and convention centers, all of which were of extremely dubious benefit to the poor, and weren’t necessarily sold as a way to help the poor in and of itself.

So, what I’m saying is, if Richard Florida’s ideas don’t turn out to be the answer to poverty in America, it’s disappointing. But that doesn’t make him a fraud.

What we have is a study showing that talent agglomeration is basically a wash for the poor on two criteria: income and housing costs. That’s pretty telling, and those are two really important criteria for examining the impact of these policies on the poor. But they aren’t the whole story.

I’d be curious to know what impact talent agglomeration has on unemployment rates, regionally adjusted poverty rates, labor force participation, and social mobility. It’s still possible that talent agglomeration does benefit the poor, the counterintuitiveness of which is perhaps why this study has garnered so much attention.

The question in my mind is, is a poor person living in Boston, the site of a good deal talent agglomeration, equally well off as a poor person living in Detroit because of the difference in housing costs? I think the intuitive answer is no. Poor people in Boston most likely enjoy access to better services and, most importantly, in my opinion, better transit. Poor people in Boston who happen to be homeowners are also much more likely to see that investment appreciate. This is not an insignificant factor, because homeownership represents a greater portion of total assets for low-income earners than for the general population. We would assume, which the study bears out, that poor people in Boston also have access to better economic opportunities.

There are so many factors outside of housing and income, I think it would be difficult to measure them all. But one factor that I think would be most telling of all is immigration. The places where people are immigrating to in the United States can tell us a lot about opportunities provided to lower-income earners. If more immigrants, and even domestic migrants, are going to Boston than Detroit, I think it is reasonable to assume they are acting on self interest with a reasonable appraisal of the opportunities presented by those places.

What might be even more interesting would be to examine whether poor people in New York or Washington are better off today than poor people were in New York or Washington in the 1970s.

Anyway, if talent agglomeration isn’t helping low-income earners as much as it should, it doesn’t necessarily negate that theory. We have evidence, from the study in question, that it’s increasing incomes even for the lowest earners. Affordable housing strategies could help tilt the scales more in their favor. And that seems to be what this study calls for, rather than for a public flogging of Richard Florida (linkbait).

I think a lot of the backlash we’ve seen against Florida has been hasty and overblown. Some of it has come from sprawl boosters like Joel Kotkin who push an agenda that offers far worse outcomes for the poor.

One other reason I think people are so eager to see Florida put in his place, so to say, when it really comes down to it, is class resentment. A lot of people feel resentful of the class of people I’ll call, for lack of a better term, “gentrifiers.” I think it’s easy to blame poor people’s problems on them. Attacking Richard Florida becomes shorthand for “I’m on the side of the poor, not of the gentrifiers” or “I occupy the higher moral ground in this argument.” Which is sort of annoying to read, because everyone sharing and writing these articles is themselves part of the gentrifying class (outside of Joel Kotkin, an old suburban man who REALLY hates gentrifiers).

But the interests of the poor and of the “gentrifiers” aren’t necessarily at odds. I think they’re actually aligned more often than we think.

Even this study demonstrates that they’re not at odds, only that one group’s success does not necessarily translate into success for the other group, at least not in the aggregate. What seems so glaringly obvious, and is for some reason being ignored in this debate, is that that probably has more to do with general, macro income inequality trends than with anything Richard Florida ever said.

Anyway, it’s too soon to throw out Richard Florida’s ideas, which boil down to the really quite noble idea of making cities inviting, healthy places. That’s not an easy thing to accomplish, especially when we throw in generations-old class divides. And a lot of self-interested demagogues like Kotkin are simply intent on preserving the hardly-more-equitable development patterns that prevailed in decades past.

There will be a lot to study and readjust going forward, as we continue to learn what makes cities and our society function best. That’s what this new information calls for–readjustment–not a wholesale rejection of Florida’s ideas.

–A.S.

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