Thomas Edsall has a long, interesting piece in the Times discussing the issues that surround the placement of affordable housing, and especially the role of the non-profit companies that build a big share of subsidized homes.
To summarize: in America, most neighborhoods are strongly segregated by income, and many are strongly segregated by race. Most of the people who live on the same street or in the same building look alike. Most subsidized and publicly owned housing is built in poor neighborhoods, so children who grow up in subsidized housing grow up surrounded by poverty. The companies who build the housing strongly support this approach.
Various sociologists have shown that growing up in really poor neighborhoods is bad for poor children, especially if the poor neighborhood is all black. Poor kids who are moved to middle class neighborhoods and integrated schools do better. (That is, in terms of all the measures we use to track "success" in America, like high school graduation, college attendance, staying out of prison. Nobody seems to know if poor, black kids who move to white suburbs are happy.)
The solution proposed repeatedly by liberals, and advocated by Edsall, is to forcibly integrate the country: to break down class barriers by repealing restrictive zoning rules, building subsidized apartments next to country clubs, redrawing school district boundaries so that each district contains a mix of rich, poor, and middle class children, and generally making it illegal for the rich and white to withdraw from the rest of the country.
I am profoundly ambivalent about this.
I live in Catonsville partly because it is a mixed community. It is majority white and majority middle class, and I feel very safe here. But there is a working-class black neighborhood, which has been black since the town was founded after the Civil War, and the elementary school district boundaries are drawn so that the kids from Winters Lane are distributed among three schools. Middle class blacks and Asians are sprinkled across all the neighborhoods. There is only one public Middle School and High School, so they are integrated. My basketball game is mixed-race. I like all of this, and I have no desire to live in some sort of all-white, upper middle class enclave.
But if the county tried to build a block of low-income apartments across the street from me, I would raise hell. First, this would cause the value of my house to fall by at least $50,000, a sort of one-time tax that falls only on the people unlucky enough to live near such projects. I'm all for taxation, but only if it is distributed fairly. Redrawing school district lines can have similar effects; if your house was rezoned from the Catonsville high school district to the Lansdowne district, its value would plummet. Is that fair?
More broadly, how much social engineering of this sort can a democracy engage in, when a large majority of the public opposes it? School busing turned out to be a disaster from which many American cities are only now recovering. Instead of letting their children be bused across town to integrated schools, millions of white Americans (and a few black ones) decamped en masse for the suburbs. The net result was that after a gigantic uproar that launched riots in some cities and cold war in others, big city public schools ended up more segregated than before. This is progress?
Consider the costs -- broadly defined -- of building public housing in a wealthy suburb. First, the land would be hugely expensive, adding millions to the project budget. The neighbors would immediately file suit to stop the plan, adding millions more. They would also lobby the hell out of their elected officials, who would be forced to take sides for or against the plan; any who supported it would surely be voted out at the next opportunity and quite likely replaced by angry, anti-government ideologues. Everyone would be pissed off and there would be ugliness everywhere. Is it any wonder that people who build low-income housing for a living don't want to do this? Could you stand to go to work every day knowing that you were enraging all your neighbors? Ugh.
This is a democracy, after all, and the majority doesn't want forced integration of neighborhoods or schools. How hard should liberals push against that, especially since the main effect in the short term is to aid the Republican Party?
I think things like subsidized housing and food stamps are the wrong response to poverty anyway, and what we ought to do is just give people money. Everybody in Alaska gets an annual check from the government, and it doesn't seem to have ruined them. So why not just turn all our anti-poverty programs into cash grants? That would short-circuit this whole debate.