Hometown Inequality

Cambridge University Press

On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year old African American man, was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, following a violent altercation on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. At the time of these tragic events, the city's politics were characterized by gross racial and political imbalances. Viewed at a broader level, the tragic events in the city raised more general questions about the quality of local democracy. Are local governments responsive to the preferences of their citizens -- and, in particular, of non-white and poorer citizens? Can local governing and electoral institutions enhance -- or erode -- the political power of non-whites and those with lower incomes? In short, (how) does municipal politics matter for marginalized citizens? 

To address these questions, our book uses advances in ``big data" to produce an unprecedented large-scale analysis of inequality and representation in local communities across the United States. Moving beyond assessment of inequities in descriptive representation, we combine data drawn from a national voter file database of demographic, political, and marketing information, with comprehensive information on public policies, in a sample of over 500 municipalities (including large cities, midsize communities, and small towns) to determine how well the ideologies of different racial and class groups of Americans are represented both on municipal councils and in local government policy. We compliment this large-scale analysis with interviews with local elected officials, journalists, and representatives from civic and business organizations and reviews of local news media, which provide rich insights on the complexities of local politics. ``All politics is local," former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill claimed; and our research enables us to investigate, with unprecedented detail, whether those politics form the foundation of a healthy civic life.

Contrary to claims that local politics are characterized by ideological moderation and limited conflict, we find considerable variation in the ideologies of different racial and class groups within local communities. More pointedly, and in a departure from recent research emphasizing the responsiveness of local governments to the average resident, our research reveals systematic racial and class biases in representation in local government. Whites, and to a lesser degree wealthier people, receive substantially more ideological representation both from local government officials and from municipal policy outputs than do non-whites and less wealthy individuals, respectively. Furthermore, contrary to the popular assumption that governments that are “closest” govern best, we find that inequalities in representation are most severe in suburbs and small towns. 

These findings raise serious questions about the capacity of municipalities to represent the interests of the less-advantaged. Indeed, our results suggest that the current move toward political decentralization and reduced federal government authority will likely hurt already-vulnerable Americans the most.