Orlando is the least economically segregated large metro area in the United States according to a recent report update from sociologist Richard Florida. This is good news for Orlando. Economic segregation, especially for the poor, has proven to be a significant social problem. Absent the social networks that open doors to the best of careers, the quality education that helps one obtain and succeed in those careers, and the role models that demonstrate the breadth of what is possible, the most talented and ambitious among us struggle to succeed.
And it’s not just about money. It’s the “deleterious social effects that accompany spatial concentration of poverty” – the stigmatization, the alienation, and the moral cynicism (Florida, Wilson, Sampson). These, and other factors, serve as psychological and sociological reinforcements that must be contended with to develop an abiding sense of one’s intrinsic self-worth even if one’s economic worth remains relatively low.
The level to which U.S. neighborhoods are economically segregated has more than doubled in the past forty years. The wealthy and the poor are becoming less and less likely to interact with one another and, as Richard Florida puts it, “effectively occupy different worlds.”
And since we tend to distrust that which we do not understand and tend to not understand that with which we do not interact, our economic segregation poses significant problems in building dignified relationships across socio-economic lines; the types of relationships that enrich perspective and facilitate opportunity.
From 1978 to 2012, in roughly the same time frame as the doubling of economic segregation, average CEO pay has risen 875 percent while the typical worker’s pay has risen 5 percent. These two facts are not completely disconnected. CEO pay is approved by board members who, most likely, are relatively high wage earners themselves. If these board members live in enclaves starkly separated from low wage earners, it’s not difficult to imagine the ease with which they might approve such disproportionate levels of CEO pay.
Said another way, when you do not know anyone personally who works a low-wage job, it’s easier to forget about them and to make decisions that adversely affect them without necessarily harboring any ill will towards them.
Currently, however, Orlando is less economically segregated than any other large metro. The main reason for this fact is the fundamental nature of the area’s economy – tourism and hospitality. Working and service class economies “militate against economic segregation” while knowledge-based economies tend to be the most economically segregated (R. Florida). Said another way, high-tech, creative class workers with college degrees seem to leverage their options to separate themselves from the poor.
Attracting these workers, and the industries that employ them, is a priority for many leaders in Central Florida who see diversifying the economy as one of the best ways to strengthen the region. There is wisdom in this goal. Orlando’s service sector economy has proven to be very vulnerable to national and even international economic downturns.
But if Orlando succeeds in diversifying the economy by becoming more high-tech, it will likely become much more economically segregated. Either way, Orlando’s population will almost certainly continue to grow and larger urban areas tend to be more economically segregated.
While Orlando is the least economically segregated large metro (more than one million people), it is still ranked 203 out of the 350 metros that were analyzed in the study. Orlando is economically segregated, just less so than other large areas. Add the inevitable population increase and a successful move to a more knowledge-based economy, and Orlando will drop further down the list unless steps are taken to prevent it.
So what steps could Orlando take to improve its economic diversity?
- Focus on neighborhoods – If our distressed neighborhoods become more desirable places to live, those with a wider range of choices will choose to move in or to not move out of these communities. According to Richard Florida’s study, it is the migration of the wealthy to exclusive enclaves that most propels economic segregation. Polis Institute identified 100 distressed neighborhoods in 2009 and outlined a best-practice driven plan to remediate this distress over a generation (distress was calculated as an index of income, housing, education, family structure, and crime rate variables). Five years into the process, tangible progress is being made in over 20 of these neighborhoods. Continuing to utilize asset-based strategies with the residents of small geographic areas is still the best option to strengthen these areas.
- Choose diversity – Nothing fuels economic segregation more than personal choice. If people don’t personally see the value of living in and interacting with economically diverse communities, they will not choose to do so. So value-espousing institutions such as churches have a responsibility to communicate the value of diversity. This may require a learning curve or even a wholesale paradigm shift for the leaders of such institutions. The book Place not Race makes a strong case that diverse classrooms are far more adept at raising educational achievement levels than merely providing additional resources. Living life with people of different backgrounds and social status proves over and over to be of benefit to everyone involved. But such diversity doesn’t always come easy. It has to be worked for and in order for people to work for it, they have to value it. In order to value it, they have to understand it.
Orlando is changing. The four counties that make up the metro area (Orange, Seminole, Osceola, and Lake) have seen a net population increase of 88 people per day, every day, for over 40 years and counting (U.S. Census, ESRI). As more people call this area home, as leaders work to attract more knowledge-based businesses, as world-class venues get upgraded and built, Orlando is becoming a big city.
Orlando’s emergence on the big city scene affords it a tremendous opportunity – to show the country how a big city can still enjoy economic diversity and afford its citizens, all of its citizens, genuine opportunity to rise with the tide. By improving quality of life in distressed neighborhoods and by embracing diversity at the personal level, Orlando could accomplish what no other major city in the U.S. has been able to accomplish – retaining richly diverse communities that grow and thrive together.