Do the Suburbs Make You Selfish?

Urban areas have begun to outpace the growth of suburbs. Could that be good for America's social ecology?

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New numbers from the Census Bureau suggest that America’s long love affair with the suburbs may be cooling off just a bit: In the year-long span from July 2010 to July 2011, in the majority of America’s largest metropolitan areas, densely packed urban areas grew faster than suburbs – reversing a trend that has held since the heyday of the Model-T in the 1920s. If this current trend holds, it could be good news for the environment, reducing the time commuters spend in gas-guzzling cars going to and from their jobs in the city. Could it also be good for America’s social ecology?

That’s one of the implications of a new paper by Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, which takes aim at something that many homeowners and would-be homeowners consider as American as apple pie and Apple iPads: the home mortgage interest deduction.

Glaeser argues that the deduction, as well as other governmental policies that encourage homeownership, effectively “bribe” the well-off to segregate themselves from poorer people by abandoning more diverse cities for more homogenous and affluent suburbs.

(MORE: How the Rich Got Rich)

As Glaeser explains:

The most fundamental fact about rental housing in the United States is that rental units are overwhelmingly in multifamily structures. … More than 85 percent of single-family dwellings are owner occupied; more than 85 percent of dwellings in homes with more than three units are rented. When the federal government subsidizes homeownership explicitly, through the home mortgage interest deduction, and implicitly, through the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, it is pushing Americans away from dense multiunit dwellings toward sprawling single-family detached homes.

Obviously there are plenty of single-family homes in cities. But dense urban areas can’t exist without a large percentage of multifamily structures, from 2-flats to giant residential skyscrapers.

And as more affluent Americans have moved to the suburbs, they have also moved away from poorer neighbors.

Because poorer people tend to live disproportionately in cities … bribing wealthier people to leave higher density apartments is increasing the physical, and possibly also the social, distance between rich and poor.

Citing the work of economist Erzo F. P. Luttmer, who found that support for redistributionist policies was greater among those who live near poor people of the same race, Glaeser argues that “[i]f proximity breeds empathy …  then distance may reduce that empathy.”

(MORE: How to Improve Obamacare)

While Glaeser’s argument here remains speculative, it’s in line with a great deal of recent research that suggests wealth (and the attendant ability to segregate oneself from the poor) may make people more selfish and less empathetic. In a cover story in the latest issue of New York magazine, Lisa Miller uses this research to present a compelling case that “Money Can Make You Mean.” As one money-empathy researcher, Berkeley psychologist Paul Piff, tells Miller:

[T]he rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people. It makes them more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, a**holes.

Some of the most interesting research on what New York magazine calls the “money-empathy gap” comes from another Berkeley psychologist, Jennifer Stellar. In one recent experiment, Stellar showed a group of ethnically and socially diverse students a video depicting a family trying to deal with a child with cancer; while the video tugged at the heartstrings of all those who watched it, lower-class students felt more compassion and empathy for the struggles of those in the video.

As Stellar explains in a statement about her research,

It’s not that the upper classes are coldhearted. … They may just not be as adept at recognizing the cues and signals of suffering because they haven’t had to deal with as many obstacles in their lives.

Are there ways to help decrease this “money-empathy gap” short of having everyone in the suburbs move back into the city? In Forbes, Alice G. Walton turns to Beverly Hills psychiatrist Reef Karim, who has treated a lot of troubled rich folks. “When you massage that money-making muscle for so long, it doesn’t go away,” Dr. Karim tells Forbes. “It informs all of your relationships. CEOs of big companies have some of the most sociopathic traits … because … those personality traits lend themselves so well to business. But the downside is that they’re very hard to shut off.”

Dr. Karim finds that teaching his patients meditation and mindfulness are effective ways to develop what he calls the “empathy muscle.” I’m guessing not many of Karim’s patients follow the Buddha one step further, giving up their worldly possessions to live amongst the poor. But if the research of Piff, Stellar and others holds true, such practices could teach more than a few Scrooges a lot of empathy, very quickly.