Five ways to save Ferguson’s economy

Political empowerment has limits.
Political empowerment has limits.
Image: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
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Drive a short distance west of “ground zero” in Ferguson toward Lambert St. Louis International Airport, and you will find the overgrown lots, blocked streets and crumbling building foundations of Kinloch, once an all-black town of about 10,000 residents—one of nine such cities in the US back in the 1960s. Kinloch at the time was a politically autonomous black community, created in 1948 by residents of an unincorporated area of St. Louis County—then a blank space on the map of mainly middle-class white towns that had developed the region over the years.

Some residents had migrated to Kinloch from the South in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Others settled as returning soldiers after World War I, and some moved from Illinois after the East St. Louis race riots of 1917. After World War II, new residents often sought refuge from living and housing conditions facing African Americans in the city of St Louis.

Kinloch residents were fully empowered at the municipal level, and were free to plan and conduct their own affairs by whatever means they chose to try improving the conditions of their life. Indeed, the town was established on the premise that, through a substantial measure of self-determination, African Americans could gain what they were denied in superordinate white-dominated political structures. The town formed a circumscribed and identifiable political unit, and its well-marked borders formed social as well as political boundaries. For advocates of separatist-style Black Power in those years, Kinloch might have provided an ideal beta-test for the independent development of black-led institutions and separatism.

But in a social and economic study of Kinloch at a time of serious US racial tensions in the late 1960s, John E. Kramer—then a sociologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis—and I concluded that the overall effect of political autonomy on Kinloch’s economy was primarily adverse. Kinloch appeared to be a strikingly depressed and stagnant zone of economic deprivation in the midst of a rapidly growing region during the prosperous years of the 1960s. The social and physical contrasts between it and its immediate neighbors like Ferguson were remarkable and obvious.

Making sustainable economic progress proved to be a tough slog for Kinloch. There were new street lights at street corners, a new fire engine and some other gains, but such progress may well have materialized anyway if the community had remained an unincorporated area of St. Louis County. A federal grant for sewer con­struction might not have been forthcoming had Kinloch remained unincorporated, but the important grant seemed less a consequence of political autonomy and the develop­ment of strong indigenous political institutions than the result of one individual’s personal initiative. Most importantly, the Kinloch schools remained a hopeless exercise in economic hardship, even as social ties centered on the town’s churches were impressive and serious leaders emerged from time to time to try and make a difference.

Meantime local taxes were much higher than they would have been if the municipality had not been formed. The tax base was just too small. So Kinloch residents had lower disposable incomes under home rule and public revenue was woefully deficient. The sadly inferior schools the town was able to maintain had an evident and predictably deleterious effect on the academic and vocational skill levels of its work force at a time of plentiful jobs in the St. Louis region. Perhaps the most discouraging single impression during our research was a large pile of books, donated by other St. Louis County school districts, piled in the library basement under a foot or two of water.

In the end, we concluded that the residents of Kinloch had gained little materially from political independence, and may have lost a good deal more—we could find no identifiable connection between political autonomy and improvement of economic welfare. The economic “air supply” was absent, and there was nothing on the horizon back 50 years ago that might have given substance to hope—the critical sequencing of economic development and political empowerment suggested in Jason Riley’s new book Please Stop Helping Us in the case of Kinloch was, in effect, reversed.

In today’s coverage of Ferguson, few media reports mention neighboring Kinloch, and when they do it’s about unruly kids crossing the town line and vandalizing local homes. Going forward, developments in Ferguson may mirror what happened in Kinloch in the 1960s and ultimately brought it down.

Here we have a valuable, nearby warning that empowerment, desirable as it may be, is limited in its ability to foster development. In the end, people want to improve their lives. Period. And that involves going back to the basics of creating marketable labor skills through serious primary and secondary school reforms including quality vocational training, attracting capital investment through an enterprise zone or similar incentives, installing a competent and empowered town manager and providing well-funded public services—as places like Camden, New Jersey are starting to show, nothing is impossible.

If the new Ferguson wants to succeed, an object lesson is right next door. Political empowerment by itself won’t cut it.

Looking ahead at the future of Ferguson after the events of recent weeks, it seems certain that the overwhelming African-American majority will press for empowerment in municipal affairs. This transition needs to come with a parallel effort to strengthen the municipal economy.

The efforts for greater economic empowerment must draw on any and all local and external resources to prevent a “politics of scarcity” that can end badly for the town and its residents. For Ferguson and other towns like it across America, there are five ways for citizens to empower themselves economically, and in turn financially, for progress more effective than political empowerment:

  1. Create marketable labor skills through serious primary and secondary school reforms.
  2. Quality vocational training.
  3. Attract capital investment through an enterprise zone or similar incentives.
  4. Install a competent and empowered town manager.
  5. Provide well-funded public services.