The causal feedback structure above is a primary driver of inequities in the United States, and has been for the past five or six generations. This is the central feedback loop for families in the US. We can start anywhere, so let’s start with housing quality. The higher the quality of housing/value of property, the higher the quality of education. This is a causal connection, meaning, on average, when housing values increase, the quality of education increases. Why? Good question. It’s because in the US, K-12 education is funded locally, predominantly through property taxes. This increases the dollars spent per student, and all else the same, increases educational quality. As a result, place matters.
Another contributor to structural inequity is education. A quality education, among other things, enables one to express and present oneself and prepares a person to work, increasing the quality of a person’s jobs. Employment quality could be measured by income provided, including health and financial benefits provided. All these contribute to a person’s wealth over time, and allow them to improve the quality of their housing. This then increases the quality of education available to their children, which allows them to have high quality employment, to accumulate more wealth, and so on – generation after generation.
This structure is called a Reinforcing feedback loop. Reinforcing feedback loops cause powerful growth dynamic. And not just linear growth, but exponential growth.
Here’s the thing about reinforcing loops – they can drive incredibly powerful exponential increase over time, AND they can drive exponential decreases.
Reinforcing Loops Cause Exponential Growth in Some Places and Exponential Decline in Other Places
Inequity is deeply rooted in geography. Historically in the US, real estate developers and regulators came up with a series of policies that segregated the housing stock in the US into categories: green, yellow, and red. The practice was known as “red lining” and relegated black people to live in the red areas, designated as risky for investors, these areas that were systematically devalued. A reader points out that this “assessor’s” bias remains in the system. For example, even today, identical properties occupied by a white family versus a family of color get assessed an average of $50,000 differently, [https://www.bankrate.com/real-estate/appraisal-gap-makes-homeownership-tougher-for-black-families/].
So, we have two different stories happening at the same time, but in different places; one is increasing value over time, and the other story starts with lower housing quality leading to lower quality of education, lower employment opportunity and quality, and no wealth accumulation. The dynamics in both types of communities keep going, generation after generation, reinforcing the initial change.
When you have the same structure driving these two stories – it’s a sign of a Success to the Successful dynamic. [More on the Success to the Successful dynamic here.]
That’s not all.
The families and kids growing up in the low wealth districts know exactly what has been going on. And they’re understandably angry and impatient. They know the history of generation after generation of free handouts to whites only (see GI Bill, Land Grants, etc.). They see little investment in their community health, but plenty of resources going to increasingly violent policing. These communities even have what’s called a School to Prison Pipeline. This is the practice of sending kids who express their anger and frustration in school directly into the criminal justice system — where they are pre-judged often based on the color of their skin.
These chains of cause and effect creates two more reinforcing feedback loops driving the American dream loop the wrong way.
The families and kids growing up in the low wealth districts know exactly what has been going on. And they’re understandably angry and impatient.
In fact, when these feedback loops get going the wrong direction, they all drag down the quality of life and health for many people in these communities, not just those who were incarcerated.
Because employment is the primary source for quality healthcare, many people working part-time, (a strategic choice by employers to decrease their labor costs), do not have sufficient access to healthcare.
The quality of healthcare received while incarcerated is woefully lacking as well. And, in the US, disease and accidents can be catastrophic to one’s financial health, as well physical and mental health.
Another important causal connection to note is the one that connects housing quality to health. The historically red-lined, poorer districts have long been known to be in the polluted parts of cities, closer to throughways, and in older buildings, with dilapidated housing, built with dangerous chemicals such as asbestos and lead paint. These factors lead to disease in adults – and children, making them less ready and able to flourish in traditional school settings.
So there are at least 5 reinforcing loops – aka vicious cycles, or doom loops, that bring and hold down entire populations health and well-being, and therefore earning potential.
Note that these forces have nothing to do with individuals’ innate capabilities. Which isn’t to say those that innate gifts don’t vary or matter, but these structures drive the overall behavior. For example, would all the people you know continue working for their employers if they didn’t have to? Probably not. For better or worse, most of us spend our lives responding to external forces, the structures in our society.
Now let’s try a thought experiment. Typically, high values in local housing tend to increase investment in that community, and discourage investment in in areas with the lowest housing values. Let’s say, some businesses, maybe in an effort to improve community amenities, (and also to capture profits in an untapped market at relatively lower entry costs) develop outlets in areas where property values are low, but nearby property values have recently increased.
What happens next? More businesses invest. Wealthier, often white people start to move into the community. The increased demand leads to increasing property values and rents. Then, the unintended side-effects develop. Over a period of years, unless the income level of the original residents increases, they will be pushed out. This is the common story of gentrification. This dynamic shows us that unbridled capitalism doesn’t solve everything. It tends to reward the haves and punish the have-nots. Unmitigated capitalism leads to that Success to the Successful dynamic.
The income and wealth disparities of the population in the US tell both of these stories. This is structure that drives them both. The built assets in our communities, the education funding tradition, and the policies within and connecting healthcare, housing, and justice together create almost inescapable burden for many communities.
There has been bias in each of these institutional systems for almost 250 years, and there is bias in the the links between them. They are well-documented, and I shared some resources here in a follow-up blog to give us a sense of the challenges we face in each area.
The only way to fix them is to consider how every historical policy has impacted communities differently – and to change those policies into ones that support wealth creation for everyone, but especially in the lower value communities, while minimizing unintended side-effects.
Fixing the structure driving inequities: Systemic prioritization
The institutions most needing analysis and reform from within are Education, Justice, Housing, and Health/Well-Being, with a priority on the first two. Education is essential to advancement and it is failing too many, and Justice at present time is unspeakably unjust.
But the many connections in between these areas are the ones that have given rise to this reinforcing Success to the Successful dynamic over the last 100 years. Here are key causal links to break as soon as possible:
1. Change education funding and programming to create equitable education for all children. Recognize there will be a significant delay to see the results.
2. Close down the school to prison pipeline. No more throwing kids’ lives away. Figure out different ways to get these youth on the right track, e.g. restorative and transformative justice are showing positive results.
3. Clean up the environment everywhere. Everyone must have clean water, air, and soil. This will take time too, though progress was being made until 2016.
4. Give everyone access to quality healthcare. Start with the ACA, and figure out how to make it sustainable. Shift healthcare investment focus to disease prevention. Invest in and build a mental health system.
When we cut these four causal links, we will disable these powerful, vicious cycles that continue to endow success only to those with previous financial success. It will still function to support the American Dream, but it won’t systemically trap those without means who falter.
It will be a start.
Do you have reactions? I’d love to hear them.
Partial List of Sources
The sources below support the instances of structural and historical inequities specifically referred to in this blog. A fuller bibliography supporting each causal link can be found here in a related post “The Structure of Inequity and Racism, Part 2 – Citations”.
The Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston. “1934–1968: FHA Mortgage Insurance Requirements Utilize Redlining.” A Historical Shift from Explicit to Implicit Policies Affecting Housing Segregation in Eastern Massachusetts. Date accessed 21 October, 2020. https://www.bostonfairhousing.org/timeline/1934-1968-FHA-Redlining.html
Blakemore, Erin. “How the GI Bill’s Promise Was Denied to a Million Black WWII Veterans.” June 21, 2019. History.com. Date accessed 21 October 2020. https://www.history.com/news/gi-bill-black-wwii-veterans-benefits
Merritt, Keri Leigh and Haselby, Sam. “Land and the roots of African American poverty.” March 11, 2016. Aeon.co. Date accessed 21 October 2020. https://aeon.co/ideas/land-and-the-roots-of-african-american-poverty
Nelson, Libby and Lind, Dana. “The School to Prison Pipeline, Explained.” February 24, 2015. Justice Policy Institute. Date accessed 21 October 2020. http://www.justicepolicy.org/news/8775
Adelman, Larry. “A Long History of Racial Preferences – For Whites.” RACE – The Power of an Illusion. 2003. Public Broadcasting System. Date accessed 21 October 2020. https://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_04-background-03-02.htm#s
Wile, Kristina. “Incarceration & Health – Part III The Racial Divide.” STCollab.com WordPress blog. September 9, 2016. Systems Thinking Collaborative. Date accessed 21 October 2020. https://www.stcollab.com/2016/09/09/incarceration-health-part-iii-the-racial-divide/
Avery, Beth and Lu, Han. “Ban the Box: U.S. Cities, Counties, and States Adopt Fair Hiring Policies.” September 20, 2020. National Employment Law Project. Date accessed 21 October 2020. https://www.nelp.org/publication/ban-the-box-fair-chance-hiring-state-and-local-guide/
Wile, Kristina. “Incarceration & Health – Part II Families Repeating Patterns.” STCollab.com WordPress blog. August 16, 2016. Systems Thinking Collaborative. Date accessed 21 October 2020. https://www.stcollab.com/2016/08/16/incarceration-health-part-ii-families-repeating-patterns/
Lerner, Michael. “One home, a lifetime of impact.” July 23, 2020. The Washington Post. Date accessed 21 October 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/07/23/black-homeownership-gap/
Wile, Kristina. “Are You a Giver or a Taker?” STCollab.com WordPress blog. Systems Thinking Collaborative. June 12, 2018. Date accessed 21 October 2020. https://www.stcollab.com/2018/06/12/are-you-a-giver-or-a-taker/