“Pretty Cute Watching Boston Residents Play Daily Game Of ‘Big City’” runs the headline for a recent article in The Onion. The beloved king of nothing-is-sacred, satirical journalism was hilarious of course. Boston.com ran a good-natured satirical post in response. Not surprisingly, the “Pretty Cute” article also raised some hackles around what is, apparently for some, a sore subject around here.
The satirical back and forth is all in good fun of course, but Tom Keane’s Op-Ed Column in the Globe smacks of something worse than taking a joke too seriously: rose-tinted glasses that see right past serious social problems.
Keane rattles off a number of ways in which Boston just can’t be a truly big city, all of which help paint the lovely image of the progressive “Athens of America” that Boston projects with such pride. While I have very little doubt that his statements are technically true, they are also maddeningly selective in the story they tell.
You can see Boston’s shortcomings in its wealth and demographics. At over $62,000, Boston’s median household income is above that of New York, LA, and Chicago.
The median is a tricky statistical value; there are so many different income distributions that can arrive at a particular median value that the number in itself doesn’t really tell you much. But what about Radio Boston’s report just over a year ago on WBUR that Boston’s income inequality is among the worst in the United States? Which income indicator is a better measure of how we live up to our stated ideals?
Boston is better educated — as a percentage of the population, more of us have high school, college, and advanced degrees. Again, Boston loses: Real cities should be older, stodgy and a little bit dumb.
Who gets that great Boston education? Lee and Orfield in their 2005 paper “Why Segregation Matters: Poverty and Educational Inequality“ from the Harvard Civil Rights Project reads
“Our study of metro Boston shows a strong relationship between segregation by race and poverty and teacher quality, test scores and dropout rates. In the entire metro region, 97 percent of the schools with less than a tenth white students face concentrated poverty compared to 1 percent of the schools with less than a tenth minority students” (p 6).
So as not to start a rant specifically on education (though that may come later), I’ll move on. Back to Keane:
Real cities should also be maelstroms of despair and anxiety, filled with poverty and unemployment. Yet with a startlingly low unemployment rate of 5.9 percent, Boston is getting close to the level economists think of as full employment (4.5 percent).
Poverty and employment are related, but not the same thing. People can be underemployed, which means they don’t count toward the unemployment rate but still make less than enough to live on or less than their education should permit — thereby pushing lower-skilled workers to leave the workforce entirely. Or they could be among the rapidly rising tide of the legally disabled, who also don’t count toward unofficial unemployment numbers. Even if Keane had looked at Boston’s poverty rates (which are actually lower on average for US cities), looking at the overall rate misses the stark geographic segregation and ethnic disparities of just who is in poverty here in Boston.
And if being poor weren’t hard enough — the classism in recently exposed exploitation and corruption in the Boston taxi system, with city officials complicit, is but one example of social injustice is systemic, not isolated and extraordinary.
Ok ok, I’ll stop ranting. Look, don’t get me wrong, I love my new city. But it is a love formed (and really, still forming) based on the work I do to help make it, and by extension our shared future as world citizens, better.
If Keane wanted to fire back on the joke with a serious point, I think that he could have at least been balanced about it. There’s no harm in city pride, and I’m sure Keane is well aware of the caveats himself. But there’s a lot of people outside (and let’s admit it, inside) this city that would rather pretend that we live in an affluent yuppie paradise that is the bastion and example of the Democratic Party way.
Columns like Keane’s can give credence to those who’d rather not open their eyes to the ways in which we, unfortunately, are very much like other big US cities. And that’s a comparison we have yet to face down successfully — as a city and as a nation.