Thursday, June 14, 2018

Getting Political in Response to Wichita's Problems

[This is an expanded and more contextualized version of the editorial which appeared in the Wichita Eagle this morning.]

James Chung is a business analyst and professional number-cruncher, as well as native of Wichita, KS, though he's lived in Cambridge, MA, for many years. Four years ago, the Wichita Community Foundation, a non-profit organization set up by local business leaders and activists who want to see Wichita's cultural diversify and its economy grow, started occasionally bringing Chung to the city to do interviews, analyze data, and draw conclusions based on what he sees. Chung latest visit ended on Monday, and his report then was easily his most important yet.

Why? Because he sees Wichita as facing a catastrophe of its own making.

Specifically, while other mid-sized, traditionally manufacturing-based cities in the Midwest and Great Plains have grown in line with the national economy over the past four years, sometimes outpacing it, Wichita hasn't. There are, as I and others have written about at length, many reasons, grounded in history and economics and demographics, why mid-sized cities have struggled to take advantage of various nationalized and globalized flows of human and financial capital, opening them up to all sorts of debt-driven growth temptations to make up for the productive work which the larger urban agglomerations of America and the world increasingly suck up. But while the details deep in the weeds can always be argued about, Chung seems to have controlled for most of that. Broadly speaking, while huge problems remain, comparable cities like Grand Rapids, Des Moines, Youngstown, Toledo, Muncie, Omaha, Cedar Rapids, and others, have basically done well, from the perspective of a growth-minded business analyst like Chung at least. They have increased their GDP, they have seen their work force expand and diversify, and their home values have gone up. And none of those things are true of Wichita. In fact, every single one of them is the opposite.

Chung brings this together into three mutually re-inforcing and inter-related obstacles, two of them economic, one of them cultural. First, our city fails to hold on to many able workers, particularly single and professional women between 20 and 45, and racial minorities who have earn associate degrees or more. In other words, the pay gap many women experience in Wichita (which is greater than in many of our peer cities), and the lack of inclusion and support which ambitious, college-educated non-whites experience when they attempt to attain jobs and capital in the midst of our old-boys network business climate, leads them to leave the city. Add to that the fact that Wichita State University, as the largest college in the city, exports to other communities and states a far greater percentage of its graduates than any other other state university, and you have a recipe for a city that 1) grows slowly in population, and 2) sees its population gradually become older, even as the percentages of Wichita's overall urban population becomes, like all cities across the country, increasingly diverse. (Hence the tension in the city over higher education; while one must allow for the influence of Republican partisanship, the fact that only a third of Wichitans claimed in a recent poll to believe that higher education served a positive role in our country can't be entirely blamed on Fox News talking points).

The second economic factor is more straightforward: our city’s donor and professional class--again, in comparison to the levels of public and private investment in other comparably sized cities in the Midwest--is terribly cheap, consistently choosing not to invest in local arts and commerce, and often refusing to support even minimal taxation schemes to provide seed money for crucial civic projects. The funds which the Wichita Community Foundation, for example, is able to raise from individuals or corporations, either for entirely privately funded projects or projects which would supplement public expenditures, is not just tens, but sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars less than other equivalent cities have been able to make available. This defensiveness, this stinginess, is related to the former, labor-constraining, anti-education and anti-inclusion attitude, and best encapsulated into Chung's final, broadly cultural conclusion: Wichita's city and corporate leaders too often simply say “no” to any proposal with the aim of making Wichita more cosmopolitan, or to projects which would require significant capital investment. There is, in Chung's view, a "wiring" problem in Wichita which incentivizes close-minded behavior that simply doesn't limit civic options in other similar cities the same way it appears to do so here.

How to respond to these mutually re-enforcing problems? Chung is right that there is no “silver bullet”; re-igniting Wichita’s economy, and re-envisioning its culture, will require doing lots of small things differently, not just one large thing. But that said, there is one large thing which Chung–perhaps wisely–has never mentioned in any of his presentations: that is, politically addressing just who those city and corporate leaders are, and challenging their beliefs when they contribute to the aforementioned obstacles. True, the “wiring” that Chung describes as generating negativity in Wichita can't be entirely reduced the city's often conservative, insular, individualistic political culture–but to be sure, the system-wide incentives which that culture creates certainly are inseparable from it. Addressing these Wichita-specific problems must include at least attempting to make political changes, at the very least.

The Wichita Community Foundation made a set of “Truth and Dare” cards to accompany Chung’s presentation, each one highlighting a challenging fact about Wichita and inviting those reading to respond. The Dares included in these cards are thoughtful, touching on the need to learn more about alternative transportation, to participate in programs aimed at expanding literacy, to contribute time to non-profit organizations, to better appreciate the diversity of worship services in the city, to visit parks and restaurants in parts of the city where you usually don't go, and much more here. But only two of them directly mention politics or government, and those two are pretty mild: attend city council meetings! Remember to vote! And while I say the same thing to my students all the time, I think something being labeled a "catastrophe" deserves a little bit more.

So if I may, allow me to take Chung’s conclusions directly into the realm of political action, and suggest a few, more demanding, Truth and Dare cards of my own, for the benefit of any Wichita resident who might happen to be reading this:

There are city and county leaders in Wichita and Sedgwick County who consistently oppose resolutions and projects which would demonstrate greater openness to the concerns of non-whites, non-home-owners, immigrants, and LGBT individuals in our city. Often these issues aren't even expressed in terms of immediate, costly achievements; they just reflect a demand to be heard. This sets a tone which discourages many workers (particularly young ones) from remaining in our city, and discourages many college graduates (particularly of minority populations) from taking jobs here. So find out who these leaders are, contact them, attend meetings with them, push them to change their positions--and if they won’t, run against them in the next election, or support someone who will.

There are city and county leaders who consistently support developments which, however attractive they may seem on paper and however seriously they appear to take environmental or entertainment concerns, ultimately will only expand the city’s suburban footprint, stretching out and disconnecting our human and financial resources into an often alienating--even if nicely designed!--sprawl. This, in turn, discourages many donors from attempting to address Wichita’s needs in a comprehensive, unifying way, to say nothing empowering those interests who think getting money into building roads is the only thing that matters (Wichita's current, unsupplemented sales tax is required by law to be spent on bridges and streets) in their quest to push available charitable funds outside the city, or into suburban projects not at all tied to the cities core civic needs. So fight those developments, protest them, and run against those who support them, or get involved in electing someone who will.

Finally, and most importantly, there are people serving as our representatives on the state and national level who pay no attention whatsoever to the fact that there are Wichitans, like other urban populations across the country, who are organizing to affect change in this city, regarding wages, police policies, civil rights, environmental sustainability, and more. Instead, these (admittedly, almost entirely Republican) leaders lean on the same national talking points, the same partisan tropes, all under the assumption that Wichita’s voters always have been and will always remain a defensive, unimaginative bunch, and thus will re-elect them. My challenge? Exactly what you can expect by now: get informed, organize, volunteer, door knock, make phone calls, donate, and prove our current political class wrong.

No, I am not saying that a political upheaval among our leadership class will automatically fix the bad, systemic economic and cultural habits which Chung has laid before us. But if we refuse to challenge reigning political assumptions entirely, if we refuse to allow for the possibility of actually electing someone other than business-minded, developer-friendly, civically disconnected conservatives (hence the need for parties!)--or even, given the hold which partisan perspectives have on both leaders and voters, if we refuse to contemplate forcing a different kind of conservatism into the local Republican mix--then the incentives those habits reward will only continue to make Wichita’s tendency to say “no” seem reasonable, and nothing besides small, symbolic changes will ever be possible. True, a “yes” mentality probably won’t emerge with any one election. But we here in Wichita will never know unless we try.


Jane T Byrnes said...

Just re-read this, Russell. Thanks for nurturing the topic of the Built Community on 2-26-19, to expand on your comments above, at least among the panelists. At this time, we DO have a different and possibly positive county commission. It'd be nice to strategic and focused.

Russell Arben Fox said...

I'm so glad you've heard about the event and are planning to attend, Jane! I haven't started to prep for it yet, but I think it'll be a great conversation.