To be sure, a movement to increase wages for poor Americans already exists in the Fight for $15. But Kahlenberg’s proposals, laid out in the issue brief, A New Era of Civil Rights, go beyond wages. Here are a few of his proposals:
To start with, Kahlenberg calls for a new Fair Housing Act that would make it illegal for municipalities to employ the type of exclusionary zoning practices—ones that ban apartments of a certain size or require a minimum lot size—that make it impossible for the poor or working class to live in better-resourced communities. Such a proposal may appeal to conservatives, since it requires the government to get out of the way and allow developers to build whatever they want, where they want.
This already happened, to a degree, in New Jersey, when a landmark New Jersey Supreme Court decision ruled that local zoning laws excluded low-income families, violating the state constitution. As a result, an affordable-housing community was built in wealthy Mount Laurel, with dramatically positive results for residents and no negative impact on the community, according to work by the Princeton sociologist Doug Massey.
Another approach (and one that conservatives are sure to like less) would be for cities and towns to also make an effort to require more inclusionary zoning, Kahlenberg says, having developers set aside a portion of new housing units for low- and moderate-income families. About 10 percent of the population lives in cities and states with mandatory inclusionary-zoning requirements.
The federal government should also expand the Moving to Opportunity Program, which moves families from poor neighborhoods to areas with better schools and lower poverty levels. Recent research from Harvard has shown that the program had better outcomes than originally thought: Income for adults who moved as children was 31 percent higher than for kids who stayed, and people who moved as kids were 16 percent more likely to attend college.
Racial inequity in public schools was one of the things that motivated the Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit. More schools are racially integrated today than in 1954, but many school districts are still economically segregated, Kahlenberg told me. In Louisville, for instance, which has made dramatic progress in integrating its schools, Kahlenberg found a school that was half black and half white, but 100 percent poor, which isn’t ideal for any student.
“A racially-integrated school that is economically segregated doesn’t take us far enough,” he told me.
Some school districts have already started trying to integrate schools by socioeconomic status, using voluntary school-choice programs and creating magnet theme schools. Kahlenberg recommends expanding those efforts, and making sure charter schools try to be socioeconomically integrated, too.