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Column: Frustration in Ferguson has Economic Roots

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Race

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It was the middle-class suburb of Ferguson that boiled over last week, but to the rest of the world this was a St. Louis crisis.

All that folks elsewhere know is that greater St. Louis has some problematic relationships between black and white, and between police and the community.

All of St. Louis needs to work on healing those relationships. And when we begin that process, we can’t ignore some festering economic issues.

St. Louis is not only one of the most segregated large metro areas in the U.S., it also has an unusually large economic gap between black and white. The unemployment rate for African-Americans here is about three times as high as the rate for whites.

According to census figures from 2012, 47 percent of the metro area’s African-American men between ages 16 and 24 are unemployed. The comparable figure for young white men is 16 percent.

Those figures should be just as shocking as the images of armed police confronting unarmed demonstrators, yet we take them for granted.

What’s more, poverty is more of a multigenerational phenomenon in St. Louis than elsewhere. A study called the Equality of Opportunity Project ranked us fourth from the bottom among 100 large cities on something called relative mobility, which compares the prospects for people born at the bottom and the top of the income distribution.

In more mobile places such as San Jose or Seattle, a person born poor is twice as likely to move up the income ladder as a person born into the same circumstances in St. Louis.

I should pause here to acknowledge that the demonstrations in Ferguson weren’t about jobs or lack of economic opportunity. People took to the streets out of anger over a young man’s death, and the protests grew when people felt their basic human rights were being disrespected.

Still, I can’t help but think the anger was intensified by a feeling of powerlessness, and it’s hard to ignore the ways in which the economy of the past few years has been hard on north St. Louis County.

North County was the epicenter of the area’s foreclosure crisis, and house prices in Ferguson are down 37 percent from their peak in 2007, according to Zillow. That’s a lot of vanished wealth.

“People didn’t just wake up one day and say, ‘We’re angry,’ ” says Chris Krehmeyer, president of the nonprofit group Beyond Housing. “Being angry was the result of years of frustration.”

Jamie Fogel, a researcher with the Equality of Opportunity Project, says that segregated housing and underperforming schools are among the things that are highly correlated with a lack of economic mobility. So is sprawl, measured by the percentage of people who drive 15 minutes or more to work each day.

He’s just described St. Louis, hasn’t he?

Todd Swanstrom, a professor of public policy at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, says he wasn’t surprised to see an angry crowd take to the streets in North County, although not necessarily in Ferguson.

“The city of Ferguson is not an extreme case of poverty, but it certainly is a case of rising poverty and segregation,” Swanstrom said. “Usually St. Louis is not at the cutting edge, but in terms of the suburbanization of poverty, we are.”

If police tactics were the spark that set off the explosion in Ferguson, then poverty and hopelessness were the tinder. Those in charge of the police can begin the healing process, but it won’t be complete unless we tackle the deeper economic issues, too.

David Nicklaus writes for the St. Louis Post Dispatch.