The Fight to Save the Town: Reimagining Discarded America with Michelle Wilde Anderson

Urban law expert Michelle Wilde Anderson discusses her new book, The Fight to Save the Town: Reimagining Discarded America, which looks at how local leaders are confronting government collapse in four blue-collar American communities—and the progress they are making against some of the seemingly intractable problems of poverty.

This episode originally aired on SiriusXM on August 13, 2022.

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Rich Ford: Welcome to Stanford Legal. I’m Rich Ford.

Joe Bankman: And I’m Joe Bankman. Today we’re talking with our colleague, Michelle Wilde Anderson about her book, The Fight to Save the Town. You know Rich, Michelle has always looked at a type of poverty that is widespread, but not so recognized. It’s poverty not just of people in a city, but of people in a city and the city itself. These are cities like Detroit, that kind of implode financially.

Ford: Yeah, that’s right. And Detroit is an example that most people are familiar with. And we are familiar with the examples of cities in financial stress throughout history, like back in the 1970s when New York City was almost bankrupt. But we’re not as familiar with it as a widespread phenomenon, which it is. And we’re not as familiar with it in, let’s say, rural areas, in poor suburbs. So Michelle’s book talks about a range of different cities that are in serious financial distress. Some are liberal cities, some are conservative, some are rural, some are suburban, and some are urban. And also the distinctive problems, some of which I think people might never imagine that come along with a city that’s in financial trouble.

Bankman: Well, I’m tempted to talk about it more since her work is so interesting, but let’s welcome Michelle to the show.

Ford: Give us a big picture of what the book is about.

Michelle Wilde Anderson: Thanks Rich, and hi Joe. I’m so glad to be here. It’s really a wonderful opportunity to talk to you guys.

The full title of the book I’ll use to answer this question, because the book is called The Fight to Save the Town: Re-imagining Discarded America, and it’s about social movements in places that are working on a specific problem, which is the discarded America part, which is that their communities, either city or county are poor and broke. And they’re in part poor because they’re broke, and they’re in part broke because they’re poor. And these places have dealt with intergenerational decline in public services, and an intergenerational rise in concentrated poverty, so that leaves them with a specific set of really difficult challenges. And the communities I wrote about are doing amazing work on those challenges.

Ford: And Michelle they’re communities, they’re very different. There are some that are urban communities, classic poor inner cities, but there are others that are more rural communities. Could you just tell us a little about the range of communities and what you think joins them all?

Wilde Anderson: I chose really different places on purpose. All these places have this specific problem, that they’ve become officially insolvent. So they’re having trouble paying their bills, they’re dealing with deep cuts to their budget and their basic services, and they have high levels of concentrated poverty, and a low median income, which means that there’s less wealth across the tax base as a whole to support the cost of services. So that’s the poor and broke part.

But I chose these places for their differences. So they run from politically blue to politically red, to very purple, swinging back and forth wildly between red and blue. They run from super rural to super urban, to smaller city, company towns, suburban, and they are very racially different from each other. I wrote about Stockton, which is the most diverse city in the United States of America, which I think everybody should know Stockton’s name for that reason alone. Detroit is thought of as a black city. It is a predominantly black city, but it is the fastest rate of growth in diversity in the country. So, it is diversifying faster than the other cities in the country. And then you’ve got Lawrence, Massachusetts, which is nicknamed the Latino city, and Josephine County, Oregon, which is overwhelmingly white.

So I held together all these different kinds of places in a way to push back against the storytelling that we have in our larger society that concentrated poverty looks a certain way. I think it’s important to recognize that we have a larger social, political, legal problem that unites these kinds of places, and you can’t write it off as associated with one particular group, one particular political ideology or one particular kind of urban rural profile.

Bankman: And what I like about your work, Michelle, and is that we often think of the poor in wealthy cities. What is San Francisco doing about its homeless? A terribly important problem. But what you focused on is what happens when the city itself also goes broke. So it’s as if you have all the problems of the poor in San Francisco, but no city government anymore, or no funding for basic government services. So it takes it to a new level, and I think a lot of us are unaware of how prominent this trend has become in this country.

Wilde Anderson: We have three different scales we can think about poverty. And one is the neighborhood poverty, that’s pockets of very concentrated poverty, even in cities with very high incomes, concentrated in other neighborhoods. But then we have what I’m writing about, which is, as you say, city or county scale poverty, where the entire jurisdiction is slumping under the weight of concentrated poverty over time. And then we talk a lot about regional poverty, which is the giant swaths of the country that are struggling for a foothold in the larger 21st century economy. So it’s that middle tier that I’m focused on.

And I would say it’s super important to me that I am never saying that it is worse to be poor in a place like this than it is to be poor in San Francisco. The truth is, I think that game of, “What kind of poverty is worse?” is just such a waste of time, and there can be a meaningful discussion about the differences in different kinds of environments, and the pressures from poverty in different settings. And I think that’s worthwhile. But this ranking of hardship that we love to do is kind of a fool’s errand. So I’m just trying to sit with the city scale poverty, and understand it better without ever suggesting that I would rather grow up in Hunter’s Point in San Francisco.

Bankman: Sure. It reminds me of the children’s game. Would you rather die by falling off a tall building, or freeze to death? They’re all death. They’re all awful in their own way.

Wilde Anderson: Exactly.

Bankman: So we take your point. But this is a kind of situation that involves government in a different way, because the government itself is kind of called into question at some point, it loses its financial wherewithal.

Wilde Anderson: And what’s amazing is that once the government is really weak, the civil society around it also weakens. So if you’re an unfamous, poor city or an unfamous, poor county, it is very hard to attract philanthropy. It’s hard to attract non-profit dollars. It’s hard to attract entrepreneurs to start new businesses. There’s a kind of weakening of the larger network of civil and private institutions that happens in places that have been poor for a long time, where the government is rudderless as a matter of leadership and just weak on dollars. So all of those things go together.

I think there’s a fantasy sometimes that if government got out of the way, the private sector would flourish. But I think what I see in these communities is that those two things travel. They exit together.

Ford: And there’s some real distinctive problems that are facing communities where the government is in collapse. So although it may not be that it’s worse to be poor there than it is to be poor in San Francisco, there are some distinctive problems that you’re writing about. Could you tell us about some of the distinctive challenges that these communities face?

Wilde Anderson: One of them is that as governments’ basic services go into crisis, as it starts really pulling back sanitation, water supply, investment in the water supply, investment in infrastructure in general, investment in public safety and emergency services, investment in libraries and so forth. Once those basic heartland local services start to weaken, it’s hard for local governments to even daydream that they could really be serious about an anti-violence agenda, a mental health agenda, a housing security agenda, an adult education agenda. But yet those are the big pillars of social mobility. So if a local government is not taking seriously those kinds of big things, adult ed, housing security, and wrapping school kids and families that have some level of opportunity, then you get what I’ve seen in so many of these communities, which is a poverty trap. You get this government that’s constantly on its heels trying to worry about policing and other kinds of basic services, when really there’s really big picture needs in the social fabric that get neglected. So that’s one example.

And unfortunately, the sad part about this book is that for people who don’t live in places like this, it’s kind of shocking how bare local services can become in the United States. I had many moments of that kind of private shock, and reading the book people have reported that to me. It’s kind of unfathomable that services can sort of sink this low.

And actually I can’t resist. One Palo Alto based example of this, if you’ll bear with me. Palo Alto invested more than $76 million in renovating its libraries with state-of-the-art technology and facilities and programs for kids and public spaces. This was in the early 2000s, before and across the recession. And meanwhile, Palo Alto is home to hospitals and restaurants and our great, giant teeming university that employ tons of low wage workers that can’t afford to work here. And many of those workers commute in from the city of Stockton, which has them, by the way, away from their kids something like three extra hours per day because of the commute times. And Stockton shut down its library in the poorest part of the city during the peak of its budget crash in order to draw whatever resources it could back to the main branch and survive with library services in general.

So this is an example where Palo Alto is investing 76 million, Stockton is cutting off a third of its system. And yet when we think about library services, we’re sitting in Palo Alto, we’ve got private bookshelves all over this city. We’ve got people who’ve got all kinds of private Wi-Fi, private computers. They can pay nannies to sing to their children. They can use substitutes for those public services that they pay for out of pocket, and in the poorest neighborhoods of Stockton, people can’t substitute for those things out of pocket. So once they’re gone from the public sector, they’re gone from people’s lives and they’re gone from childhoods.

So this is a book, at some level, about that problem of inequality.

Ford: Yes, Michelle, so we both teach local government law. And of course as you’re talking, one of the things that’s striking that a lot of people may not know is just how many of these basic services are provided by local governments at the local level, and entirely or almost entirely dependent on local finances. So this mismatch that you’re describing with the people working in Palo Alto or at Stanford but they live in Stockton, and they’re relying on Stockton’s budget for those kinds of services, not Palo Alto’s. There’s a split there that’s really seems to be driving a lot of what you’re describing.

Wilde Anderson: Someday you should tell me exactly how you teach this in the classroom so I can find the best way to describe it. But basically since the ’80s, the amount of money coming to poor local governments from state and federal taxpayers has gone down. So we used to redistribute better, so that we flattened some of these tax based differences across local governments. But since the 80s, we’ve done less to equalize tax spaces. So that’s why this problem that I’m describing now, it’s accumulated from 40 years of changing economic and social policy at the federal and state levels.

Ford: So there’s a story about the structure of government, but there’s also in the book, a lot of personal stories, a lot of individual stories about people in these towns that are fighting to save the town, as the book’s title suggests. And maybe you could tell us a story about one of the towns that you found especially inspiring, or especially depressing, I suppose.

Wilde Anderson: I fell so in love with all four of these places, I could talk about all four of them for 10 hours.

But Josephine County is one of Oregon’s so called timber counties, and like many resource rich places across the country, its larger history is one of these big boom and bust cycles around natural resources. And in Josephine that was gold and the gold rush, and then it was hops for beer, and then it was timber, big, old growth timber as we developed the technologies to log and move the giant trees of the western forest. And that economy was pulled back in the early ’90s. The decline of that industry is usually assigned to the spotted owl, but there were three big forces going on all at once. One was mass automation in timber harvesting and manufacturing. So all the wood products, manufacturing that comes from those trees. And there was a giant global opening of the markets for timber from South America and Japan and Russia that meant that the Pacific Northwest started competing globally with timber supplies elsewhere. So you’ve got automation, you’ve got globalization, and then you have the arrival of environmental law with the listing of the northern spotted owl on the endangered species act in the early ’90s, and what many of your listeners will recognize as one of the meltdown endangered species battles of American environmental history, in which there was tremendous polarization, rage, controversy, protests over that listing.

Ford: We’ll be back with more with Michelle Wilde-Anderson about her book, The Fight to Save the Town, coming up on Stanford Legal.

Bankman: We’ve been talking with our colleague, Michelle Wilde-Anderson about her book, The Fight to Save the Town. And in this segment, we’re going to talk about one specific town. Actually it’s a county. Josephine County in Oregon, that citizens really were forced to save themselves.

Ford: Okay Michelle, welcome back. Before the break, you were talking about the way the controversy over the spotted owl, which some of our listeners may remember is a big political football in the 1990s. It was emblematic of what was going on in Josephine County, although not the only cause of the decline there, but there’s a much more complex history. And then there’s the story of what people in Josephine County did when they were faced with budget cuts as a result of the decline of their economy. Could you tell us about Josephine County?

Wilde Anderson: Yes. Across the ’80s and then the early ’90s you had the automation, globalization, and environmental drivers of local job losses, and the contraction of the wood products industry more broadly. Because Josephine, like many rural areas in the country, is heavily industrialized with a lot of manufacturing jobs. It’s just that what they manufactured was paper mills and wood products and so forth, with tons, by the way, of trucking jobs associated with that timber industry. Anyway, so all that declined. And because of the intense controversy over the spotted owl, the federal government tried to keep the politics quiet and just patch across this intense polarization over environmental law, by subsidizing the timber county’s budgets all across Oregon. Oregon enjoyed an outsized earmark in federal budgeting for a long time, really, as a result of these incredibly polarized western environmental politics.

And so come the Great Recession 2012, the federal government is kind of over it with this long term subsidization of the timber counties. They’ve been threatening the retreat of those dollars for a long time. They finally do it. Meanwhile, the recession is taking its own toll on the remaining wood products industry. We’re all buying less, doing fewer renovations, housing crisis and so forth. And so Josephine takes this double hit where it loses lots of its federal money at the same time that it heads into the same national recession that everybody else faces.

And in that context, 2012 to 2014, Josephine takes what I think maybe some of the heaviest cuts to a local budget in the country. So really starts to dismantle the most rudimentary emergency services, 911 dispatch, basic levels of local government services. And so in the context of that, you get some really heartbreaking moments of emergency services not being there in the context of a 911 call. And this is something that I saw all across the country. You can write a version of Detroit’s story that is only about this too. That once a local government really starts to cut back seriously at the fire department and the police department, there is nobody there for a 911 dispatcher to send when there’s a caller or an emergency. So you start seeing this shift toward adaptive volunteerism in lots of broke places, in which people have to figure out how to do their own dispatch. And that’s what I write about in Josephine is that system of what you could call mutual aid, or you could call it volunteer policing, but it is a private form of substitute 911 emergency services, in which neighbors start to band together to arrange cell phone networks and other things to dispatch, when there’s nobody at the Sheriff’s department on duty.

Bankman: And Josephine County, as you describe it Michelle, may be beautiful, but it’s not a crime free small town people might idolize, or look back upon. It’s full of things like meth addiction and domestic violence. I say full. I don’t know how full is full, but there are instances of a lot of drug use and domestic violence.

Wilde Anderson: Yeah. I feel touchy about this, Joe. A part of me feels mama bear defensive of Josephine. I don’t want it to be seen that any of these places are pathologized as, quote unquote, “high crime” or whatever. There’s domestic violence in every town or county in America, and there is a certain amount of drug addiction. But it’s nonetheless true that intergenerational poverty like this comes with higher rates of addiction and higher rates of domestic violence. And so yes, there is a need for intervention during emergencies, there’s a need for mercy services around drugs and around children. And then there’s just run of the mill everything from bar fights to shootings. We’re in America. We’re in a place of a lot of guns, and you mix alcohol with the availability of guns, and you occasionally get homicide. So I think Josephine’s not exempt from those things. and It needs some level of basic emergency dispatch like anywhere else.

So they developed these more elaborate improvised systems, again, like many other communities around the country to create an alternative to public sector provision during an emergency.

Ford: Wow. And so it probably is hard for many of our listeners to imagine living in a community where there’s actually just 911 response and people have to organize this themselves. And in one sense, this is an inspiring story because it’s people banding together, grassroots in order to take care of their own problems. Alexis Titokvile might have waxed eloquent about the way American communities could harness this type of entrepreneurial power. But are there some downsides? Obviously there are downsides in terms of people having to do this, but there may also be some distinctive downsides with this kind of volunteerism.

Wilde Anderson: Yeah. Exactly, Rich. I have very mixed reactions to what’s gone on in Josephine, and as a writer, I should say I really tried to lay it out fairly to allow readers to think about it on their own, but I’ll just identify a few of the really serious challenges. One is that volunteer networks like this, there’s very high turnover. People get exhausted. You can’t be the overnight police officer for your neighborhood, in addition to a full-time job year after year. People just burn out of these jobs. So there’s turnover, there’s really uneven training protocols. Once you get into DIY policing, some of the groups are very conscientious about de-escalation and training around that, and some of them carry zip ties and body armor. So you get totally different interpretations of what the community needs, and Josephine is an amazing example of a lot of different models for what it looks like to show up for your community in the absence of public police.

And some of them are in serious danger of escalating violence as opposed to reducing it. So it’s all about the personalities and the training. There’s this amazing … There are a few amazing community leaders whose efforts I really admired in Josephine, but they put so much effort into really filtering out what they call hotheads from their groups, of really trying to filter out the personalities of people who are suited to this work in a way that’s safe for the community. Interestingly, in one of the groups I write about, they have an overwhelming majority of women, because they find that women volunteer police are just a little bit less prone to ending up in a shootout.

And then above all, I really believe that the nature of the volunteer policing that I’m writing about in Josephine, which is, because we’re in rural Western gun country, it is armed. Lots of things in Josephine are armed. That’s the culture of the rural west. And so it’s not surprising or out of the ordinary that it’s armed, where similar groups that I followed in Flint and Detroit and so forth typically are not carrying weapons. But out here it’s armed. And I think in that context, there are really important dangers, and above all, the danger that I find most chilling is that if you took the kind of substitute volunteer policing that you see in Josephine and you put it in a racially diverse community, you have a very serious risk of implicit bias and explicit bias resulting in the murders or shootings of innocent, unarmed people.

And obviously we’ve seen this. These groups operate in the shadow of Trayvon Martin. Trayvon Martin’s name is on the breeze all the time with the more conscientious volunteer police. Or volunteer public safety or whatever we’re going to call them. They use his name as a talisman. “We will not be like that. We’ll never let that happen.” This innocent lost as a result of some guy who anoints himself as a police officer. Anyway, so they operate in the thread of that. And it’s really important to acknowledge the risk of those kinds of murders.

Ford: Wow. Some of the same challenges facing policing everywhere, but also distinctive challenges and a really tough and second best situation for these struggling towns. The book is The Fight to Save the Town and it’s just a riveting and extremely informative read as well about an important and often overlooked topic. Thanks so much Michelle, for coming to talk to us today.

Wilde Anderson: Thank you so much. It’s great to talk to both of you.

Ford: I’m Rich Ford for Joe Bankman, and this is Stanford Legal.