Earlier this year, the City of Fort Worth released its latest Economic Development Strategic Plan, in which the city acknowledges some challenges it faces and lays out its vision for the future. Over at the Star-Telegram, columnist Bud Kennedy offered up some suggestions on how to fix Fort Worth. One point in particular stuck out for me, based on some analysis I’ve been working on. In discussing Fort Worth’s need to showcase itself as a modern city, Kennedy observes the following:
The Cowtown image isn’t worn out. What’s tired is the image of a stubborn, bigoted old cowboy.
The real story of the West is a story of men and women of all colors and cultures, and how they came together from around the world to help shape Texas. If we’re not welcoming all people, we’re not true to our past.
There’s also a race problem that involves more than image. A new city race and culture commission will address long-standing inequities.
There’s certainly reason to argue with just how welcoming the West has been to men and women of different colors and cultures. And the City of Fort Worth deserves credit for taking steps to address this race problem. But what does a modern city of the West look like? In particular, what does a city of the West look like in terms of public sector employment?
In a perfect society where men and women of all colors and cultures have had access to the same resources and opportunities throughout history, we would expect that the gender and ethnic diversity of a local population would be reflected in the local workforce, both public and private, regardless of industry.
Historically, public sector employment has been viewed as an “equalizer” when it comes to employment and income/wealth, particularly for ethnic and racial minorities. This is thanks in part to greater transparency and accountability in public sector hiring. But just how close do cities come to representing their populations in terms of public sector employment? Consider the chart below, comparing the racial/ethnic diversity of city population and city workforce. The measured values indicate the likelihood that two random individuals in a group would be of a different race/ethnicity. In other words, the higher the value (closer to 1), the more diverse, and the lower the value (closer to 0), the less diverse.
Looking at the data, we see that in terms of city population, Fort Worth is about as diverse as Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, and a bit more diverse than Austin. But whereas the public workforces of Dallas and Houston (and Austin) are on par with their populations, Fort Worth’s public workforce falls a bit short of the city as a whole in terms of diversity (thought not as badly as San Antonio). Some people might look at this and say: no big deal, it is what it is. Others might say that any attempt to artificially boost diversity in the city workforce would lead to “reverse racism”. But it is worth asking why these disparities exist.
We can take an even deeper look at the gender and racial breakdown of the city population and the city workforce using data from the US Census.
Unsurprisingly, whites and men are over-represented, blacks are just about proportionally represented, while Hispanics are under-represented. This of itself should give the City reason to reflect on its efforts to build a diverse and representative workforce. But the challenge is not confined to representation – there are also significant disparities in income. The charts below show the same gender and ethnic breakdown for the City based at the income quintile level, where the 1st quintile represents the lowest-paid 20% of workers, while the 5th quintile represents the highest-paid 20% of workers.
Again, we see a stark contrast between workers of different gender and ethnicity. The obvious explanation for this employment and income inequality is inequality in education and opportunity, the result of deep-rooted cultural and structural limitations on who had access to various resources and opportunities. The good news is that the situation today is much better than it was in the past. But as noted above, we are a far way off from living in a truly equitable society where gender and ethnicity play little to no role in employment and earnings.
So what, then, does this mean as for the City and its new strategic plan? Much of the focus on economic development falls on industry-level analysis, but what sometimes gets lost in the numbers and reports is that cities are made of people, and in 2018, there are still many people who are being ignored or left out. Investing in infrastructure and education and health helps to attract the best people and the best companies. But what about the people who are already here? What will it take to bring these stakeholders to the table, to make sure they share in the benefit of economic development? The City’s plan talks much of redevelopment, but avoids any discussion of racialized gentrification. Transit will be crucial, but who will it serve – the workers of new and growing industries, or the current residents already struggling to live and work in the city? The city can promote existing industries and attract new ones in education, but what does that matter for residents living in so-called “food deserts”?
To their credit, the City does acknowledge “under-served” and “challenged” neighborhoods, recognizing the need for revitalization efforts. But even here, the City does so in a way that casts some of these neighborhoods in a negative light, noting that the City must prevent the proliferation of certain land uses – such as homeless shelters – in revitalization target areas that might “diminish the economic potential of a target area”. Nowhere does the economic development plan address the issue of homelessness as anything other than a hindrance to development. And nowhere does the report acknowledge racial disparities in education, employment, and housing.
The modern West is made up of men and women of all colors and cultures, but as Bud Kennedy points out, there are some long-standing inequities to confront. To accomplish that will require confronting some uncomfortable truths not addressed in the latest report, and ensuring that the issues of race and income inequality are confronted head-on in plans for future economic development. It won’t be easy to address this inequity citywide, but at the very least, the City of Fort Worth should consider what it will take to build a more representative and equitable city workforce.