Ferguson and the geography of race, poverty

Outrage in Missouri town
A demonstrator protesting the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown held up a sign on August 13, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer.
Scott Olson | Getty Images file

A Justice Department report about Ferguson's police department cleared a white officer of wrongdoing in the shooting death of an unarmed black man, but it laid out in stark detail a pattern of racial bias when enforcing laws.

Todd Swanstrom, professor in community collaboration and public policy at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, joined MPR News' Kerri Miller to discuss how geography, demographics and economics are creating tension elsewhere in the country.

Some highlights from the conversation:

Suburbanization of poverty is leading to more fiscal pressures on law enforcement

"We often think of poverty as a city phenomenon, but increasingly you find that poor people live in suburbs. More poor people live in suburbs than live in central cities now... When you have this pattern of migration in which low-income people end up in one part of the metropolitan area and jobs migrate also where the wealth migrates, especially the big shopping centers that generate the tax revenue, then you get these fiscal stresses on these older inner-ring suburbs."

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Subsidized housing ends up concentrated in one area

"Too often, the subsidized housing ends up in one place, in places that already have relatively high poverty. It doesn't make sense to use the public fist, this kind of subsidy, to help people to live in communities where they can't find jobs, where the schools are underperforming and where there's often high crime."

Lack of public transit from lower income areas to job centers

"One of the great problems as poverty has suburbanized, is that people live in communities that are far less well-served by public transit. So that's certainly true for people who live in Ferguson, for example. So to get to many of the jobs in the more favored suburbs, in the big shopping centers and the big retail areas, you might have to take buses for an hour-and-a-half or two hours at best. That's partly what's going on with this anger and these problems in Ferguson. People were brought in under a minor traffic violation, they couldn't afford the ticket and as a result they end up having their license taken away. If you have your license taken away, you end up losing your job. It's very oppressive on poor people in suburbs, this system of minor traffic violations as a way to raise revenue."

Communities are hassled by police instead of protected

"I don't know how you feel about the police officers in your community, but I view them as working for me. They aren't here to hassle me. But in these poor communities, because of this drive to generate revenues, it's like the police are an ATM for generating revenues for the municipality. People feel hassled. For example, a common offense in Ferguson was walking in the street. Well it turns out that a lot of the neighborhoods don't have sidewalks... That's not a serious offense and that shouldn't be the primary focus of police. It should be on violent crime and property crime, not on minor violations."