(cross posted in Lofty Thoughts)
Actions believed to alleviate the difficulties of a city can actually make matters worse. --Jay W. Forrester
Jay Forrester penned his revolutionary article "The Counterintuitive Nature of Social Systems" (link to pdf full article) back in 1971. 30 years later, the article has stood the test of time. Since 30 year old academic articles aren't likely to reach the public, I think it's a good time to revisit this masterpiece.
His article examines "four common programs for improving the depressed nature of central cities.:
- ...creation of jobs by busing the unemployed to suburban jobs or through governmental jobs as employer of last resort;
- a training program to increase skills of the lowest-income group;
- financial aid to depressed cities from federal subsidies; and
- construction of low-cost housing. All of these were shown to lie between neutral and highly detrimental...
Forrester describes the counterintuitive downward spiral as efforts to help the poor miss their mark:
"...legal and tax structures...combine to give incentives for keeping old buildings in place. As (the) ... buildings age, employment opportunities decline. As (the) buildings age, they are used by lower-income groups who are forced to use them at higher population densities. (Thus) ...aging buildings cause jobs to decline and population to rise. Housing, at the higher population densities, accommodate more low-income urban population than can find jobs. A social trap is created where excess low-cost housing beckons low-income people inward because of the available housing. Unemployed people continue coming to a city until their numbers sufficiently exceed the available jobs that the standard of living declines far enough to stop further inflow. Income to the area is then too low to maintain all of the housing. Excess housing falls into disrepair and is abandoned. Extreme crowding can exist in those buildings that are occupied, while other buildings become excess and are abandoned because the economy of the area cannot support all of the residential structures. Excess residential buildings threaten an area in two ways—they occupy land so it cannot be used for job-creating buildings, and they attract a population that needs jobs. Any change, which would otherwise raise the standard of living, only takes off the economic pressure momentarily and causes population to rise enough that the standard of living again falls to the barely tolerable level.
Want to read more? Check out blogger Andrew Taylor aka "The Artful Manager" as he takes on the same topic from a different perspective in a 2004 post called Finding Forrester.
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