The blog of the Urban Institute
September 22, 2020

Birmingham Has Begun to Address Long-Standing Inequities. What Can Other Cities Learn from Its Example?

At the end of the Civil War, only 100 people lived in Birmingham, Alabama. Over the next decade, tens of thousands moved to Birmingham for the burgeoning iron and steel industries, culminating in a city population of 200,000 in 1878 and earning it the nickname “the Magic City.”

But Birmingham was still a city in the postwar South, and its industrial boom was not felt equally by its residents. Even after the Supreme Court codified racial segregation as unconstitutional in 1954, many of Birmingham’s white residents continued to institutionalize the practice through social norms. In 1963, Birmingham became one of the central cities in the Civil Rights Movement as the city’s racial divisions became the backdrop for sit-ins, marches, and clashes with segregationist leadership.

Although Birmingham still faces challenges, the city has become more inclusive—which we define as the ability for all residents, especially historically excluded populations, to benefit from and contribute to economic prosperity—over the past few decades. According to our updated metrics of inclusion for 274 US cities, Birmingham was the 128th most inclusive, ranking 68th on racial inclusion and 210th on economic inclusion. Birmingham’s journey from segregated Southern city to the top quartile for racial inclusion offers a compelling story for how other cities might track and measure inclusion and how Birmingham can draw upon these metrics to continue improving its economic inclusion.

Birmingham has improved its racial homeownership and poverty gaps

Part of Birmingham’s strengths in racial inclusion stem from its small racial homeownership and poverty gaps. The former, which measures the percentage-point difference between people of color who own a home and white, non-Hispanic residents who own a home, ranks as the 10th-smallest in the country. Brandon Johnson, the director of Birmingham’s office of peace and policy, singled out strong homeownership counseling and support programs, such as those offered by Neighborhood Housing Services of Birmingham, as a driver of strong performance. “There is a concerted effort to expand availability to affordable single family homes,” Johnson said in an interview with Urban Institute researchers.

Birmingham's racial homeownership gap

Birmingham has also reduced its racial poverty gap, or the percentage-point difference between people of color and white, non-Hispanic people whose earnings are below the federal poverty level. In 1980, Birmingham had a racial poverty gap of 21 percentage points, which decreased to 11 percentage points by 2016. This drop may be partially attributable to changes in resident composition, such as higher-income residents moving to the suburbs, but it could also reflect income increases for people of color.

Birmingham's racial poverty gap

Where Birmingham can improve on inclusion

Despite Birmingham’s strong performance on some inclusivity metrics, its history of explicit and institutionalized racial segregation and a lack of local decisionmaking power have made it challenging for the city to advance policies and programs aimed at increasing inclusion. Alabama’s 1901 constitution “reserves many powers to the state and functionally preserve[s] segregation,” Johnson said. “There’s a constitutional amendment that prohibits the use of state funds for public transportation, which effectively gives the state total discretion over which neighborhoods Birmingham’s public transportation doesn’t connect with the rest of the city.”

Racial segregation has been generally declining since 1980, but Birmingham still ranks 259th using the metric. Although ample research on ethnic enclaves suggests that living amongst people who share your cultural, racial, or ethnic identity may build community ties and improve economic outcomes, differences in the racial composition of neighborhoods may drive uneven local, state, and federal resource disbursement.

Racial segregation in Birmingham

The city’s economic inclusion metrics also consistently rank in the bottom half of our 274 sample cities. Birmingham ranks 234th on share of households with incomes below the federal poverty level despite having at least one person working full time, 190th on income segregation, 163rd on the share of rent-burdened households, and 148th on a proxy for high school dropout rate.

How Birmingham and other cities can use these metrics to move forward

Birmingham city leaders have demonstrated their commitment to increasing inclusion for people of color and low-income people through initiatives such as the city’s Office of Peace and Policy and Shape Bham, an equity-focused, comprehensive neighborhood planning effort. Local leaders should continue working to break down the silos preventing local government departments from working together toward larger equity and inclusion goals.

State leaders could also provide greater ability for local leaders to initiate policies that increase inclusion. The lack of home rule in Alabama restricts cities from passing laws that state and county leaders don’t agree on and has stymied many of the city’s efforts to increase equity and inclusion. Increased power for the city government may help push inclusion efforts.

These inclusion metrics should serve only as a starting point for community discussions, and policymakers should view these data through the lens of residents’ lived experiences. “We’re very good at addressing inequity when we can see the people,” Johnson said. “When we can’t see the people, we can’t address it.”

To ensure people are seen, policymakers should engage with residents to identify not only policy solutions but also barriers to equity and inclusion before policies are proposed.

Walter Bibikow/Getty Images

SHARE THIS PAGE

As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.