One Way That Pollution Drives Inequity, & How CleanTech Solves This

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It seems to be a common theme. Go to a city’s east end, and those are where the “bad neighborhoods” are. I grew up near El Paso, Texas, and the west side was where the rich people lived, and the closer parts of the east side (now called central) are full of poverty. The big question is, why? Why would most cities have more poverty on the east side?

It’s not universally true, but it’s true often enough that people can see a pattern. This pattern isn’t just common in the United States, but in much of the world.

Plus, the further back in time you go (at least for the 20th century), the more you’ll see poverty concentrated in the east side of cities. A simple Google search for “poverty map” shows you this pattern over and over and over, even if imperfect.

But why does there tend to be more poverty on the east side of cities, and more wealth on the west sides of cities? There’s no law saying that poor people must move east, and even in cities that were heavily affected by racist practices (redlining, racist laws, owners not willing to sell/rent to minorities), the pattern shouldn’t show up the same in most cities. The side of the city that’s poor should be fairly random, right?

It turns out that pollution is the root cause of most of this, as this video explains pretty well.

It turns out that nobody likes living with dirty air, even before people knew that it was so deadly. If you couldn’t afford much, you’d have to settle for the parts of the city where the pollution was the worst. If you had more money, you could buy or rent something on the other side of the city, where there was little to no pollution.

Big, industrial operations tended to be built toward the city center (and whole cities grew around them, making them the center). Back in the day, there were no pollution controls, so these industries would just belch out nasty, sooty smoke all day to run the machines. Then, the prevailing westerly winds (common around the planet due to its rotation and other factors) would pick up the smoke and push it over the east sides of cities, while keeping the west sides relatively clear of pollution.

Worse, add that everyone was using wood or coal to heat their homes, and even the residential parts of town would emit pollution, making the east end of the city the worst no matter when the industrial machines were running.

In El Paso, the big polluters tended to be near downtown, or a bit north of it on the west side of the mountain (near present-day UTEP). The most well-known was ASARCO, a copper smelting company that ran its own company town, “Smeltertown.” Pollution was bad anywhere near Smeltertown, but it spread to the east more than it could spread to the north and west, causing pollution to pile up in what are now the poorest parts of El Paso. Developments on the west side, away from the pollution, and later further east after pollution laws put more of a damper on it, led to today’s poverty distribution.

How This Created Larger Problems

It turns out that once you’ve found a way to concentrate poverty in an area (through pollution), other societal effects tends to keep it there. Even with pollution dropping in most developed countries, the east sides persist in poverty. Why?

For one, there’s racism. Discrimination tended to make minorities poor, and then nobody wanted the minorities to leave the areas they had been corraled into. If you were white and managed to scrape up enough on a down payment in the better part of town, and had the income to support the loan, you’d be able to move. If you weren’t, the owner of the home in the better parts of town would often just refuse to sell to you, leaving you stuck in the poor neighborhoods no matter how well you did for yourself as an individual.

Worse, things that can help people move up in the world were often denied to people living in the “bad” (read: black or brown) part of town. Need a business loan? Nope. Need a loan to improve your property? No, and go away. This practice (now illegal) was called redlining.

Concentrated poverty could also keep people down all by itself. Poor nutrition, pollution, and bad living conditions can make people grow up with health problems and reduced mental ability, both of which makes it hard to make a better income. Lack of educational opportunities could impoverish even the most healthy people in poor neighborhoods, and just the general stress of being in poverty degrades a person’s ability to perform economically.

There are many stories of people working really, really hard to escape poverty and improve their lives, but they’re outnumbered by people who did not, so we can’t blame everything on the individual.

How Clean Technologies Help Fix This (But They Can’t Do It Alone)

The obvious thing is that clean technologies pollute less, so the pollution effect on the east ends of cities is reduced or eliminated, but as I pointed out above, concentrated poverty tends to persist and keep people stuck. So what do you do to help this along?

For everyone’s sake, we need all sides of cities to adopt clean technologies, but far too often, they’re out of reach. As I pointed out in this article, affording an electric vehicle or home solar isn’t easy. What’s particularly sad is that even the poorest of people have to pay the power bill every month, but because they have bad credit, many can’t switch to paying less for clean alternatives. They can afford it, but just aren’t allowed to.

Sure, in theory things like credit reporting are color blind. Your credit score is calculated the same way regardless of skin color, but even with redlining prohibited, it turns out that credit scores are even better at excluding minorities than redlining was, and even with good scores and good incomes, people of color often find that their applications are repeatedly delayed or ignored (but not denied) until a whiter family member or partner applies with them and gets faster, better service.

If we want to move more people out of poverty, we need to get the discrimination situation under control, regardless of how bigots manage to package the bigotry and try to make it look just.

Featured image by US Census Bureau

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1955 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba