Applied anthropologists and sociologists often study the uneven distribution of wealth and equality as it appears within different societies around the world, whether it be researching ancient civilizations or modern day cultures. The hierarchy that results from this inequality amongst the peoples of a culture is a phenomenon known as social stratification, and is infallibly present in every organized population of human beings that has ever existed (Nanda; Warms, 2011, p. 240). Students of anthropology often read about such stratification and see how it applies to now-extinct societies or far away countries, but rarely does the American public stop to examine the inequality that runs rampant through their hometown. There is a deceptively blissful ignorance that results from learning about distant societies rather than discussing the effects of local injustices, and while most professors make it a point to use examples that adequately place the students in the shoes of sufferers, pupils all too often fail to absorb just how real the anthropological theories from their textbooks are. In order to receive a better understanding of social stratification, the real world effects of it, and how close-to-home such inequalities lie, I have chosen to take a closer look at the city of Indianapolis and how the rules of entitlement between certain neighborhoods are just as diverse as the city’s population itself.
Any person with a means of transportation can travel through the city of Indianapolis and see the variants in environmental quality amongst different regions. The city itself is notorious for its quick transitions from carefully groomed hotspots to seemingly forgotten streets, a notion which can be supported by a short drive down the length of Washington Street. That one street weaves through a desert of empty, dilapidated shopping plazas on the east side through the shiny sky-scrapers of downtown Indianapolis out to the west where it once again falls into shambles occupied only by used car dealerships and graffiti.
When comparing a map of Indianapolis that displays its varying median incomes to that of a map displaying crime, the restlessness of the city becomes blatantly apparent. The adults who inhabit the city’s many forgotten streets are well aware of the lack of opportunities provided to them, as well as the lack of funding the government chooses to send their way. It seems that the city is only willing to invest in a neighborhood and clean it up if there is a sizeable chance newcomers will flock there. The city, however, has little interest in taking care of an area that has no potential for being a hot spot, and thus generations of Indianapolis residents are in second place to the younger, wealthier demographic that is being drawn in. Take the area of Fountain Square for example, on the city’s southeast side. The cultural district outlined on maps and signs known as Fountain Square stretches along Virginia Avenue and Shelby Street, a quick drive through that area clearly showing it has recently blossomed into a hip area full of beatnik bars and high-priced housing.
The main strip is a kitschy mix of old architecture and fresh ideas which makes it great for attracting the minds and wallets of young adults. However, venture back a block or two from the main drag, and you’re very suddenly in the midst of a neighborhood that seems entirely untouched by the revenue of the nearby restaurants and shops. Narrow streets with cracked sidewalks are lined with dilapidated houses, telling the story of the real Fountain Square, a culturally diverse neighborhood that was deemed ‘an area of special need’ by the Department of Metropolitan Development Planning Division, and has not been majorly invested in by the government since the 1980s (Polis Center, 2010). This area is a prime example of the city’s dedication to drawing newcomers, something that is definitely beneficial for a portion of the local economy, which has unfortunately led to the neglect of long-time Indy residents. The median income for Fountain Square residents is $24,150, less than the median wage of the nation by $6,000, and considerably less than the whole of Indianapolis, the median of which comes in at around $41,000 (City Data). The average rent in the area is $579 a month, a figured heightened by the recently built apartment complexes along Virginia Avenue. For a resident with the neighborhoods average yearly salary, that amount of rent each month drops household income by nearly $7,000, leaving any single-parent families roughly $1,400 a month to cover any other expenses – which for a family is entirely unrealistic. The aforementioned new apartment complexes on the main strip can be rented for upwards of $900 a month (and that’s just for studio), which by comparison, is an unfathomable cost to local residents of the average salary. The differences in living costs from block to block is certainly drastic and discouraging for your average southeast side family.
Lack of funding to the area certainly has a negative effect on the students of local schools, the overall education system in Indiana itself infamous for clashing with the tight budgets and ideals of government officials. The Indianapolis Public School System is composed of 60 different facilities, responsible for students varying in grades from kindergarten through twelfth grade (IPS, 2015). This enormous web of education does not begin to include the additional charter schools in position around the city, put in place by organizations like The Mind Trust to attempt to cater to the thousands of students who do not prosper under the framework and budget of a traditional public school experience.
Like many residents, Steven Campbell, who works for the Mind Trust as the Vice President of Communications, has mixed feelings about the city’s effort to support childhood education. Having grown up in the city and spent the majority of his career as the main marketing representative for the city, he has done interviews with major news outlets such as CNN, USA Today, The New York Times, and was kind enough to lend me some of his time and share his thoughts on the effects of inequality on the city’s children. “You can always do more” he ventured to say, after I asked how he thought the government cares for its future adults. Having been a part of that government in the past, he was careful not to overstep any boundaries, but I could see that his words and concerns of the students were genuine. We had a friendly chat in his office, myself as a newcomer to the city, and himself as a man who grew up here. Campbell stated that he believed the kids were aware of the inequality, though jealousy likely did not occur until the middle school years, when the students have more experience and are able to make their own observations via the outside world and the internet. When prompted about the level of security at Indianapolis Public Schools, he shared that the schools do have police force specifically assigned to them, but as far as constant on-site security there is nothing more than your typical locked doors. “If you treat the kids like prisoners, they’re going to act like prisoners,” he went on to say, noting that though some of the school are in neighborhoods of elevated crime rates, it is important to let the students feel like kids rather than criminals. Overall, Campbell had a surprisingly positive view on the school systems and the city’s duties in protecting them, as a man who has experience in the field he understands how difficult it is to balance budgets and keep everyone happy. Anthropologically speaking, societies cannot exist without some level of stratification, which goes along with Campbell’s stance on the situation. Still, driving around the city, it is difficult to imagine any residents of the forgotten streets content with their lifestyle and lack of government funding just because human nature indicates that someone has to suffer.
Research certainly proves that certain sections of the city have suffered hits to educational attainment because of the stratification in place. In Marion county, a target area that excludes many of the wealthier suburbs that tend to be grouped with Indianapolis for research purposes, just over 90% of jobs provide salaries higher than $30,000 a year (Stats Indiana). This statistic alone sounds promising for Marion county residents, however, if you take into account the education level needed to obtain higher paying jobs, which is normally at least a Bachelor’s degree, very few people meet the qualifications. Only 27% of the county’s adults have a Bachelor’s degree, leading to a cause-and-effect sequence of most positions being awarded to those occupying the wealthier suburbs like Carmel and Fishers. Both of those cities lie within Hamilton county, an overall better funded and more educated sector, which boasts the majority of its population as holding a Bachelor’s degree at 55% (U.S. Census Bureau). Consequently, those with no college experience are scattered around the city at either food service, retail, or warehouse jobs, commuting an average of 22 minutes to work, while those who live on the fringes of the city are spending the 20 minutes time it takes to travel downtown to the higher paying jobs. Overall, a vast amount of gasoline, time, and labor is wasted due to lack of education for locals.
A few minutes’ research and a drive through the city is enough to shed light on the truth of Indianapolis, an urban setting which intermittently alternates between being pocked with neglected streets and decorated with polished homes. The government’s dedication to gussying up small portions of the city while seemingly forgetting about the blocks that really need reparation mirrors the actions of an aging pageant queen who aspires to wear so much make-up and such revealing clothing that no one will notice the increasing blemishes that come with passing years. Unfortunately, those who have not had to live with the consequences of fiscal inequality fall for such tricks, believing that the few neighborhoods and cultural districts that are regularly beautified are enough to keep everyone happy. The resulting ignorance allows room for assumptions to be made about those who occupy the forgotten streets rather than questioning how such dilapidation occurred in the first place. Indianapolis is notorious for quickly transitioning from ‘bad neighborhoods’ to ‘up and coming’ locales, and all too often we tell ourselves that those areas that are cultivating new shops and freshly painted houses means residents have been retrieved from the fog of financial debt, when in reality neighborhoods that are up and coming are displacing long-time residents in favor of those with higher levels of education and deeper pockets. The government and the surrounding community needs to be held accountable for the stratification that runs rampant through certain streets, a notion which first begins not only with increasing education in poverty stricken areas, but also through teaching those who are better off of the existence of personal privilege and how to help level things out.
Campbell, S. (2015, September 15). The Mind Trust. (M. Smith, Interviewer)
Center, T. P. (2010). Fountain Square. Retrieved from The Polis Center: http://www.polis.iupui.edu/RUC/Neighborhoods/FountainSquare/FSNarrative.htm
IPS. (2015, October). Schools Directory. Retrieved from IPS.org: http://www.myips.org/schools
Nanda, S., & Warms, R. (2011). Cultural Anthropology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Stats Indiana. (2013, October). Marion County Statistics. Retrieved from Stats Indiana.