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Peripheral Welfare—Viewpoints | EPI

Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates.


Peripheral Welfare

by James P. Barrett

Ask people who drive an hour or two to work each day how they deal with the traffic, and they’re likely to reply: “It’s the price we pay for living in paradise.” It’s a paradise that includes larger homes, larger lot sizes, newer schools and, most importantly, it all comes with a less expensive price tag for the homeowner. That’s because suburban homeowners only pay a fraction of the costs of living in the suburbs. The rest of us have to pay for their choice of location.

As roadways, schools, and other infrastructure get pushed beyond reasonable capacity, suburban residents are increasingly turning to the government for relief. Multi-million dollar road and highway extensions, new schools, and increased expansion of sewer and water lines are among the multitude of projects that are often undertaken to keep up with population pressures. But who pays? The county pays for new schools, the state pays for road and sewer expansion, and the federal government pitches in for highways and bridges – and it all comes from our taxes. We also pay a heavy price in the form of increased air and noise pollution, habitat destruction, and the paving over of pristine areas. Once this new capacity is in place, an increasing number of people perceive that the quality of life in our expanding suburbs more than offsets greater commute times and attendant aggravations, and the process starts anew.

Suburban residents, after all, are making a rational choice. As long as they don’t have to pay the full price for living in “paradise,” why would they choose to live somewhere else? Closer to cities, higher housing prices reflect the increased land scarcity and the benefits of living closer to work, shopping, and cultural centers. In the suburbs, however, where land is abundant and residents don’t have to pay for the costs they impose on everyone else, housing is much more affordable.

The Clinton administration’s recent anti-sprawl initiatives are promising. Increased funding to preserve undeveloped land, to build parks in urban areas, and to improve air quality are a good start, but they still don’t address the fundamental cause of urban sprawl: the provision of a high quality of life at subsidized prices. Maryland recently passed the governor’s “Smart Growth Initiative,” which, among other things, assesses development fees for new construction based on where the growth takes place. The further you are from existing infrastructure, the more developers – and consequently home buyers – will have to pay to at least partially offset the higher costs they are imposing on other state residents.

This is a good example of the type of policy that we need to apply to our sprawling suburbs. If your vision of paradise is life in the suburbs, you should have to carry your own weight. Live where you want, just don’t ask the rest of us to pay for it.


James Barrett is an economist at the Economic Policy Institute. He specializes in environmental issues.