Much of American urban policy focuses on the limited nature of economic opportunities for disadvantaged populations, something that impedes upward social mobility. In essence, while it often goes unacknowledged (or even recognized), it is the powerful principle of meritocracy that is violated by these blocked opportunities and barriers to social mobility; that is, the idea that one’s degree of social mobility and its accompanying rewards should be based on one’s merit — her or his abilities, skills, talents, intelligence, and efforts, rather than a host of morally arbitrary factors.
In my recent article in the Journal of Urban Affairs, I identify and critique what I call a “Meritocratic Paradigm” that underlies much of urban policy, as it is prescribed from the liberal political perspective that dominates most of academia and related institutions. While at first glance this Meritocratic Paradigm seems morally compelling, when deconstructed and carefully examined it turns out to be quite pernicious. What is needed instead as the basis for a progressive-populist urban policy is (what might be called) a Community Paradigm, which focuses on the uplifting of whole urban communities rather than the individual social mobility so prized by meritocrats.
A short preview of my article appears on Rooflines: The Shelterforce Blog. The full article, Urban Policy as Meritocracy: A Critique, along with responses by Robert Mark Silverman and Susan J. Popkin, appears in Volume 38, Issue 1 of JUA.
David Imbroscio, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Political Science and Urban and Public Affairs at the University of Louisville.