Episcopal Dioceses and rising geographical inequality

October 13 was the date of the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee’s annual convention. It’s not an event I look forward to each year and the longer I serve in my current cure, the less I tend to focus my energies on larger Episcopal entities, whether dioceses or General Convention. Still, it’s an opportunity to connect with other clergy and laity and to hear a bit about what’s happening in other corners of the diocese.

Like so much of the US, Southern Wisconsin is seeing growing inequities among regions and races. Dane County, home of Madison, is in the midst of an economic boom and is home to a growing population. Other parts of the region are struggling economically and losing population. The economic boom affects races quite differently especially in Wisconsin, where racial inequities are among the worst in the nation.

Those inequities are not limited to the secular sphere. We see them in the Church as well. The Diocese of Milwaukee is neither large nor wealthy. Grace Church, with an average Sunday attendance of around 170 and an operating budget of approximately 550,000 is the second largest congregation in the Diocese. Many of our congregations are quite small and are served by part-time clergy. A number of congregations, both urban and small-town, have closed over the last years.

It was with this in mind that I read Richard Florida’s piece on City Lab entitled “America’s Worsening Geographic Inequality.” Drawing on a number of recent studies, Florida points out the disturbing trends:

  • the decline of middle-class neighborhoods and the separation of America into “areas of concentrated advantage juxtaposed with areas of concentrated disadvantage”
  • change in prosperity of neighborhoods (1980-2016); suburban neighborhoods most stable; among urban neighborhoods, more upwardly mobile than downwardly mobile; rural neighborhoods the most volatile
  • up to 1980, geographical inequities declined; since 1980; they have grown
  • Today, median household income for the top 20 percent of America’s counties is more than twice as high as the median household income of the bottom 20 percent, while poverty rates are roughly three times greater in the poorest 20 percent of counties, compared to the most affluent 20 percent.
  • America is not only economically unequal: Its inequality cuts sharply across geographic lines. We are becoming a country of have and have-nots that turns on where we were born or where we are able to live. And this worsening winner-take-all geography is bound up with, and reflects, our long running divides of race and class.  Increasingly, our neighborhood, and our zip code, is our economic destiny.

One sees evidence of such growing geographical inequality in the life of our diocese. It’s not just that a relatively small number of congregations account for much of diocesan revenue, it’s that the diocese in turn offers aid to a significant number of parishes. So, in a sense, there’s a redistribution of wealth taking place among parishes.

It seems to me that we don’t take these larger geographical inequalities into account when we think about our common life as a diocese. I doubt very much whether many dioceses do. We are accustomed to think in terms of racial inequality and regional (North and South; the coasts and flyover country) differences. But geographical inequality is also present within dioceses. Many of our struggling churches are in neighborhoods that are struggling as well. This is true of urban as well as rural or small-town communities.

The Episcopal Church with its geographically-shaped structure may be uniquely situated to address geographical inequities like those cited by Florida. To a degree, we already do this with our funding mechanisms. But I suspect we need to go further and nurture the bonds that tie us together as Episcopalians across the divides that separate us, whether those divisions be class, race, gender, or geography.

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