SNF Agora Faculty Seminars: Alice Xu

Part of our SNF Agora Faculty Seminars, AY 22-23
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  • Alice Xu 
  • Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Government at Harvard University 
  • Paper title: “Segregation and the Spatial Externalities of Inequality: Public Goods and Political Polarization in Urban Brazil


Why do some cities provide more public goods than others? What accounts for spatial inequality in provision? Conventional wisdom claims that racial diversity undermines collective investments in public goods. In this paper, I show that socioeconomic diversity, instead, generates a form of collateral cooperation for public goods. I demonstrate how decades of rapid migration of displaced rural poor migrants to cities resulted in forms of urban class- and race-based segregation that continue to marginalize communities in informal settlements today. I argue that socioeconomically integrated (non-segregated) cities have a higher incidence of negative spatial externalities of inequality (e.g., crime, contamination) that spill over from impoverished localities. Such neighborhood effects, in turn, induce the middle-class’ preferences for public goods that address these effects, while decreasing the perceived relative efficacy of private solutions (e.g., private guards, personal firearms). Thus, socioeconomic integration –through this externalities mechanism– enables preference convergence on the public provision of services in place of private options. In contrast, segregation polarizes the urban electorate along class lines. To test the argument, I propose an instrument for segregation that interacts rural-to-urban predicted migration (i.e., shift-share instrument) of the rural poor with the destination locality’s “urban form.” I combine this quasi-experimental strategy with a neighborhood-level measures of class- and race-based segregation and an original face-to-face survey of preferences with over 4,000 households across 420 of the total 456 neighborhoods in the megacity of São Paulo, Brazil. Beyond the formation of affective attitudes from intergroup contact, the analysis introduces self-interest in reducing intergroup externalities as a new mechanism that drives cooperation for public goods. Using embedded mechanism vignettes, I distinguish this mechanism from alternatives mechanisms –e.g., racial tolerance/prejudice, social affinity– proposed in the literature.

About the Speaker:

Alice Xu is postdoctoral associate at the Yale Leitner Program in Political Economy and a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Government at Harvard University. She studies inequality and social policy, identity/ethnic and distributive politics in urban contexts, and comparative environmental politics in the Global South. Her dissertation book project explores the political causes and consequences of socioeconomic and racial segregation across cities in Brazil and Mexico (see here). The project employs an original large-scale household survey, survey experiments, geocoded data on the spatial distribution of crime, contamination, and infrastructural public goods, administrative and historical data, and qualitative evidence gathered over the course of 17 months of field research.