At first glance, St. Louis County might not look like a community on the verge of a crisis. But if you take a closer look, some of the county’s deep-seated problems become apparent.
The recent unrest in the city of Ferguson, which has been racked by protests since unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by white police officer Darren Wilson, is only a snapshot of the county's wider picture. Here are some key facts about St. Louis County.
The list starts off good, but then starts to go south, offering context and insight into how and why the situation in Ferguson has become so combustible.
1. St. Louis County residents make about 25 percent more money than the average Missourian
St. Louis County is one of the wealthiest counties in Missouri. The average household in the county earns $59,290 a year; a full $24,802 more than the average household in St. Louis city next door.
2. The unemployment situation is not too bad
And at 6.5 percent, its unemployment rate is just above the Missouri and United States averages; not too bad when compared to other major metropolitan areas. St. Louis city is again faring far worse, with an unemployment rate of 9 percent.
3. The county has below average rates of poverty
With poverty at a rate of only 10.7 percent, St. Louis County's poverty rate is about two-thirds of the national and state averages.
However, the presence of wealth, a decent supply of jobs, and a relatively low poverty rate does not mean the county is without serious issues. This is where the problems begin.
4. St. Louis County is one of the most segregated counties in the country
5. …and that segregation correlates to an unequal distribution of wealth
A 2000 study on income inequality found that several areas of central and western St. Louis County were "inequality wealth centers". In some of those areas, centered around the municipalities of Wildwood (population 92.2 percent white), Chesterfield (population 86.5 percent white), Town and County (population 87.8 percent white), and others, over 50 percent of all households have income of $100,000 or more.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, you have municipalities like Hillsdale, where 46.6 percent of the population lives under the poverty line, and where 95.9 percent of the population is black.
6. There are 90 municipalities in the county
Each of those little bits of color on the map represents a different municipality or city. St. Louis County has a total area of 507.80 square miles, which means there is an average of one city per 5.6 square miles. The reason this becomes an issue is:
7. Almost every municipality runs its own court system and local government
Some of these municipalities are tiny with hundreds of residents, or even dozens in some cases. Yet they maintain their own autonomous city halls, police departments, and other administrative features of local government. The problem is, these local governments cost money to maintain. Which means that…
8. Municipalities are increasingly using fees and fines to pay for their governments
St. Louis County's 90 municipalities are home to 11 percent of Missouri's entire population, yet somehow they accounted for 34 percent of all municipal fines and fees statewide in 2013. A recent Better Together report on the disparate courts of the St. Louis region touched on some racial issues. "There are fourteen municipalities in St. Louis County whose largest individual source of revenue is municipal fines and fees. Thirteen of those fourteen are [located] north of Olive Boulevard and within the boundary of I-270," which the report notes, is a largely black and impoverished area.
9. White flight has exacerbated this problem
In the 1990s, blacks in St. Louis city began a mass migration to the suburbs of north St. Louis County. As they came in, whites began selling their properties and moving away, leaving a shortfall of tax revenues for the north St. Louis County municipalities where blacks were beginning to become a majority.
All together, this led the Better Together report to conclude: "It becomes all too clear that fines and fees are paid disproportionately by the African-American community. In other words, these municipalities’ method of financial survival – bringing in revenue via fines and fees – comes primarily at the expense of black citizens."
10. The fines and fees imposed on black residents breeds distrust and jail time
Poor black residents unable to pay the fees often find themselves trapped in a cycle of unpaid tickets and arrest warrants. In 2013, Ferguson was the municipality that issued the most arrest warrants per 1,000 residents in the entire state.
“The bench warrants and traffic fines were a regressive tax on the poor and criminalization of poverty,” local organizer Julia Ho told the New York Times. “If people no longer receive these charges, that’s huge: It keeps people from getting stuck in modern debtor’s prisons.”
11. Which brings us back to the tension in Ferguson
When activists hit the streets of Ferguson and St. Louis in support of Brown, it is important to keep in mind that the stakes do not start and end with one case of a police-related shooting, though it might be the singular event that brought them into the streets. The relationship between people of color and authorities has long been strained, for some of the reasons listed above.
"St. Louis is a racist town. Historically and culturally, it is a part of our heritage," wrote St. Louis area blogger Toby Weiss on a recent post. "Our built environment provides visual proof of this racism. The only thing surprising about the resentful segregation that has boiled over and blown up in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014 is that it took this long to do so."
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.