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Economist Richard Florida links queer-friendleness to a city's financial health


Published July 30, 2003 at 2:10 p.m.

Gay-rights activists have been saying for years that promoting gay-friendly communities is the right thing to do. Now, a noted economist asserts that it makes financial sense, too -- and has the numbers to back it up.

In his recent best-selling book, The Rise of the Creative Class and How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life, author Richard Florida argues that in recent years the nation's healthiest and most successful cities turn out to be the ones that welcome new immigrants, invest in arts and culture and embrace sexual diversity.

Florida, a professor of regional economic development at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University, bases his premise on the rise of a social stratum he calls the "creative class." Its members include writers, artists, social activists, engineers, software designers, educators and anyone whose work introduces new ideas and innovations into the economy. People in the creative class may not identify themselves as members of a single group, but what unites them, Florida writes, is "a common creative ethos that values creativity, individuality, difference and merit."

Comprising some 38 million members, which is more than 30 percent of the nation's workforce, this new class has become the dominant force in shaping the social and economic fabric of our daily lives. Where it goes, he asserts, prosperity follows.

Florida is hardly the first person to link creativity with affluence, or to notice that creative people tend to congregate in culturally diverse and socially tolerant places like Greenwich Village and the San Francisco Bay Area. What's novel about his argument is the notion of measuring the economic vitality of a region like the biological soundness of an ecosystem: The greater the diversity of its inhabitants, the healthier and more vibrant it becomes.

One important indicator of urban prosperity is the presence of a thriving queer community. In 1998, Florida was studying the location preferences of high-tech companies. Then he met a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon who was using census data to determine the geographic clustering of gay populations. When Florida compared his list of cities to Gary Gates' "Gay Index," he was stunned by their similarity. The same places that were popular among gays were also attractive to high-tech firms.

Does this mean there are more gays employed in computer and software firms than in other industries? Not at all, says Florida. He found further commonalities when he compared his lists of high-tech hot spots and gay-popular regions to another indicator of the creative class: his own "Bohemian Index," a measurement of the density of artists, writers and performers in a region. Florida realized those cities that score high among the "Three Ts" -- technology, talent and tolerance -- were also growing fastest.

Not surprisingly, Burlington stacks up well. In a comparison of 268 American cities, the Queen City ranked 37th overall on a composite index that measures creative talent, high-tech industry, innovation and diversity. Among regions with fewer than 250,000 people, Burlington fared even better, ranking fourth out of 124 cities.

Florida concluded that as the U.S. entered the 21st century, what spurred the growth of its urban centers was not large companies, as many economists and politicians have long asserted. The bellwether of success turned out to be the ability of those cities to attract diverse populations of creative people.

Again, the presence of a gay community emerged as a crucial element. "To some extent, homosexuality represents the last frontier of diversity in our society, and a place that welcomes the gay community welcomes all kinds of people," Florida writes. Gays, he suggests, are "the canaries of the Creative Age."

Florida's findings confirm what many people have known intuitively for years. Even casual observers of urban environments noticed long ago that gays and lesbians tend to invest heavily in their neighborhoods and improve the community aesthetic. City planners have taken note of such burgeoning areas in urban centers like Chicago and Detroit. As one Burlington lesbian notes, "Of course people follow fags everywhere, because they make things nice and bring up the property values." It's probably safe to assume that Burlington's creative economy has benefited from its reputation as a gay-friendly city in a tolerant state.

Consider, for example, the experiences of painter and photographer Liza Cowan. She moved to Burlington two years ago from the Park Slope section of Brooklyn primarily because of the city's progressive, gay-friendly atmosphere. New York City is certainly gay-friendly, and Park Slope has one of the largest lesbian communities on the East Coast. But Cowan decided that Burlington had more to offer. "My expectation of moving to Vermont as a lesbian, and as a lesbian with children, was that this is a place where I could feel at home," Cowan says. "That was high on my list of priorities."

She admits that Burlington's art scene may not be as cutting-edge as New York's, but Vermont's other quality-of-life benefits outweighed that drawback. And she believes Vermont's experience with the civil-union debate has fostered an environment in which people are more understanding of same-sex family issues.

But quantifying the influx of gay dollars into the Vermont economy is more challenging. Until 2000, the U.S. Census did not ask people to identify their sexual orientation. And thus far no one has crunched the numbers on how the civil-union law has affected Vermont's economy. Since the law took effect on July 1, 2000, Vermont has issued about 5700 civil union licenses. Of those, only 840, or about 15 percent, went to state residents. The other 85 percent spent money in restaurants, hotels, bed-and-breakfasts and other tourism-related industries when they came to Vermont to tie the knot.

And for those gay and lesbian couples that eventually put down roots in the state, new evidence suggests they may have helped raise the economic bar. In a study due out soon in the Journal of Family Psychology, University of Vermont professors Sondra Solomon and Esther Rothblum surveyed more than 1500 gay and lesbian couples who entered into civil unions since the law was passed. They asked the couples a wide range of questions ranging from their education and income levels to how they divide finances, household chores and child-care duties.

The researchers found that, on average, lesbians in civil unions earn considerably more than married heterosexual women. One possible explanation, Solomon suggests, is that heterosexual women may be working fewer hours and raising more children. But the researchers also found that lesbians in general were more likely to be college-educated and hold higher degrees, both of which are good indicators of higher incomes. Though an influx of higher-income residents would certainly be good news for the state's economy, to date no studies exist to confirm such a trend.

Needless to say, not everyone agrees with the links, and conclusions, Florida draws in his book. Glen Elder, a UVM professor of urban geography, says he finds Florida's premise interesting and compelling. However, "It's one of those chicken-and-egg situations that I'm not sure he unravels in a very satisfying way," Elder says. "Do places like Burlington attract gay and lesbian people to them because they're interesting, creative places, or are they a priori gay and lesbian places that are interesting and creative? It's always a little fuzzy."

Elder is also skeptical of Florida's use of gay and lesbian households as surrogate variables for cultural diversity and tolerance. In a state as racially homogenous as Vermont, he says, that assumption probably doesn't hold water. In fact, Florida's Web site, www.creativeclass.org, lists Burlington's "diversity" as "not available," a notation with an obvious -- if unintended -- double meaning.

Finally, Elder questions Florida's reliance on census data to generalize about gays and lesbians. Similar to the Solomon and Rothblum study, Florida only looked at data compiled from gay and lesbian couples. As Elder explains, "It tells me more about class than it actually does about gay men and women per se because it's talking about a very particular kind of gay and lesbian identity." In other words, those who choose to enter into committed, monogamous relationships.

Christopher Kaufman agrees with that assessment. The executive director of Burlington's R.U.1.2? Community Center -- a resource and service organization for queer or "questioning" Vermonters -- has doubts about the widely held assumption that gays and lesbians have more disposable income because they are less likely to have children. "There's been this longstanding myth that gay and lesbian people are wealthier and more educated than other people in the general population. I don't think that's necessarily true," Kaufman says. "There are a whole lot of queer people living in rural areas that are doing the same kinds of jobs as everyone else. I think in one sense you have to take [Florida's] book with a grain of salt."

Despite those criticisms, there are lessons to be gleaned from The Rise of the Creative Class. If nothing else, it should make politicians think twice about enticing large corporations to the state with costly tax benefits and other economic incentives that erode the very social services and basic infrastructure that make a place livable. "Instead of subsidizing companies, stadiums and retail centers, communities need to be open to diversity and invest in the kind of lifestyle options and amenities people really want," writes Florida. Those amenities, such as bike trails, museums, parks and public schools, are what make a city more attractive not just to the creative class, but to all of its residents.

Economist-author Richard Florida will be in Burlington with his "Rise of the Creative Class World Tour 2003" September 10 & 11. For info, visit www.creative class.org.