Our Super Zip State of Mind

Engaging with Life in Communities Not Like Our Own

Chances are if you are reading this blog, you live and work in a “Super Zip,” one of America’s most affluent neighborhoods and zip codes. Super Zips rank in the top 5 percent nationally in education and earnings, according to the American Enterprise Institute's Charles Murray who coined the term. On average, households in Super Zips earn $120,000 annually with 70 percent of adults holding college degrees.

In a November 9, 2013 article at the Washington Post, Carol Morello and Ted Mellnik reported that more than a third of zip codes in the greater Washington, DC region rank as Super Zips and most of these zip codes border each other, forming an almost seamless enclave of affluence that stretches 717 square miles.

When it comes to Super Zips, the Washington-area outranks Silicon Valley, Seattle, Boston, Chicago and Southern California. According to the Washington Post analysis, only the New York City area has more Super Zips. Yet in this case, affluence is more scattered across zip codes in the Big Apple area than in the Beltway region.

As The Post reported in a Nov. 18 follow up story, the “avalanche of cash” that turned the Washington-area into a vast network of Super Zips over the last decade flowed from government spending and political influence peddling. As the economy sputtered in other parts of the country, this steady spending not only benefited contractors, lobbyists, consultants and lawyers, but attracted a new generation of super-ambitious young people and entrepreneurs.

Yet the transformation of Washington into one of the world’s wealthiest regions has also turned the nation’s capital into one of its most like minded. The homogeneity in economic status and social experience has profound implications for how Beltway professionals and advocates design policy and strategy to deal with complex problems like climate change.

“It’s a megalopolis of eggheads,” Brookings Institute demographer William H. Frey told the Washington Post. “It’s a magnet for people who grew up elsewhere and came here because they want to be in a place that has an atmosphere of intellectual curiosity. But it means we’re somewhat isolated. A lot of people here may study and advocate for what’s going on in the rest of the country, but they can’t feel what’s going on if it doesn’t touch them.”

How then to break out of our Super Zip state of mind? How can we design policies and devise strategy on issues like climate change that better meshes with the realities of Americans who in comparison live in zip codes where the average household earns $53,962 and 27 percent of adults have a college degree?

The traditional Beltway answer has been to conduct polling and focus groups, yet as valuable as data can be, such research is only as good as the questions that are asked. More so, data isn’t always available and what’s essential instead for many professionals and advocates is something closer to an experiential sense of what life is like in communities not like their own, insight that should inform the design of policy.

With these considerations in mind, here are three suggestions for breaking out of our Super Zip state of mind.

Build authentic partnerships and relationships. In the past, national organizations working on climate change have sought a range of coalition building strategies. Perhaps no demographic has gained greater attention than church-going Americans. The thinking has been that if this segment can be convinced that climate change is an issue that matters directly to their concern for social justice and God's creation, the resulting strong support from religious Americans can be transformed into pressure on elected officials.

In an analysis I conducted in 2011, I found that major foundations supporting political action on climate change had during the push for cap and trade legislation devoted more than $4 million in grants to faith-based outreach. Yet these outreach efforts – with a few notable exceptions – were relatively superficial at best, relying more on messaging than relationship building.

Engaging blacks and Latinos has also been a major weakness for environmental groups. In the analysis I conducted, nearly $3 million in grants were associated with outreach to minority and low-income groups. Yet at the same time, among substantive climate change-related program areas, comparatively little funding was allocated in support of job creation, public health, or equity and justice, dimensions of the climate change debate that likely matter most to these groups.

Breaking out of our Super Zip state of mind will require authentically engaging with religious Americans, as well as blacks, Latinos, and other low income groups. This means much more than framing and targeting messages; but spending the time to listen deeply to their communities’ leaders in order to develop policies that reflect and support these groups interests and needs, rather than trying to sell them on policies that they have had little to no input in designing.

Consult with state and land grant university experts. I have worked and lived in Washington, DC as a professor and researcher for the past eight years. Most meetings and panels I have attended involve experts from other East Coast and mostly private universities. In part this reflects our Super Zip state of mind, as we look to expertise from the universities where we went to school and earned our degrees.

Yet through this self-selection process we overlook the incredibly valuable expertise and perspectives of the many outstanding scientists, social scientists and professionals who work at our country’s great state and land grant universities. Not only are these individuals among the very best experts in the world, but most conduct research that is solutions focused, adapted to the needs of the communities in their states.

Through their work, their teaching, and their community connections, they also engage with a range of political leaders, stakeholders, groups, students, and neighbors who are very different from the relatively homogenous enclave of people we encounter across our Super Zip lives.

Mining the expertise, experience, outlook and contacts of the faculty and professionals at our great state and land grant universities should be a first stop for Super Zip advocates seeking new ideas, strategies, insights, and wisdom on climate change.

Read regional and local newspapers. This is a relatively simple strategy to adopt, but likely rarely done. On your smart phone, download the apps for a half dozen of America's great regional newspapers, ranging from the Salt Lake City Tribune to the Des Moines Register to the St. Paul Pioneer Press (and don't forget my hometown favorite, the Buffalo News.)

Unless we grew up there, many of us living in Super Zips have spent more time in Europe and the Caribbean than we have spent in the states of the Midwest, Rocky Mountains, or South.

Reading local papers not only sensitizes you to the local issues and concerns that people across communities and states experience – the issues that matter most to their daily lives – but it will also give you a sense of how they view Washington and the Super Zip professionals who run it.

What do you think? What other strategies do you suggest for breaking out of our Super Zip state of mind?

Leave a comment below.


Nisbet, M.C. & Scheufele, D.A. (2012, Aug.) The Polarization Paradox: Why Hyperpartisanship Promotes Conservatism and Undermines Liberalism. Breakthrough Journal, 3, 55-69.