Thursday, March 8, 2012

Who Pays for Billboards?

Billboards are part of the community. Although they are multi-national corporations they pay taxes.

That is the extent of a billboard’s benefits. If all the billboards in the country disappeared people would still know where to get the biggest burger in town or the best lap-dance. The truth is that with social review sites like Yelp, a billboard in the modern era is becoming increasingly obscure.

In terms of an economic benefit, only the tax dollars the billboard companies pay have value. Those tax dollars go to the cause of essential public services like fire, roads, and police. The taxes the billboards pay are good then.

Except, no one puts a mansion under a billboard and no one puts a billboard in a neighborhood of mansions. Billboards decrease the property values of nearby parcels, and thus the tax revenue that can be collected. Low property values encourage low quality establishments.

When the rule for properties around a billboard is low quality then the instance of concentrated poverty goes up. Concentrated poverty is the clustering of low income housing and businesses; dense poor communities.

It is well documented that the majority of problems correlated with poverty (drug abuse, graffiti, robbery) occur predominantly with concentrated poverty. In areas such as Baltimore where housing policies have reduced concentration crime has dropped. Only in clusters of poverty do the worst effects apply; exacerbated by the billboards. Billboards are excellent predictors of neighborhood crime rates.

In areas of concentrated poverty liquor and cigarette advertisers reign supreme. Alcohol and tobacco intentionally target these areas because they are correlated with high rates of dependency.

And it is important to remember that these are neighborhoods. Plenty of children grow up in areas where these ads present a distorted reality.

It is no surprise then that crime starts to climb while education levels start to dive in these areas. This leaves the taxpayer with a large burden: extra police services, social services, lost productivity, and on and on. A billboard is a social injustice. The tax dollars that come from an enormous metal sign on a sliver of land are completely erased by the greater burden to the entire region.

A billboard alone can have a negative effect, but whole sections of town with billboards on every block are more realistic for most cities. This greatly exacerbates the problem. It is hard to see why there isn’t a more stringent approach to siting billboards.

To put it mildly, billboards aren’t good. Billboards are detrimental to individuals, communities, and governments. They harm individuals by distorting reality. They harm communities by locking areas into concentrated poverty. They harm governments by destroying tax revenues. To believe that a billboard can always be a positive thing for a community is to look right past the glaring societal problems that we as a nation face everyday. To not consider those factors when formulating legislation is to look at the world through a pinhole.