The Decline of the “Ghetto”? A Look at Metropolitan Neighborhoods of the Future

2.17.2012 | A new study of census data by economists Edward Glaeser of Harvard and Jacob Vigdor of Duke finds that US metros are less segregated than they have been in over 100 years. Their main findings include:

  • “The most standard segregation measure shows that American cities are now more integrated than they’ve been since 1910. Segregation rose dramatically with black migration to cities in the mid-twentieth century. On average, this rise has been entirely erased by integration since the 1960s
  • All-white neighborhoods are effectively extinct. A half-century ago, one-fifth of America’s urban neighborhoods had exactly zero black residents. Today, African-American residents can be found in 199 out of every 200 neighborhoods nationwide. The remaining neighborhoods are mostly in remote rural areas or in cities with very little black population.
  • Gentrification and immigration have made a dent in segregation. While these phenomena are clearly important in some areas, the rise of black suburbanization explains much more of the decline in segregation.
  • Ghetto neighborhoods persist, but most are in decline. For every diversifying ghetto neighborhood, many more house a dwindling population of black residents.”

The authors find that cities with gains in integration were in the sun belt, which has experienced the largest population growth and has attracted large immigrant populations in recent years. They attribute these changes to government reforms, changes in racial attitudes, and the extension of credit and access to subprime mortgages.

Glaeser and Vigdor are both fellows at the Manhattan Institute which focuses on examining urban issues from a free market perspective. The paper is titled “The End of The Segregated Century” and produced such headlines as “Segregation Declines Across U.S.,” or “Blacks are less segregated than ever before” in newspapers and media outlets around the country last month.

The big pictures is, of course, much more complex than the headlines, and many would argue, not as rosy. And the important question is: If the urban segregated ghetto is on the decline, what do we find in its place?

Douglas Massey, a Princeton sociologist who wrote the seminal book “American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass” told the New York Times:  “In terms of trends in black-white segregation, we really see two trends: in metro areas with small black populations, we indeed observed sharp decreases in segregation; but in those with large black populations, the declines are much slower and at times nonexistent. Although all-white neighborhoods have largely disappeared, this is more due to the entry of Latinos and Asians into formerly all-white neighborhoods.”

In the same New York Times article, William Frey, the chief demographer at Brookings said that on average white residents still live in more segregated communities than black residents do.

“While recent modest declines in black segregation levels are welcome, the 2010 census shows that the average black resident still lives in a neighborhood that is 45 percent black and 36 percent white,” he said. “At the same time, the average white lives in a neighborhood that is 78 percent white and 7 percent black.” Frey also said that, importantly, segregation levels are even higher for black children showing that black and white families still live in separate worlds in terms of resources and access to programs and services.

While not all segregated minority neighborhoods are low-income, scholars like William Julius Wilson have written about the negative effects of living in segregated, poor neighborhoods — like a lack of social services or being far from jobs.

In fact, as we’ve written about on this blog, research on the shifting demographics of minority communities, immigrants included, shows that even with a move to the suburbs, these communities still sometimes face isolation and poverty.

“Suburban poverty has grown rapidly over the past two decades,” BRR Network chair Margaret Weir said in a recent Q&A on this blog. “By 2008, the number of poor people living in the suburbs of the 100 largest metropolitan areas was greater than the number of poor people in the cities. Yet, most of the nonprofit social service agencies that play a leading role in providing services to low-income residents are located in cities, not suburbs. Therefore, suburbs face a new challenge with few established organizational resources.”

Research by Weir and BRR member Sarah Reckhow finds suburban infrastructures are often ill-equipped to address the needs of more vulnerable families in the suburbs like reliable and affordable transportation, housing, job-training, and preschools. Weir is concerned that in some suburban locations this isolation can cause residents to become extremely disconnected from the rest of society making poverty deeper and less visible.

Research by Alan Berube and Elizabeth Kneebone at Brookings concurs. They found the number of poor people in major metro suburbs grew by 53% compared to only 23% in cities. In addition to economic factors Berube and Kneebone also attribute this shift to trends like overall population growth, immigration, job decentralization, and changes in the location of affordable and subsidized housing. (See Barbara’s post on how housing vouchers are affecting areas of concentrated poverty).

Research by network member Manuel Pastor and his colleagues is helping to provide a vision for an integrated and egalitarian metro region of the future.

Pastor and his colleagues at the USC’s Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration (CSII) have been studying what’s going on here in California – often looked at as a model for future demographic and social change in the rest of the country. California became the first majority minority state in the 1990s and immigrants here have been moving into what were once all black areas of the state. I blogged late last year about the growing residential proximity of African Americans and immigrants here and the finding that, despite some tensions, communities are actually more united than divided.

Pastor’s work has shown that in the 1990s metro regions with less racial segregation (along with reduced income disparities and concentrated poverty) experienced greater increases in economic growth. Pastor believes that diversity is an economic asset that can help us compete in the global marketplace.

For more read the paper he wrote, Equity is the Superior Growth Model, along with PolicyLink’s Angela Glover Blackwell and Sarah Treuhaft.

Photo by John W. Iwanski

Comments are closed.