The Growing Income Segregation in Cities

8.10.12 | New data from the Pew Research Center shows that compared with 30 years ago, Americans are increasingly living in neighborhoods segregated by income.

In an analysis of Census data, Pew found that in 1980 23% of lower-income households lived in majority poor neighborhoods, and by 2010 the number had risen to 28%. But perhaps more significantly, researchers at Pew also found that the share of upper-income households living in majority rich neighborhoods doubled from 9% in 1980 to 18% in 2010.

Researchers compared neighborhood-level data, Census tracts to better understand the potential exposure of people to others from different groups.

The research also found a shrinking middle class compared with 30 years ago. Middle-income households made up 54% of households in 1980 but only 48% of households in 2010. The share of upper-income households has grown over the 30-year period, to 20% from 15%.

Volumes have already been written about income inequality, the shrinking middle class, and the effect of manufacturing’s collapse on the disappearance of middle class jobs in America. But what struck me about this research is the fact that the working poor are increasingly cut off from the places where upper-income Americans live.

Even as some cities remain class diverse, most of our neighborhoods do not. As upper-income households flock to gentrifying urban spaces with expensive coffee shops or ex-burbs with big houses and well-known high schools, the working poor are ever increasingly priced out of these places. And therefore their struggles– how to find affordable housing, pay for summer camp, or just to put food on the table — are increasingly invisible to upper-income residents, more invisible, this research says, than 30 years ago. And that’s a problem.

The rich and the poor are less and less likely to go to the same grocery stores, send their kids to the same schools, or even see each other walking down the street or at a community meeting. And in this divided world opportunities to talk and more importantly, to listen to one another’s concerns or diverging points of view are few and far between.

Speaking at PBS News Hour, Paul Taylor, the executive vice president of the Pew Research Center, says this growing social isolation is having an effect on our public policy:

“So it’s not just that people of the same income are increasingly living among themselves,” Taylor said. “It’s people of the same partisanship and the same ideology increasingly living among ourselves. That has delivered us a Congress that is more polarized by all sorts of measures than at any time in modern history.”

Sociologist William Julius Wilson has made a similar argument — that we are becoming a two-tiered society where the affluent are separate from everyone else, and that these divisions affect our ability to find community with one another.

BRR Network member Manuel Pastor has written about how these social divisions — racial and age divisions as well as class divisions– are increasingly overlapping and important on the policy front.  The widening racial age gap, for example, is becoming a generational divide, according to Pastor.

“For non-Latino whites, the median age is 42,” he points out in a recent piece at Politico he co-authored with PolicyLink’s Angela Glover Blackwell, “while the median age for Asian-Pacific-Americans is 35; for African-Americans, 32, and for Latinos, 27.”

Pastor says this divide is playing out in national politics where ever tightening budgets are forcing policymakers to chose between constituencies.  Young and old, black and white, and rich and poor are pitted against each other.

“Where the old don’t see themselves reflected in the young, there’s less investment in the future,” Pastor said. “Our racial divide has become a generational divide. There’s this image of an older generation drawing up the drawbridge just as the younger generation is coming of age in America.”

Pastor is professor at the University of Southern California where he directs the Program for Regional and Environmental Equity (PERE). Research between PERE and PolicyLink has found that states with large racial differences between their youth and senior populations tend to make the smallest investments in their spending on education and infrastructure.

The differences in segregation patterns and degrees by city and region in the Pew research were also interesting to take a look at. Researchers examined data from 30 metropolitan cities and found a rise in economic segregation in 27 of those cities. In New York, for example,  “41% of the lower-income households in the New York metropolitan area are situated in a majority lower-income census tract, compared with 26% of the lower-income households in the Atlanta area.” And among upper income households, “Houston and Dallas sit atop the chart, with 24% and 23%, respectively, of their upper-income households situated in a census tract in which a majority of all households are also upper income.”

Their analysis shows that residential segregation by income has on average increased much faster in the big Southwestern metro areas than in other parts of the country.  You can see how your own metro area measures up in this interactive map.

Photo/ Thomas Hawk.

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