Dwindling Middle Class Equals Economic Segregation

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  • As the seemingly impenetrable Great Recession lingers and the once burgeoning middle-class continues to dissipate, city neighborhoods and communities are becoming more economically segregated than they’ve been in the last three decades, a recent Pew Research Center study finds.
     
    According to the report, upper and lower income Americans alike are now living more among one another in 27 of the nation’s 30 largest major metropolitan areas, the primary cause of which directly correlates with the long-term, bubbling increase in overall income equality.
     
    Pew data concludes that in 2010, 28% of the nation’s low-income households were located in a census tract where a majority of residents
    were also low income, and 18% of high-income households lived in a majority high-income census tract. By comparison, in1980 only 23% of low-income households and 9% of high-income households were located in such economically segregated neighborhoods.
     
    “These increases are related… which has led to a shrinkage in the share of neighborhoods across the United States that are predominantly middle class or mixed income,” said Duke University economist and Prof. Jacob Vigidor. “The hollowing out of middle-class jobs relates to the hollowing out of middle-class neighborhoods.”
     
    In addition, the percentage of neighborhoods predominantly of middle-class or mixed-income declined to 76% in 2010, compared to 85% in 1980, while shares of lower income areas were up by six percent (18 to 12) and majority upper income communities were up three percentage points (six to three) over the same period.
     
    To that, Vigdor surmises that as the booming manufacturing industry began to slow in the late 1980s, more people, particularly those of greater means, began to flee certain neighborhoods, leaving lower income people in the unenviable position of completely establishing and sustaining their own sub-economies.  
     
    Despite the long-term rise in residential segregation by income and a recent, overall decline in black-white segregation, researchers concluded it remains less pervasive than residential segregation by race. “People tend not to switch races over time, however people’s incomes do change,” chimed Vigidor.

    “It’s a sign of a new kind of segregation in America,” he added. The well-respected Ivy League professor likewise noted that 30-years ago segregated neighborhoods remained so based on race nearly exclusively. Nowadays, however, the complete opposite, more or less, holds true, with economics reigning as the driving force.

    To a man, Vigidor and other researchers largely attribute that change in trajectory to a lack of related legislation or judicial intervention outlawing the practice of excluding low income people from being able to reside in certain, far more affluent areas.

    “People are striving to buy into upper class neighborhoods because the schools are better,” said University of Texas economist James Galbraith. “That pushes up rents and pushes out poor people.”
     
    And nowhere has that trend been more prevalent or demonstrative than in Galbraith’s adopted state of Texas. Of the nation’s 30 largest metro areas, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston were found to be the most economically segregated.

    “Construction of neighborhoods in Texas has been geared towards people who have money,” reasoned Galbraith. It does not attract lower income workers like teachers or single parent households.”
     
    Pew Research Center analysis also finds major differences among the patterns prevalent among the nation’s 10 most populated metropolitan areas in terms of both income and segregation. In New York, for example, nearly half of all lower incomes homes are situated across a majority lower-income census tract, compared with 26 percent of lower-income households in the Atlanta area.  
     
    On the residential flip-side, concentration among upper-income households attests to a far less stringent pattern among the nation’s 10 largest metro areas. Based on such variables, Houston and Dallas sit atop the chart, with 24 and 23 percent of upper-income households stationed across a census tract in which a majority of all dwellings are of the well-to-do variety.
     
    By comparison, merely 8% of upper-income households in Boston metro area are situated in a majority upper-income tract, roughly on par with the 12 and 13 percent found in Chicago and Philadelphia, respectively.

    Based on such widely contrasting variables, Pew researchers created a metric they now refer to as a single Residential Segregation score in unilaterally grading the nation’s top 30 metropolitan areas.  

    By adding together the share of lower-income households living in a majority lower-income tract and the share of upper-income households living in a majority upper-income tract, this Pew Research analysis has developed a single Residential Income Segregation Index (RISI) score for each of the nation’s top 30 metropolitan areas.
     
    Given a maximum potential score of 200, again The Lone Star state reigns supreme with Houston (61) and Dallas (60) rating the highest RISI scores, closely followed by New York  city (57). At the other end of the spectrum, Boston at 36 and Chicago and Atlanta, each at 41, have the lowest RISI scores among the nation’s 10 most expansive metropolitan areas.
     
    “What’s happened is the middle class has shrunk,” Paul Taylor, executive vice president of the center and co-researcher of the report,” told PBS’ Gwen Ifill. “There are fewer people in that middle segment now than there used to be… and that’s a large reason we see more income segregation.
     
    “The middle has hollowed. We know that from following census data over decades now,” he added. “So, the question is, because there are fewer people in the middle, has it affected where we live and what our neighborhoods look like? The answer from this report is yes.”
     

    Glenn Minnis is a NYC-based sports and culture writer. Follow him on Twitter at @glennnyc.
     

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