The Pew Research Center has released findings that indicate residential segregation by income has increased during the past three decades across the United States and in 27 of the nation’s 30 largest major metropolitan areas, according to a new analysis of census tract and household income date. With the title “The Rise of Residential Segregation by Income,” it confirms what many Americans already know: We live (and die) in cultural silos.
According to the study, “28% of lower-income households in 2010 were located in a majority lower-income census tract, up from 23% in 1980, and that 18% of upper- income households were located in a majority upper-income census tract, up from 9% in 1980.” This, of course, is related to the widespread rise in income inequality and shrinking of the middle class throughout society. This structural change in demographics can actually be traced back some 40 years and has been aggravated by the recent economic downturn that we can’t seem to shake.
The trend seems to be more acute in some of our largest metropolitan areas. For example, Pew finds that 41% of the lower-income households in the New York metropolitan live in mostly lower income neighborhoods. This compares to 26% of the lower-income households in the Atlanta area living among those with similar incomes.
Like oil and water, Americans are settling among matching density, at least when it comes to wallet mass, in some of the largest American cities. In places like New York, it seems that oil and water just don’t mix, where 41% of the lower-income households live among a mostly low-income neighborhood.
On a scale with a maximum score of 200 known as the Residential Income Segregation Index (RISI) that scores the nation’s 30 largest metropolitan areas, Houston and Dallas top the list, with scores of 61% and 60%, respectively.
Most of the metros whose RISI scores have had the largest increases have also experienced significant population growth fueled by in-migration. Many of these cities are located in regions in the southwest that have experienced significant in-migration.
So what’s wrong with this picture? Aren’t we entitled to live among like-minded friends?
Our nation is paying a high cost for inequality and segregation.
Take public education for example. Often, but not always, economic segregation correlates with racial segregation which correlates with geographic segregation. Obviously, segregated neighborhoods will produce segregated schools. As long ago as 1950, pioneering psychologist Kenneth B. Clark wrote spoke out against the psychological damage inflicted upon African-American school children as a result of this segregation. Negative self-esteem and other negative outcomes take their toll on minority children attending school in these areas. Clark found that acts of hostility and aggressive behavior or withdrawal and passive submission become common ways of coping for these kids. As this behavior becomes endemic to these schools, there can be no effective progress in education.
Economically, segregation is often linked to declining tax bases in low-income neighborhoods. And because the bulk of school budgets are funded by local taxes, public schools in these areas have continued on a spiraling decline. This same pattern of decline can be seen across all other local infrastructure from streets to the famed “broken windows” first identified by urban writers that include James Q. Wilson forty years ago.
In 2011 Kendra Bischoff and Sean Reardon wrote that the decline in middle class neighborhoods is plain bad news for several reasons:
This is bad news for the opportunity to build bridging social capital (social ties across race or social class), bad for building any sense that we’re all in this together, and by insulating the rich increasingly from the poor, makes it less likely that the rich will want to take action to help the poor (in the same way as the rich become less interested in public education investment if they send their kids to private schools or become less interested in safe streets if they live in a gated community with a private police force).
This all leads to my point. The American society is becoming a place where we live in cultural silos. We certainly can’t empathize with distant ethnic and racial caricatures invented by the media who live in some distant neighborhood that happens to be on one side or the other of the community’s gates.
Income level is often associated with other issues. In some cases, it’s even associated with mortality rates. In a number of cross-national studies it was found that the degree of income inequality in a given society is strongly related to that society’s level of mortality.
Earlier this year in Florida, Trayvon Martin was shot while walking through an area that he may not have realized was private. His father’s girlfriend lives in Retreat at Twin Lakes, a gated community with controlled access. We all know that hoodies in gated communities are dangerous, right Mr. Zimmerman?
The cultural, social, and sometimes deadly silos we are increasingly living in are destroying what little social fabric we may have constructed during our tenuous 2 ½ century existence marked by civil war and an attempt at reconstruction.
We identify distant members of “other” cultural and ethnic groups based on what the media tell us. Among the most outspoken media icons for racial and ethnic slurs have been The Simpsons. Even George W. Bush declared at the Republican National Convention in 1992 that America needed to be a “nation closer to the Walton than to the Simpsons” model of life in not-so-melting-pot America. Wal-Mart is the ubiquitous retail empire built by the Walton family. Ironically, the “Wal-Mart Cheer” is scarce among Wal-Mart employees. That’s because “A single parent employed full-time at…Wal-Mart and raising two children aged 4 and 12 does not earn enough money to supply the family’s basic needs by shopping at that same Wal-Mart.” Irony dripping on top of caricature.
Internationally, social integration remains a work in progress at best. In 2010, fifteen years after member nations made a commitment to promote social integration, those same members recognized at the World Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen, that the Commission for Social Development needed to continue to explore why it is that “a society for all” still remained elusive. They haven’t lost heart however. They continued to discuss strategies to accelerate progress. Let’s hope the United States will do the same. But for Trayvon Martin, a cultural silo has become a not so hopeful burial vault.