The decline of America’s middle-class neighborhoods

By Ben Walsh
November 5, 2013

New research shows a steady increase in the extent to which Americans are geographically divided by income. The below charts are from a paper by Kendra Bischoff and Sean Reardon, professors at Cornell and Stanford respectively, on what they refer to as “residential segregation by income”. (h/t to Kevin Drum)

They find a shrinking number of Americans live in middle class neighborhoods, and a growing number of people living in poor, affluent, or high income areas.













Drum worries the trend means that the “well-off have less and less interaction with the poor outside of the market economy, and less and less empathy for how they live their lives.”

The researchers also found a marked increase in family income segregation by race.












Bischoff and Reardon discuss the impact of black and Hispanc families living in increasingly income-segregated neighborhoods:

These trend lines can be thought of as describing the extent to which families’ exposure to same-race neighbors of varying income levels has changed over time. Increasing income segregation among black families means that poor black families have fewer middle-class black neighbors in 2009 than in 1970.

The trends… highlight the growing socioeconomic diversity within historically disadvantaged groups. This pattern among black and Hispanic families may exacerbate “concentrated disadvantage” when coupled with the persistent racial segregation that pervades most American metropolitan areas. In short, racial segregation coupled with income segregation means that low-income black and Hispanic families will tend to cluster in communities that are disadvantaged along a number of dimensions, such as average educational attainment, family structure, and unemployment.

The researchers also note that “during the last four decades, the isolation of the rich has been consistently greater than the isolation of the poor,” a topic they argue deserves further study:

The increasing geographic isolation of affluent families means that a significant proportion of society’s resources are concentrated in a smaller and smaller proportion of neighborhoods. This has consequences for low- and middle-income families: the isolation of the rich may lead to lower public and private investments in resources, services, and amenities that benefit large shares of the population, such as schools, parks, and public services.


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We need to stop thinking in terms of victimhood, more government transfer payments, and income redistribution, and emphasize creating the conditions that will lead the private sector to feel confident enough to invest more, and thereby raise the national growth rate.

Posted by ExDemocrat | Report as abusive

Wouldn’t this indicate that high income blacks and Hispanics are even less willing to live amongst their own low income brethren? What does that tell you?

Posted by sangell | Report as abusive

Walsh/Bishoff/Reardon seem to have taken a perspective and then used statistics to “prove it”. Not that that’s all that rare in academia today, but readers deserve better from the highly educated.

There is no “decline of middle-class neighborhoods” in the physical sense, as inferred. What the charts show is that an almost equal number of individuals formerly counted as being in the “middle class” are moving up (and out) as are moving down (and out).

What is ignored here is in the details of the increasing geographic and physical concentration observed. That difference is largely one of choices.

By and large poor areas tend to be contiguous, with those with better economic choices clustering in the better located and higher quality housing. No one with any choice at all wants to live in an area predominately filled with poor black families. Middle-class black families move away as soon as they can…and into “middle-class” neighborhoods. Duh?

At the same time, these areas also show the preference of Hispanics to live with and around other Hispanics. Why would it be any surprise that people with choices will always tend to “cluster” with others of similar education, expectations, and financial capability?

It is only when one contemplates the upper income “gated communities” (we’re not talking apartments, condos, town homes and the like here) that the rich become truly isolated. They may then move beyond “city taxes” into county areas, then sending their children to private schools (or home schooling), or not.

In each case the very opulence of their homes and property will be assessed to proportionally support local “Schools, parks, and public services.”

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive