Increasing US urban residential segregation and decline of middle-class communities

Flickr photo by OldOnliner

A new report by Kendra Bischoff and Sean Reardon for the Russell Sage Foundation and Brown University found that, as a likely consequence of widening American income inequality, fewer and fewer Americans  live in urban middle-class neighborhoods and urban communities are instead increasingly polarized into rich and poor neighborhoods.  They call this increased “income segregation” or “family income segregation.”  Their report studies 117 metropolitan areas with a population of 500,000 or more in 2007 and examines these patterns at the census tract level, covering roughly two thirds of the US population.

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 research shows how children are less likely to grow up socializing with and playing with children of other socio-economic backgrounds, especially in an era where mandatory school-busing has come under attack.

These trends are all prior to the 2008 great recession, so it is impossible until 2013 to know whether that exacerbated these patterns or ameliorated them somewhat, and even then we probably won’t know about specific neighborhoods.

Bischoff points out that these segregation indices would change during the recession only if foreclosures or job losses force people to move, then income segregation could change.  For instance, if low- and moderate- income families need to move to lower-income neighborhoods, urban residential segregation would increase (more clustering).  Alternatively, if middle income families lose income, but remain in their homes (or neighborhoods), then residential income segregation would decrease as neighborhoods as increased family income volatility leads neighborhoods to become more diverse in income terms. The American Community Survey may never be able to resolve what happened at low levels of geography.


As overall income inequality grew in the last four decades, high- and low-income families have become increasingly less likely to live near one another. Mixed income neighborhoods have grown rarer, while affluent and poor neighborhoods have grown much more common. In fact, the share of the population in large and moderate-sized metropolitan areas who live in the poorest and most affluent neighborhoods has more than doubled since 1970, while the share of families living in middle-income neighborhoods dropped from 65 percent to 44 percent. The residential isolation of the both poor and affluent families has grown over the last four decades, though affluent families have been generally more residentially isolated than poor families during this period. Income segregation among African Americans and Hispanics grew more rapidly than among non-Hispanic whites, especially since 2000. These trends are consequential because people are affected by the character of the local areas in which they live. The increasing concentration of income and wealth (and therefore of resources such as schools, parks, and public services) in a small number of neighborhoods results in greater disadvantages for the remaining neighborhoods where low- and middle-income families live.

Key findings, based on Census American Community Survey data:

  • From 2000 to 2007, family income segregation grew significantly in almost all metropolitan areas (in 89 percent of the large and moderate-sized metropolitan areas). This extends a trend over the period 1970-2000 during which income segregation grew dramatically. In 1970 only 15 percent of families were in neighborhoods that we classify as either affluent (neighborhoods where median incomes were greater than 150 percent of median income in their metropolitan areas) or poor (neighborhoods where median incomes were less than 67 percent of metropolitan median income). By 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such
  • The affluent are more segregated from other Americans than the poor are. That is, high-income families are much less likely to live in neighborhoods with middle- and low-income families than low-income families are to live in neighborhoods with middle- and high-income families. This has been true for the last 40 years.
  • Income segregation among black and Hispanic families increased much more than did income segregation among white families from 1970 to 2007. Notably, income segregation among black and Hispanic families grew very sharply from 2000 to 2007. Income segregation among black and Hispanic families is now much higher than among white families.

Read “Growth in the Residential Segregation of Families by Income, 1970-2009” (Sean Reardon, Kendra Bischoff).

See NY Times story, “Middle-Class Areas Shrink as Income Gap Grows, New Report Finds” (11/16/11, by Sabrina Tavernise) which also shows this pattern for Philadelphia, which showed the biggest increase in income segregation over this period as well as the overall decline in middle-class neighborhoods and the rise of poor neighborhoods.

See earlier blog post: “Stalled upward social mobility in the US”

See somewhat related post by Liberty Street Economics (the blog of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York) that shows both that median wages were growing fastest in the high-skilled occupations, and also that job growth was fastest in both the high-skilled and low-skilled occupations and slowest in middle-class job occupation.

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One response to “Increasing US urban residential segregation and decline of middle-class communities

  1. Interesting article. Planing for racial and economic integration in the design of communities is one solution, but this takes visionary leadership and “buy in” from communities on the benefits of diversity. See a post on this topic at:

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