Amid record high economic inequality, America’s wealthy aren’t just buying rare caviar and Hammacher Schlemmer hoverboats. They’re also purchasing physical separation from the rest of us, a new paper from University of Toronto researchers argues, resulting in higher and higher levels of residential segregation in American cities — especially densely-populated large and mid-size metro areas where there are relatively few blue-collar jobs.
The rankings that Charlotta Mellander’s and Richard Florida’s research produced stand out from other oft-discussed rankings of economic reality and quality-of-life in U.S. cities. Lists of the most unaffordable places to live in America, based on median rent and income, are generally topped by the largest cities in the country. But the residential segregation rankings look somewhat different. San Francisco, which typifies the housing affordability crisis and often tops lists like this one, ranks right in the middle of the pack here. Four of the 10 most economically segregated metro areas are in Texas. Midsize culturally liberal college towns like Austin, TX and Columbus, OH top the list, outdoing bustling metros like Houston, Los Angeles, and New York, where the cost of living is higher. Those cities are still relatively segregated compared to the country, ranking in the top 10 metro areas out of the 359 that the researchers examined.
The new work looks to advance previous research into economic segregation that was based primarily on income. The researchers combined measures of segregation by income with ones tied to educational level and to the type of job a person has, and created an index of overall economic segregation in hundreds of U.S. metro areas. The resulting rankings and comparisons yield a variety of conclusions, some surprising and some expected, but key among them is this: “the behavior and location choices of more advantaged groups” are driving the rise in economic segregation at least as much as the isolation and ghettoization of poorer families.
The segregation effects pop up along other divisions besides wealth, too. The researchers found that occupation and education — which are correlated to a person’s earning power, certainly, but represent a more complex distinction than breaking the population down purely by income — also exhibit the same self-isolating residential patterns. People with higher educational credentials tend to cluster, especially in densely populated metro areas, and members of the “creative class” tend to self-segregate into concentrated neighborhoods while people who work in service industries aren’t able to do the same and end up scattered.
Residential segregation is therefore driven primarily by the choices that wealthier, higher-earning people make about where it would be cool to live — and as the Washington Post notes, the pattern amounts to “the well-off choosing to live in places where everyone else is well-off, too.”
The larger the share of blue-collar jobs in a local economy, however, the less intense both educational and occupational segregation are. Where it is possible to make a comfortable living from lower-skill jobs, neighborhoods are more diverse. The researchers note that residential segregation wasn’t always so intense, and point out that it has spiraling effects in a democracy: Previously, “the people who cut the lawns, cooked and served the meals, and fixed the plumbing [for the wealthy] used to live nearby — close enough to vote for the same councilors, judges, aldermen, and members of the board of education. That is less and less the case today.”
Economic segregation is harmful to those born into the resulting high-poverty neighborhoods. Growing up in poverty damages the brain in the same ways that severe trauma or going without sleep do. Even a child born into a family of means will have a harder time rising up the economic ladder if that family lives in a poor zip code. And everyone else in the country suffers too, as economic segregation and concentrated poverty create harder-to-see macroeconomic costs for the whole nation to bear.