TOPICS > Economy

More Americans Live in Economically Segregated Neighborhoods Than 30 Years Ago

August 1, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Racial segregation in U.S. neighborhoods is on the decline, but income level is increasingly an indicator of where people live. Gwen Ifill talks to Pew Research Center's Paul Taylor about a recently released study on the connections between income inequality and neighborhood segregation.

GWEN IFILL: Now to our second economic story, a new report showing how cities have become increasingly segregated not by race, but by income.

The Pew Research Center found that the percentage of higher-income households living in wealthier neighborhoods doubled in the last three decades from 9 to 18 percent. That’s in 27 of the 30 largest metropolitan areas. At the same time, a greater percentage of lower-income Americans live in poorer neighborhoods. Census data show that number jumped from 23 percent to 28 percent.

Paul Taylor is the executive vice president of the center and a co-author of the report.

Welcome back, Paul.

PAUL TAYLOR, Pew Research Center: Thanks.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s start with definitions. What do you mean when you say economic segregation?

PAUL TAYLOR: We — for the purpose of this analysis, we divided all households in the country into three groups, lower, middle and upper.

We define the lower group as having less than two-thirds of the median and the upper group has having more than double the median. In real dollars, for the nation, that works out to about $34,000. If you have less than that, you’re in the lower group — $104,000, if you have more than that, you’re in the upper group. In between, you’re in the middle.

GWEN IFILL: And how has that gap grown wider?

PAUL TAYLOR: What has happened is that the middle has shrunk.

There are fewer people in that middle segment now than there used to be. And that’s a large reason that we see more income segregation. The middle has hollowed out. We know that not just from this report. We know that from following census data over decades now.

So, the question is, because there are fewer people in the middle, has it affected where we live and with whom we live and what our neighborhoods look like? And the answer from this report is yes.

GWEN IFILL: Now, the middle has shrunk or disappeared or is shrinking.

PAUL TAYLOR: No, it has not disappeared. It’s just smaller.

GWEN IFILL: It is shrinking. OK.


GWEN IFILL: Are those people going up or are they going down?

PAUL TAYLOR: A little bit of both.

There’s actually more movement up than down, at least when you do the breaks the way we did. But, increasingly, there’s also not just a smaller middle, but there is an increasing tendency of people at the upper end to live among themselves and people at the lower end to live among themselves.

GWEN IFILL: Is it possible there’s any good in this and that the middle shrank, but that people went up and therefore there were more rich people?

PAUL TAYLOR: No, the income numbers for the last decade, there’s not a whole lot of good news.


PAUL TAYLOR: I would say there is some good news.

First of all, despite this income segregation, the vast majority of people still live in either middle or mixed income. It’s just not quite as many as before. It used to be about 85 percent of the country lived in either a middle-class neighborhood or an economically mixed neighborhood. That is now down to about 75 percent. So that’s come down.

But the other good news is what you noted at the beginning. Even as income segregation has increased in this country, racial segregation, which is our deepest and longest-standing cleavage in terms of where we live and a lot of other dimensions in our society, racial segregation has actually come down pretty significantly over the last several decades.

GWEN IFILL: We have to think of the term segregation differently going forward.

So where does this happen? Where does this play out the most?

PAUL TAYLOR: It’s really fascinating, because while it has happened all across the country, there are pretty stark differences by metro areas and by regions.

The three cities that have seen by far the greatest growth in income segregation are all in Texas, the three big cities of Texas, Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio. They are now — among the nation’s 30 largest metro areas, they have the highest levels of income segregation.

GWEN IFILL: What is it about Texas?

PAUL TAYLOR: You know, I don’t know. But if you think about what has happened to those three cities in the last 30 years, they have grown a lot and they have grown a lot as a result of two different kinds of migration streams.

There has been a migration stream that it’s been attractive because they’re economically vibrant. So you have high-end workers. You have — maybe in Sunbelt areas, you have some well-to-do retirees. These folks might be attracted to living in more well-to-do neighborhoods.

You have a tremendous amount of low-end, low-skill migration, typically from south of the border, to build the new houses, to mow the lawns, to do the lower-end service jobs. So that has been a description of the changing demography of those cities. And it seems to play out in the changing residential patterns as well.

GWEN IFILL: So, as we redefine segregation, we’re also redefining migration in some ways?

PAUL TAYLOR: I think that’s right.

I mean, this country, we know from demographics, is getting extraordinarily more diverse. It’s not just a black-white country anymore, which was the way we defined diversity for most of our history. We have Hispanics. We have Asians. And that’s part of this picture.

And one of the concerns that people raise about — Charles Murray did a book earlier this year where he focused not so much on the upper third, but really the upper 5 percent or so. And he described how much residentially and in other ways they are sort of drifting away from the rest of the country.


GWEN IFILL: We talked about that on this program.

PAUL TAYLOR: Yes. A succession of the elites, I think, is as he described it.

I think that may be true of folks at the very upper end. It is still the case that, by in large, we are mixed in our living patterns, a little less so than before.

This raises — the motto of this country is ‘e pluribus unum,’ out of many, one. We’re doing great on the pluribus in terms of our diversity. Our genius has been to take the pluribus and make it one. And if we’re living among ourselves at lower levels than we used to, it then raises the question, how are we going to do with the unum?

GWEN IFILL: And, also, at the heart of this, we’re speaking to other evidence that our income inequality, which has become a highly charged political issue, continues to be — continues to be a big problem in this country.

PAUL TAYLOR: Well, it’s a big cleavage.

Actually, there’s another residential cleavage that is playing out. We’re familiar with the red-state/blue-state phenomenon.


PAUL TAYLOR: Actually, you can go down to the county level and you can find an increasing big sort, as one author called it, that we have red counties and blue counties. We know that from their voting patterns.

So it’s not just that people of the same income are increasingly living among themselves. It’s people of the same partisanship and the same ideology increasingly living among ourselves. That has delivered us a Congress that is more polarized by all sorts of measures than at any time in modern history.

And we know from the public opinion surveys that we do, the public is not particularly thrilled with what that kind of Congress is doing.

GWEN IFILL: I like the way you drew that line, Paul, from one thing to the other. Everything affects everything else.


GWEN IFILL: Paul Taylor from the Pew Center, thank you so much.

PAUL TAYLOR: Pleased to be with you.

GWEN IFILL: On our website, you can use an interactive map to see the rise of economic segregation in 10 U.S. cities.