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Sam Pizzigati
Published: Tuesday 19 February 2013
Rising inequality, newly released data make plain, has left America’s metro areas — and neighborhoods — considerably less mixed by income. Are the rich about to bid the rest of us good-bye?

Our Residential Future: Segregation Forever?

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Our political vocabulary is changing all the time. Words that loom large in one generation’s national public discourse can almost totally disappear in the next.

Take the word “segregation.” A half-century ago, newspapers headlined “segregation” on almost a daily basis. This same word today seldom ever appears, either in print or on our computer screens. To our contemporary sensibilities, segregation seems so, well, yesterday.

But segregation still stains America, and not just the lingering legacy of the racial segregation that Americans battled decades ago. America now faces a stark income segregation as well — and this income segregation is getting worse.

Last week, researchers from the U.S. Census Bureau released a new report that details one aspect of this new segregation: the concentration of high-income households by metro area.

How concentrated have these high-income households become? The new Census study, the first ever to examine where America’s most affluent 5 percent live, offers a rather dramatic picture.

In some U.S. metro areas, the new data show, you can knock randomly on 100 doors and expect to find only one household making at least $191,469, the income threshold for entering America’s top 5 percent between 2006 and 2011.

In other metro areas, that same door knocking would turn up as many as 18 households making near $200,000 and above.

In effect, affluence in America today almost totally bypasses broad swatches of the nation, from Cumberland in Maryland to the Kingman area in Arizona. Affluence is settling instead in a relatively few pockets, places like Silicon Valley in California and the hedge-fund-happy suburbs around Stamford, Connecticut.

Our contemporary income segregation becomes even more intense when we drill down from the metro to neighborhood level. Sociologists Sean Reardon and Kendra Bischoff have been doing this drilling, using Census tract data.

Back in 1970, the pair have found, 65 percent of America’s families lived in “middle-income” situations, neighborhoods where incomes range from 80 to 125 percent of the median, or most typical, income of the larger metro area. By 2008, only 43 percent of U.S. families lived in middle-income neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, over that same span, the share of families living in either poor or rich neighborhoods essentially doubled.

In 2008, note Reardon and Bischoff, nearly one in three U.S. families in metro areas “lived in neighborhoods at the extremes of the local income spectrum,” in poor neighborhoods with incomes under 67 percent of the metro median or in affluent neighborhoods with incomes above 150 percent of that median.

Today’s affluent, Reardon and Bischoff observe, actually live more segregated lives than America’s poor. These affluent have become “much less likely” to live in mixed-income neighborhoods than poor families.

Growing income inequality, the two sociologists add, is driving this increasing segregation. With the income gap between the rich and everyone else rising, mixed-income neighborhoods “have grown rarer,” affluent and poor neighborhoods “much more common.”

Average Americans, for their part, are paying a heavy price for this growing segregation. The more isolated the rich become, the more they withdraw into their own private worlds and the less interest they have in supporting public services that can benefit the wider community.

Growing inequality and income segregation impact us on a deeper level as well. The more unequal we become, notes University of Maryland political scientist Eric Uslaner, the less we feel we have “much in common” with people not like us.

Between 1968 and 2006, Uslaner’s research documents, the share of Americans who believe that “most people can be trusted” dropped from 56 to 34 percent. “Such overarching pessimism,” he observes, shreds social cohesion and invites political polarization. Finding “common ground” becomes ever more difficult.

Into this doom and gloom, Stanford historian Richard White has just brought some egalitarian sunshine. Once upon a time, White writes in a fascinating new Boston Reviewessay, most Americans lived in much more equal circumstances.

In the 1860 Illinois of Abraham Lincoln, for instance, Springfield “bricklayers, lawyers, stable owners, and managers lived in the same areas and were not much separated by wealth.”

Back then, White explains, “making it” meant earning an income able “to support a family and have enough in reserve to sustain it through hard times at an accustomed level of prosperity.”

“The idea of having enough,” adds White, “frequently trumped the ambition for endless accumulation.”

In other words, nothing in the American “character” hardwires us to chase mindlessly after grand fortune — or accept income segregation.



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ABOUT Sam Pizzigati

 

Veteran labor journalist Sam Pizzigati, an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow, edits Too Much, the Institute's online weekly on excess and inequality. His latest book: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970 (Seven Stories Press, November 2012).

Lets see, Greed is not Good?

Lets see, Greed is not Good? Who knew?

It isn't so much that the 1%

It isn't so much that the 1% are afraid of the rest of us, though they do like to live in gated communities with lots of security guards. They aren't too afraid of us to work in the same buildings, at least. I think that the biggest reason that they live in segregated enclaves is that if they don't surround themselves with others who have everything that they do, they have a hard time holding onto their feelings of entitlement to all that wealth and power. Nor can they be best buddies with their nearest neighbors in such communities, for they never really see each other and would tend to regard each other as rivals rather than compatriots. So they chose lives of loneliness, surrounded by other super rich but lacking real friends, and the people who are closest to them in daily life are all employees - servants, advisors, etc who are kept at a social arm's length even as they do totally intimate things like massage, or handling their laundry, or wiping their kids butts. No wonder they can get into a paranoid victim mentality. If you want to feel safe in the world, you need to be able to trust people, to know that they would do anything for you because you would do anything for them. Friendship, love, trust, and peace of mind all come from being part of your community and knowing that the relationships of reciprocal support are there for you. Even folks at the very economic bottom, in high crime areas, probably have more real friends than do the super rich.

When it comes to the concept

When it comes to the concept of "social justice," and esp. segregation, the discussion remains locked into the issue of race. In real life, what powerfully segregates the population is class. Those who have the wealth/power work quite conscientiously to enforce class segregation through such measures as welfare "reform," moving the fair-paying jobs out to suburban industrial/business "parks," etc. This generation has done an astounding job of cutting the rungs off of the ladder out of poverty, setting America (and its ability to compete in the world market) back by decades.

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