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Stanford/Cornell study shows increasing segregation by income

March 6, 2016
By Jonathan Rabinovitz
Sean Reardon, Professor of Poverty and Inequality in Education
Sean Reardon, Professor of Poverty and Inequality in Education
Mixed-income neighborhoods become less common as gap grows between rich and poor

A new report from researchers at Stanford Graduate School of Education and Cornell University shows that income segregation in U.S. cities grew in recent years, offering no reprieve from a trend that began in the 1980s.

With this study, the researchers show that the percentage of families living in predominantly rich or poor neighborhoods, as opposed to middle-income neighborhoods, has more than doubled since 1970: In 2012, 34 percent of families lived in rich or poor neighborhoods, up from 15 percent in 1970; by contrast the proportion living in middle-income neighborhoods declined to 40 percent in 2012 from 65 percent in 1970.

 “Middle-class, mixed-income neighborhoods have become less common as more neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and concentrated affluence have developed,” said Sean Reardon, Professor of Poverty and Inequality in Education at Stanford and a co-author of the report. “These are not new trends, but this latest increase in segregation exacerbates the increase of economically polarized communities that has occurred over the last four decades.”

The new report examines changes in segregation-by-family-income in the nation’s largest 117 metropolitan areas for 2007-12, the most recent years for which census tract data is available.  It builds upon earlier studies by Reardon and Kendra Bischoff, assistant professor of sociology at Cornell, which first documented the rise of income segregation.

Reardon and Bischoff describe the change in income segregation overall from 2007 to 2012 as “modest.”

But the researchers note that income segregation grew at very different rates in different metropolitan regions. The report identifies eight metropolitan areas where income segregation grew sharply by two different measures they use: West Palm Beach-Boca Raton-Boynton Beach, FL; Cape Coral-Fort Myers, FL; Greenville, SC; Charlotte-Gastonia-Concord, NC-SC; Raleigh-Cary, NC; New Haven-Milford, CT; Indianapolis, IN; and the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV metropolitan areas.

According to the report, the most severe shifts in income segregation occurred in metropolitan regions with the greatest growth in the income gap between the affluent and the poor. This finding reinforces an important point from the researchers’ previous papers: The nation’s increasing income inequality is a key driver of income segregation.

Such segregation, Bischoff says, may undermine the cherished American values of upward mobility and equal opportunity. Research shows that children who grow up in poor neighborhoods are less likely than those from affluent ones to be at the top of the economic ladder as adults.

“Rising income segregation will likely only further exacerbate the economic inequality that has produced it,” the authors state. “This self-reinforcing cycle —where inequality begets segregation and segregation fosters inequality — will be hard to break.”

The report and the complete data set on which it is based were published March 6 on this page on the website of the Center for Education Policy Analysis, which is based at Stanford Graduate School of Education. Reardon is a member of CEPA's steering committee.

An in-depth story in the Boston Globe, also published March 6, uses data provided by Reardon and Bischoff as the basis to examine how income segregation is affecting communities in eastern Massachusetts.

To learn more about Sean Reardon's work, see this Q&A with him about segregation, a GSE news release about the widening of the achievement gap based on income, his study of resegregation in public schools, his 2013 Times op-ed “No rich child left behind,” a story about his work on how race and class affect where people live, and his research on dual-language programs.