Residential Segregation by Income on the Rise

Aug 21, 2012

By Sara Douki

As we head into the upcoming presidential election, there's a lot of attention on issues impacting the future of the country. And thanks in large part to the Occupy movement, growing societal and economic disparities are on the national radar. Now the Pew Research Center has released a report examining how residential segregation by income has risen over the last 30 years. This doesn't just mean people with different incomes live in different areas, it's also a sign that opportunities and access to resources like good education and healthy food are increasingly segregated.

The report finds that 28 percent of lower-income households in 2010 were located in a census statistical survey area (known as a census tract) where the majority of households are low income, up from 23 percent in 1980; and 18 percent of upper-income households were located in a majority higher-income census tract, double the rate of that in 1980. This means that as income inequality has risen, so too have more families become classified as either upper- or lower-income, and the number of middle-income neighborhoods has shrunk.

Residential segregation by income has increased in all regions of the United States, with southwest metro areas such as Houston and Dallas increasing the most. The report says that many metro areas with the largest increases in residential segregation by income experienced significant population growth fueled by both low-wage immigrant workers and well-to-do retirees.

Unfortunately, this increase in segregation is a sign that the gap in opportunities is widening. The differences in education have intensified, children in predominantly low-income neighborhoods are exposed to stressors like violence that would not be as common in mixed-income neighborhoods, and healthy lifestyles are difficult to achieve. In many lower-income neighborhoods, grocery stores and healthy food options are practically nonexistent. Instead, convenience stores with overpriced and limited nutritious options are often the only option for basic groceries. While higher-income households are benefitting from more opportunities by moving to higher-income neighborhoods, lower-income households are struggling more and more.

Our public policies have a role to play. Investing in programs that help workers obtain education and job training can lead more workers to jobs paying fair wages. Adequately funding child care subsidies allows parents to go to work and advance their careers secure in the knowledge that their children are safe, nurtured and learning under the care of an affordable provider. And if we expand good workplace policies like earned sick time, many more workers will be able to better balance work and family obligations without risking a day's wages or even their job.

In short, public policy can narrow the gap in opportunities and make economic mobility a reality - something that's good for all families and communities.

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