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Segregation's insidious new look (Q&A with Sean Reardon)

February 27, 2015
Too Much
"I worry that income segregation means that the affluent are increasingly sequestered in enclaves where they have little incentive to understand why we should invest in broad public goods that would help everyone," says Sean Reardon in an interview with the online journal "Too Much."
Sam Pizzigati

The world’s ultra rich, filmmaker Jacques Peretti observed last month, now inhabit “their own Elysium-style biosphere.” They live in “a floating bubble high above Earth,” a “chrome Business Class tube in the sky.”

Peretti was, of course, speaking metaphorically. The rich don’t really live in their own biosphere. They live on terra firma, just like the rest of us. But they don’t live with the rest of us. In our increasingly unequal world, those of high income live more and more apart.

Just how apart? And what does this apartness mean for the rest of us? Researchers like Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon and his collaborator Kendra Bischoff of Cornell have been exploring questions like these. Too Much editor Sam Pizzigati recently spoke with Reardon about our economic segregation — and why it so matters.

Too Much: Most people today hear the word segregation and think racial segregation. You’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about economic segregation. Why?

Sean Reardon: We’re concerned about racial segregation, in part, because of the economic segregation that goes along with it. Racial segregation often means that blacks or Latinos are unequally concentrated in poor, disadvantaged neighborhoods, with poor quality schools and institutions.

I’ve been worried that in an era of rising income inequality we may also be seeing rising spatial inequality economically. I worry about the consequences that this might have, particularly for children growing up in increasingly unequal neighborhoods.

Too Much: We can see racial segregation. Economic segregation we can’t see in the same way. How do you go about measuring economic segregation?

Reardon: A couple different ways. One is simple, and I’ve used it in research with Kendra Bischoff at Cornell.

First, for all metropolitan area neighborhoods, we computed the ratio between every neighborhood’s median family income and the overall metropolitan area’s median income. Then we used this ratio to classify neighborhoods as either poor, low income, low-middle income, high-middle income, high income, or affluent. And then we looked at what proportion of families live in neighborhoods in each category.

When we do that, we find that in 1970 about two-thirds of all American families lived in neighborhoods that rated as middle-income relative to the larger metropolitan region. And only about one in six families in 1970 lived in very affluent or very poor neighborhoods.

Today, about 42 percent of families live in middle-income neighborhoods, and about one-third live in very affluent or very poor neighborhoods.

So we’ve seen a shift — from two-thirds to 42 percent — of families who live in middle-income, mixed-income neighborhoods. Many more families today are living in either very affluent or very poor neighborhoods.  You can see this very dramatically in maps showing the economic composition of neighborhoods over time.

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