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As Middle Class Gets Smaller,More of Us Live in Income-Segregated Neighborhoods

Over the last 30 years in America, more of the rich are living among the rich, and more of the poor are living among the poor.


Earlier this month the Pew Research Center released a report called “The Rise of Residential Segregation by Income.” This report concludes that the share of lower-income and upper-income households who live mainly among other households of their income class increased significantly from the 1980 census to the 2010 one. The percentage of upper-income households who live in majority upper-income census tracks doubled, from 9% to 18%, while the percentage of lower-income households who live in majority lower-income household increased significantly, from 23% to 28%.

Here’s what’s worth taking away from this report:

  • As implied in this blog’s title, the backstory here is the by now much-discussed contraction of the middle class. This is not just the result of the last few years’ Great Recession, but has been happening for decades. In 1980, middle-income households (those with income from 67% to 200% of the national median) included 54% of U.S. households, but by 2010 they were down to 48%.  
  • With less households at middle income, there are more census tracts (local areas with about 4,200 people) that are either majority lower income (less than 67% of median) or majority upper-income (more than 200% of median income). From 1980 to 2010, the portion of census tracts that did not have majority middle income climbed from 15% to 24% (up from 15% to 18% for lower income and from 3% to 6% for upper income).
  • At the threshold points of 67%/200% of median income, in 2010 lower income was defined as less than $34,000 of household income, and upper income as $104,000 and above. Although these dollar amount may or may not fit your personal definition of these economic classes, the Pew “Center conducted multiple analyses using different thresholds to define lower- and upper-income households,” and the “basic finding reported here of increased residential segregation by income was consistent regardless of which threshold were used.”

Consider the significance of these results. At this point you may be figuring that, well of course, people live in neighborhoods they can afford, so well-off people will live in expensive neighborhoods and the less well-off will live in more modest ones. What is meaningful is the trend towards greater residential segregation, and particularly the sharpness of the trend. We’ve seen a widening income gap between the rich and the poor, and now understand that this has come with fewer of us living in mixed-income neighborhoods, and more of us living among people like us economically. Seems that this fast-increasing isolation of the economic classes from each other can have profound consequences for the nation’s social and political cohesiveness. Our national motto—“E Pluribus Unum,” “out of many, one”—is being sorely tried by our deep and seemingly increasing political divides. Adding a deepening economic divide only increases the challenge of working together constructively.

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