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Why American cities remain segregated 50 years after the Fair Housing Act

Fifty years after passage of the Fair Housing Act, large urban areas still remain highly segregated by both race and income. A report last year in the Washington Post concluded that that although the United States is on track to be a minority-majority nation by 2044, most of us have neighbors that are the same race as us.

This homogeneity is deepening in communities across the nation. A study conducted by the University of Illinois at Chicago portrayed the stark income inequality across Chicago neighborhoods, which have also been plagued historically by racial segregation. In 1970, half of Chicago’s census tracts were middle income. Today, that’s true of only 16 percent of tracts in the city. Most of Chicago’s middle-income neighborhoods have become low-income neighborhoods, though the number of high-income neighborhoods has also increased sharply.

The study piqued my interest. I wanted to know what was happening in my hometown of St. Louis. The City of St. Louis, like Chicago, has also suffered a long history of segregation.

The study identified census tracts as middle income if the per-capita income there was between 80 and 120 percent of the metro-wide per-capita income for a given year. I used that methodology to examine St. Louis’s middle-income neighborhoods. What I found closely resembled the neighborhood trajectory in Chicago. From 1970 to 2017, St. Louis lost almost 50 percent of its middle-income neighborhoods. In 1970, St. Louis had 106 census tracts, and 48 of them were middle income; by 2017, that number had decreased to 25. St. Louis had 37 low-income census tracts in 1970. That number grew to 62 by 2017.

Curious whether this trend was consistent, I looked at neighborhoods in nine of the largest U.S. cities (excluding Chicago), and I used census data from the last 50 years. Indeed, those data confirmed a steady decline in middle-income neighborhoods across the cities. Some city neighborhoods are becoming poorer, and others richer, while the number of middle-income neighborhoods is shrinking at an average rate of at least 50 percent every half century. In some cities, like San Diego, the number of middle-income neighborhoods has decreased by 75 percent since 1970. The cities of New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Philadelphia, and Phoenix have all seen a 60 percent decline on average in the number of middle-income neighborhoods. Each has also seen a steep increase in the number of low-income neighborhoods.

 Largest US Cities: Income and Census Tract Analysis (1970–2017)

No. of Census Tracts
City Year Low Income Middle Income High Income
New York 1970 760 992 330
2017 1359 411 292
Los Angeles 1970 255 452 276
2017 524 183 272
Houston 1970 130 230 213
2017 340 91 142
Philadelphia 1970 143 163 51
2017 262 71 43
Phoenix 1970 55 294 101
2017 225 124 101
San Antonio 1970 63 128 142
2017 165 97 69
San Diego 1970 86 352 188
2017 99 88 128
Dallas 1970 43 60 125
2017 181 45 105
San Jose 1970 73 165 29
2017 95 76 72

Source: US Census Data using Social Explorer

The continued prevalence of segregation in US cities and the hollowing out of middle-income neighborhoods are deeply concerning. Research has confirmed that economic context exerts considerable influence on key life outcomes, including graduation rates, incarceration rates, and health. Increasingly, the poor of all races live in resource-deprived communities with weak schools, high crime, and few neighbors possessing the individual social capital to successfully advocate for neighborhood improvement. In a 2014 study, Raj Chetty and colleagues confirmed that income and racial segregation erect significant barriers to social mobility. Chetty’s latest project, Opportunity Insights, predicts the chances of a child’s upward mobility based on the neighborhood where that child grew up. The project’s conclusions are astonishing: If a child grows up in a low-income family and the family moves from a below-average neighborhood to an above-average one in the same metropolitan region, the child’s lifetime earnings would increase by $200,000. Neighborhoods matter.

The negative effects of income and racial segregation have been well documented over the past 50 years and lack of progress is evident. Successfully overhauling the policies implicated in maintaining segregation will require a concerted effort by federal, state, and local governments, as well as national and local advocacy organizations. And politics is more important than policy because, without good politics, there is no room for good policy. We need to both increase access to high-opportunity neighborhoods and redevelop low-income neighborhoods into mixed-race, mixed-income communities. The investments necessary to effect such transitions are broad and deep. They include efforts to build social capital, improve services, and create housing options. Reducing income segregation in low-income communities requires neighborhood improvement strategies that incorporate efforts to attract middle-class residents. But we also must ensure that neighborhood change does not lead to displacement of the poor for the rich. Building mixed-income communities requires careful analysis and planning at the neighborhood level, ongoing interventions in housing markets by government and nonprofit institutions, and the use of such techniques as community land trusts, inclusionary zoning, and permanent affordable housing.

Featured image credit: “White fence and flowers” by Randy Fath. Via Unsplash.

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