Rising Neighborhood Inequality in U.S. Driven by Parents With Young Children


A new study links income and family mobility to increasing levels of U.S. neighborhood inequality. Martin Bureau/Getty Images
A new study links income and family mobility to increasing levels of U.S. neighborhood inequality. Martin Bureau/Getty Images

One of the more intractable problems for social scientists studying the gap between the rich and the poor in the United States has been figuring out why, since the 1970s, the country's neighborhoods are becoming more segregated by income, rather than less.

A new paper in the journal American Sociological Review by author Ann Owens, an assistant professor of sociology at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, examines the issue. Owens suggests the driver for the increased income segregation between neighborhoods is a strange chemical reaction between the growing income gap between the rich and poor in the U.S., and, oddly enough, trends in 21st-century parenting.

"Other research has shown that neighborhood segregation by income has been rising," says Owens. "I looked at the 100 largest metro areas in the country and found that if you dig down to find who it's rising among, there's basically no change among childless households — sorting across neighborhoods by income only happens among families with kids," says Owens.

Between 1990 and 2010, income segregation between neighborhoods in the metropolitan areas Owens studied rose 20 percent, with the relationship between income inequality and income segregation being twice as large in families with children than in those without.

"The rich are getting richer in the U.S.," says Owens. "The wealthy can both figuratively and literally pull away from everybody else — they're able to afford housing in places that lower income folks can't. But that's also a much stronger story among parents. As rich parents get richer, they chose neighborhoods they think will give their kids advantages, and one of those advantages is residence in a particular school district."

This trend is underlined by the fact that in the United States, significant amounts of school funding comes from local and regional taxes rather than enjoying equal funding spread across entire states.

Family First?

Jennifer Lindstrom, a mother of two young children and an education researcher at the University of Georgia, recently made the decision with her husband to move their family to a higher-income county in order to benefit from the school system there.

"It was a really difficult decision," says Lindstrom. "Because of my work, I was pretty familiar with the range of schools in our area, and it ended up coming down to safety. I met with teachers in the schools, and some teachers were sharing that they had students who were afraid to go to the bathroom alone. I wasn't ready to worry about that with my kids at such a young age, but it was hard. I still don't know if we made the right decision."

Says Owens, "Everybody just wants to do what's right for their kids. In this larger culture of increasingly intensive parenting, research is showing a growing spending gap between what high and low income parents spend on their kids in general. Buying a house in a desirable school district is one area where this spending gap plays out, but if some people are better able to do that than others, it becomes this driver of neighborhood inequality."

All this puts everyone in a tough place. Given the luxury of mobility, Lindstrom and her husband had to weigh the benefits of feeling their children are safe in school with leaving their home and community for a neighborhood that is less racially and economically diverse.

What's the Fix?

According to Owens, there are a few ways we could address this problem, and none will be particularly easy to implement. Because income inequality is such a big part of it, we could start by raising minimum wages and establishing guaranteed basic income — both big, fundamental changes to our economic system. We could also address the inequality by figuring out ways of bringing affordable housing to mixed-income and high-income places.

"We could also find ways of mixing kids from different school districts," says Owens. "The Metco program in Boston has done this for over 40 years — parents can elect to have their kids bused to other districts. Another way would be to consolidate school districts, and this is what Shelby County, Tennessee, which is the Memphis area, did in 2011. Interestingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, six suburban districts seceded from the county schools following that merger, indicating that this is a contentious issue."