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Segregation in America Is Driven By Rich White People, Who Are Increasingly Choosing to Separate Themselves From Everyone Else

State College, PA

State College, PA

A deeper look at segregation in America reveals that the residential patterns in American cities are increasingly determined by the desires of wealthy and well-educated white city residents. Because they want to live near people who are like them, once they pick a neighborhood and populate it, everyone else lower on the income scale then has to go out and find places they can afford.

That is one of the findings of a fascinating new study of segregation by the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. The report, called “Segregated City: The Geography of Economic Segregation in America’s Metros,” digs below the surface to explore what is really driving American cities to split into such separate worlds.

The most segregated populations in every city tend to be those who have the most money. But the report shows that people also tend to segregate themselves by education and occupation. Researchers Richard Florida and Charlotta Mellander studied the more than 70,000 Census tracts that make up America’s 350-plus metros and were able to determine which cities were truly the most segregated—by income, by education and by occupation.

At a time when the nation wrings its hands about the rigid segregation in the nation’s schools, it’s clear what’s behind the phenomenon—rich whites congregating in residential pockets, leaving poor people of color outside the wealthy bubble to fend for themselves.

“Where cities and neighborhoods once mixed different kinds of people together, they are now becoming more homogenous and segregated by income, education, and occupation,” the researchers wrote. “Separating across these three key dimensions of socio-economic class, this bigger sort threatens to undermine the essential role that cities have played as incubators of innovation, creativity, and economic progress.”

As the researchers note, it’s not just that wealth and income inequality in the U.S. has grown more severe—”it’s that the rich and poor effectively occupy different worlds, even when they live in the same cities and metros.”

Of course, all three types of segregation are associated with one another, just as income is closely connected to education and occupation. If a metro is segregated on one dimension, the researchers point out, it increases the likelihood that it is segregated on the others. So for instance, the creative class is more segregated than either the working class or service class because the creative class chooses to live near each other and can afford to do so. Likewise, college grads are more segregated than those who did not finish high school and the wealthy naturally are more segregated than the poor because these more advantaged groups have the resources to isolate themselves from less advantaged groups.

A lot of the most severe segregation occurs in medium-sized college towns, because those are the places where the extremes are greatest—university staff and students on one side, the people paid to serve them on the other.

As the report notes, State College, Pennsylvania (home to Penn State) has the highest level of poverty segregation in the country; Ann Arbor (University of Michigan) ranks fifth; Ames, Iowa (Iowa State) eighth, and New Haven (Yale University) is tenth.

Madison, Wisconsin (University of Wisconsin); Boulder, Colorado (University of Colorado); Iowa City, Iowa (University of Iowa); and Champaign-Urbana, Illinois (University of Illinois) all register relatively high levels of poverty segregation as well.

“Race factors in as well,” the researchers wrote. “Economic segregation is positively associated with the share of population that is black, Latino, or Asian, and negatively associated with the share that is white.”

In other words, the more Blacks, Latinos and Asians a metro area has, the more likely they are to live away from rich, white people. In a nutshell, that has become the definition of America: isolated pockets of the rich huddled together, away from everyone else—in fact, very reminiscent of residential patterns in the third world.

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