Near the end of their new book, Public Education Under Siege, educator Mike Rose and historian Michael B. Katz describe what they believe is the toughest problem for public education in America: “Throughout American history, inequality—refracted most notably through poverty and race—has impinged on the ability of children to learn and of teachers to do their jobs.” (p. 228) Today the United States tolerates an alarming 22 percent child poverty rate, by far the highest rate of child poverty in any of the world’s so-called industrialized nations. At the same time our society is experiencing ongoing segregation by economics and isolation of the poor and the rich. Growing economic segregation overlays segregation by race and ethnicity, and the trend is mirrored by a widening income inequality school achievement gap.
Documenting these trends in 2011, Stanford University educational sociologist Sean Reardon showed here that while in 1970, only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods classified as affluent or poor, by 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods. By 2007, fewer families lived in mixed income communities. Reardon also demonstrated here that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap. The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.
In a new report, Residential Segregation by Income, 1970-2009, with Kendra Bischoff of Cornell University, Reardon has updated the work on residential segregation by income across our nation’s 117 largest metropolitan areas (those with populations of 500,000 in 2009). These metropolitan areas are, according to Bischoff and Reardon, “home to 197 million people.”
Bischoff and Reardon study the segregation of families, not households, because, “Segregation is likely more consequential for children than for adults for two reasons. First most children spend a great deal of time in their neighborhood, making that immediate context particularly salient for them, while adults generally work and socialize in a larger geographic area. Second, for children, income segregation can lead to disparities in crucial public amenities, like schools, parks, libraries, and recreation.” Children are affected by “neighborhood composition effects” such as the poverty rate, the average educational attainment level and the proportion of single parent families in their neighborhood as well as by “resource distribution effects” that include investments in their schools and recreation facilities as well as the presence of public hazards like pollution or crime.
While the research report is dense, the conclusions demonstrate clearly that segregation by family income continues to grow:
- By 2009 the proportion of families in major metropolitan areas living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods had increased—to 33 percent (from 15 percent in 1970) and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods had declined to 42 percent in 2009 (from 65 percent in 1970), with increased segregation at both ends of the income distribution. Both high-and low-income families became increasingly residentially isolated in the 2000s, resulting in greater polarization of neighborhoods by income, although, “During the last four decades, the isolation of the rich has been consistently greater than the isolation of the poor. “
- Income segregation has grown significantly over four decades for black and Hispanic families, but particularly in the years since 2000. While income inequality among black families did not grow significantly in the two most recent decades from 1990 to 2009, residential segregation by income did grow considerably among black families. “Low-income black and Hispanic families are much more isolated from middle-class black and Hispanic families than are low-income white families from middle- and high-income white families. The rapid growth of income segregation among black families has exacerbated the clustering of poor black families in neighborhoods with very high poverty rates. And while middle class black families were less likely to live in neighborhoods with low-income black families, this does not mean that middle-class blacks gained access to middle-class white neighborhoods…” Racial segregation continues even for the black middle class.
The growing segregation by economics that Reardon documented two years ago and confirms here is pure social science research. He and Bischoff are not prescribing policy. We ought to ask, however, what are the implications for school reform? Are not the neighborhoods where very low-income black and Hispanic families are concentrated the very neighborhoods that are currently the target of punitive school reform policies that fail to address the very factors Reardon and Bischoff identify: poverty, inequality and growing segregation? Our policies target these communities for school closure, privatization through rapid growth in charters, and penalties for teachers who are unable to raise scores while our society has chosen to deny the significance of the trends Bischoff and Reardon confirm.
Bischoff and Reardon pledge to examine in future research another question their data suggests: “If socioeconomic segregation means that more advantaged families do not share social environments and public institutions (schools, public services, parks, etc) with low-income families, advantaged families may hold back their support for investments in shared resources. Such a shift in commitment may have far-reaching consequences for the rest of society.” One can only wonder whether austerity budgeting across the states and in Congress may reflect our society’s growing residential isolation by income.