Richer Americans Like Living With Poorer People Until They Have Kids

October 16, 2013

By Neil Shah

The share of American families living in either poor or affluent neighborhoods has doubled over the last four decades from 15% to 33%, according to an analysis of Census data by researchers Kendra Bischoff of Cornell University and Sean Reardon at Stanford University. The proportion living in affluent areas shot up from 7% in 1970 to 15% in 2009, while the share of families in poor neighborhoods more than doubled from 8% to 18%.

The nation’s growing “income segregation” problem, as the researchers call it, is acute where there are high levels of income inequality—but also in places with growing shares of children.

“Parents are more sensitive to neighborhood context and place-based amenities, such as schools, when making residential decisions than are non-parents,” the researchers said. “The presence of children makes residential location more important, and thereby aggravates residential sorting by income.”

Put simply, many Americans, especially those with resources, like residing in socioeconomically-diverse areas when they’re younger, but once they have kids, and want the best for them, they head out — not just to the suburbs, but to suburbs with better schools and richer people and less crime — even if they have to pay up.

In aggregate, it means that better-off Americans are, as a group, increasingly forming their own enclaves and segregating themselves. That could mean worse-quality schools and parks for the children of the lower-income people being left behind. If well-off Americans no longer live near the worse-off, the researchers worry, the nation’s economic resources—and tax revenue—will be pooled in fewer and fewer areas—making expenditures in poorer areas more difficult.