Class segregation

Nov 14, 2011

The divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ is not just a matter of bank accounts. More and more it determines where you live. 

We’ve all heard about racial segregation. Whites live one place. Blacks live in another. There are all kinds of ethnic neighborhoods. But in the last 40 years, racial-ethnic segregation has moderated somewhat--although it is still high. But socioeconomic segregation, segregation by class, is on the rise.

“Well, the biggest change is, of course, the shift in the income distribution. We’ve become a much more unequal society in the past three decades," said Douglas Massey, a Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton.

He was the lead author of a study about this trend toward class segregation which was published in the ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. He said that in the past few years, you can really see the shift as people lose their homes to foreclosure and have to move. 

“As fewer and fewer people are in the middle and more and more people are in the extremes, housing markets tend to produce higher levels of social class segregation, higher levels of segregation on the basis of income,” said Massey.

Some people are moving on up and others are moving to the wrong side of the tracks.

In some areas, it gets to the point that teachers, sales clerks, baristas, the guy who puts tires on those nice cars can’t afford to live in the towns where they work. They live in less affluent communities and have to commute to work which adds to their financial burden. 

So how did we get to this greater divide between classes?  It started with racial segregation. 

After World War II, many white families left cities and moved to newly built suburbs. Federal housing policy kept minorities out. Discriminatory lending practices called redlining also contributed.    

Keeping “others” out of certain areas has now evolved to include class distinctions. 

June Manning Thomas is a Professor at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning

“We’ve created laws that essentially make it clear that purposefully setting up racial segregation is illegal, but we haven’t done that for class segregation," Manning said. "So, it’s perfectly legal for people to refuse to live near someone of a different social-economic status.  And it’s not only legal, it’s enabled and it’s even praised.”

Laws in Michigan don’t allow zoning codes that completely exclude low-income housing, but talk about potential impacts to property values or of “community character” (whatever that means) is often an effective argument against allowing affordable housing.  And zoning codes often restrict areas to big houses on large lots. No one is exactly saying ‘We don’t want those kind of people in our community,’  but there are ways to skirt the intent of the law.

So, it’s still difficult to bring affordable housing to some of these exclusive neighborhoods or towns. 

It keeps the classes separate.

In the past a person would go to the grocery store or the post office and run into all kinds of people all across the socioeconomic spectrum--doctors and lawyers running into mechanics and daycare workers, out-of- work people bumping into business owners.

These days in many areas people end up only seeing and talking to people who make the kind of money they do, live in the size of house they do, have the cares and concerns of people just like them. They don’t interact with people of other classes.  With no interaction, there’s no basis for empathy for those ‘others.’

And Douglas Massey’s study found this class segregation is accompanied by more ideological polarization.  Conservatives are living near other conservatives, liberals living near other liberals.  That is amplified by the media they consume.  When you and all your neighbors are reading the same columns and watching the same news channel, it creates an echo chamber. 

Richard Norton is a department chair at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College.  He said in those isolated, wealthier neighborhoods where everybody is doing well, it’s become difficult for them to understand why others are not as successful because they don’t hear about the obstacles the less fortunate face.

“It’s a little bit disingenuous for folks to say, ‘Well, you know, I made it; why can’t those folks make it;  we don’t want them in our community,’ and at the same time that we’re systematically taking everything away from those folks that would give them the opportunity to make it themselves,” said Norton.

And the folks who are struggling at the bottom of the economic ladder often assume those who do have more somehow must be gaming the system. 

There are few opportunities for the different classes to have real conversations about their perceptions, because they don’t live in the same places.

Inform our coverage: How has class affected your life?