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Growing Apart

A Political History of American Inequality

Colin Gordon, Author

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A Closer Look at Geography, Segregation, and Inequality

Inequality also a unique spatial dimension in the United States. Our cities are starkly more unequal than the national as a whole—a reflection of longstanding and continuing patterns of local segregation and sprawl. Indeed, nowhere is the story of American inequality staged more dramatically than in the contrast between central city poverty and relative suburban wealth. Here again, the history of housing and property discrimination casts a long shadow. Over the last century, American urban spaces were starkly segregated (by race and income) by a variety of means, including race-restrictive deed covenants, local and federal urban policies (such as zoning, mortgage insurance, and urban renewal), and the blunt discrimination practiced by private realtors and lenders.29   

Sidebar: Mapping The Unequal City

The racial logic of local segregation has diminished somewhat in recent years (although it persists in many settings30) but it has been succeeded by an equally stark segregation based on income. Indeed, residential segregation by income has grown over the last generation. This segregation is driven by an increase in the share of the population living in areas of concentrated poverty, and by an increase in the share of the population living in areas of concentrated wealth. In 1970 only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods that could be considered as either affluent (those where median incomes were greater than 150 percent of median income in their metropolitan areas) or poor (those where median incomes were less than 67 percent of metropolitan median income). By 2007, twice the share of families—over 30 percent--lived in such neighborhoods.31  

American cities map—in local time and space--the larger patterns of American inequality: the poor poorer, the rich richer, the middle increasingly hollowed out.32   In many settings, this inequality sprawls beyond the old central city-suburb divide. Many central cities are largely depopulated—a scale of abandonment and disinvestment readily apparent in any birds’ eye view. Poverty now spills into inner suburbs and, in the wake of the housing bubble, beyond.33   The wealthy are increasingly ensconced in gated communities in distant exurbs. Indeed, prior to the housing crash, new residential construction was pushing ahead most dramatically in the nation’s slowest growing and most distressed metropolitan areas—servicing not a demand for new housing but a demand for further spatial segregation by income.34  

All of this, of course, has the effect of segregating opportunity as well. Historically, concentrated poverty emerged where local residents had few job prospects or housing options. Inequality yielded segregation and then reinforced it, as poor neighborhoods were stripped of basic economic and social assets. Many of the urban poor live in old working class neighborhoods in which the work has disappeared.35    And, as the local tax base crumbles, so too does the likelihood that local public schools will offer a way up or a way out.36 

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