If you divided American families into six graduated income groups — poor, low-income, lower-middle, upper-middle, high-income, and affluent — and took a trip in time back to the Age of Disco, you’d find that nearly two-thirds of all American families lived in neighborhoods with median incomes in the middle two groups: lower-middle and upper-middle. Return to the present day, and you’ll find that fewer than half of American families live in middle-income neighborhoods. Progressives wringing their hands over consistently misinterpreted income figures need not go so far as Wall Street boardrooms for evidence of the economic inequality that troubles them so — they need only look next door.
Those are the findings of Kendra Bischoff of Cornell University and Sean F. Reardon of Stanford University in their recent study “Residential Segregation by Income, 1970–2009,” published by the Russell Sage Foundation. The results, if not exactly surprising, are nonetheless troubling. Neighborhoods marked by a mix of residents in the fat middle of the economic bell curve are growing proportionally smaller, while both high-income and low-income neighborhoods grow proportionally more populous. The Bischoff-Reardon study, unlike many others of its kind, does not examine households but families, meaning households in which children and their guardians are present. (A household, for U.S. Census purposes, can be anything from an extended family to a single person to six young hipsters sharing a Brooklyn loft.) That is important in that the consequences of income segregation are likely to be felt most strongly by children. Our antique Prussian factory model of education still ensures that most children’s educational options are limited by geography (the best efforts of reformers notwithstanding), and the likelihood that children will encounter peers in an organized sports league, church group, or school who are from better-off families are much more circumscribed than are the opportunities of adults to move beyond their immediate geographic horizons. The most important social habits are learned, but they are not taught; children pick them up from those around them, the same way they pick up language.
While the research is mixed on how great an impact things like school funding and peer-group composition have on long-term outcomes for children, it seems likely that the effects of these factors is large, at least for some significant group of children, namely potential high-performers who may not develop their talents and interests unless and until they discover the right opportunities. Put simply, a child is never going to discover his passion for the cello if he lives in a poor and culturally circumscribed neighborhood in which few of his peers know what a cello is, much less have heard Bach’s famous first prelude. Put-upon rich kids who chaff at being forced to make substantial extracurricular time investments have the great luxury of learning that they hate playing the piano or that they prefer French club to Spanish club, or discovering to their shock and wonder that somebody else’s science homework actually sounds kind of interesting. (I write that with some personal interest. By far the best thing that ever happened to me educationally was being taken out of my neighborhood schools and put into classes with the children of the local doctors and professors.)
The news here is not all bad: The most pronounced increase in income segregation since the 1970s has not been among the country-club and gated-community set, but among black families, which have quickly and strongly sorted themselves along economic lines. That is probably a consequence of a great deal of pent-up demand released by the decline of social forces that kept all black families — poor, middle-class, and affluent — in the same neighborhoods. The black middle class and affluent blacks have in large numbers moved out of low-income black neighborhoods with the end of formal segregation and the decline of informal segregation. A similar though less dramatic pattern has held true for Hispanics.
The perverse thing is that greater social and physical mobility for blacks and Hispanics has almost certainly meant that the minority neighborhoods the upwardly mobile have left behind are worse off, and possibly much worse off, than they would have been if the upper crust and middle class had been obliged to stick around. They would have contributed social capital (and good old-fashioned capital capital) to those neighborhoods. But there are similar consequences to the economic sorting of whites as well, as the highest-skilled workers of all races and backgrounds pull away from the median while the least skilled are forced to compete in a highly connected global labor market in which they are ill-prepared to thrive. Mixed neighborhoods used to provide informal networks to mitigate some of the effects of economic stratification. In a society that is economically and socially free, it seems unlikely that the increased economic segregation we’ve seen in the past decades will do anything but increase. And these problems are to some degree self-reinforcing: The Bischoff-Reardon study found that economic segregation was strongly associated with employment trends — that higher-income residents were more likely to segregate themselves out of lower-income areas when unemployment was high, particularly unemployment among low-skilled men.
The Left likes to talk about inequality, a word that makes the Right nervous because it has always been used to introduce central-planning and redistributionist schemes by the harebrained and the power hungry. A measure of economic inequality is of course in and of itself not only unobjectionable but positively desirable, and even periods of increasing and radical inequality are not necessary destructive, though they may be disruptive. Consider the growth in inequality that accompanied the early period of the Industrial Revolution or the Internet boom at the turn of the century: There was real, meaningful economic growth, the benefits of which were unevenly distributed as a consequence of the fact that not everybody was equally prepared to participate in the new economy, and that those who were least prepared to participate in the new methods of production were also the ones most likely to be economically displaced by the decline of the old methods. The rise of the information economy has brought a great deal of new and intense socioeconomic inequality to places like northern California, New York City, and Austin, but as with the case of the Industrial Revolution, that is the consequence of the first waves of a rising tide that really does lift all boats.
That’s some of the story of what is going on across the United States right now, but it is not the whole story. We have seen a great deal of inequality caused by success, but also a great deal caused by failure: of the K–12 education system, of the criminal-justice system, above all of families. These are not problems that are going to be solved in their entirety — or even in the main — by free markets, deregulation, or tax cuts. This is not the time to rehearse the case for school choice, important as that is, or for ending the cumbrous regulations and occupational licensing that prevent people with modest academic abilities from developing professions, important as that is. Homo novo sui generis is the rarest of specimens — most children need somebody to learn from, and it’s neither the free market nor the welfare state that is mainly responsible for depriving them of that. The first problem is their mothers and their fathers. It’s easy to sneer at the social conservatives when one lives in a ZIP code like 78746 or 22102, insulated from the effects, economic and otherwise, of the social and moral disorder that has grown up in many neighborhoods. A message for our policymaking elites: It’s easy to develop public policies that work for people like you, but — despite what you see when you look around your neighborhood — people aren’t like you.
— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review and the author of The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.