Cheek by Jowl

Here’s a report from the Russell Sage Foundation on trends in residential segregation by income- it’s increasing, especially if you look within each race:



One observation I’d make is that the kind of humane relationships of charity and reciprocity between rich and poor that Dickens was writing about in A Christmas Carol and that you’d hope philanthropy could still provide become much harder to pull off under conditions of residential segregation by income. It’s probably not much of a surprise that most of the great city monuments and libraries and museums date from the late 19th and early 20th Century, when rich people had to spend their money if they didn’t want their poorer neighbors and servants and employees to grab up the pitchforks, and it’s probably not much of a surprise that New York still seems to have so much more functional a philanthropic sector than other cities, not only because of the city’s great wealth but because rich and poor are still living cheek by jowl.

The frequently-heard response to these increases in economic segregation is to focus on schools and variously coercive methods of moving students from one school to another. To my mind, this does at once too much and too little, attacking well-off parents on the issue they care most about and engendering various means for parents to move further away from poor people rather than actually facilitating much integration, even as it likely does little directly to increase student achievement. The goal should be functional, freely chosen, integrated communities, and that will have to involve local elites living different kinds of lives than their poorer neighbors and a lot of gentrification. (I was watching a former student’s comedy routine on YouTube and he was remarking that the main effect of gentrification in the South Bronx is suddenly the 6 train had a bunch of people talking about kale.) This is why it’s absolutely nuts, as more jobs and wealth have returned to inner cities, that liberals have latched onto ideas like Obama’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing program, which coerces low-income Section 8 recipients  into moving to lower-poverty zip codes whether they like it or not. This is partly because in practice, a high-poverty zip code may well be closer to well-off people, good public services, and jobs than a low-poverty zip code, particularly in a dense city like Chicago or New York; the Moving to Opportunity program that Obama’s initiative is based on literally moved people from right off Central Park to way out in the Northeast Bronx. It’s also because the reverse process to gentrification- large numbers of poor people moving to previously middle-class suburbs, as Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing would engineer- has in practice mostly produced dysfunctional municipalities like Ferguson.

The last few decades have increasingly concentrated Americans with lots of human capital in expensive, dense strata like the Acela Corridor and Northern California, where often even people making over $100,000 a year still feel squeezed financially by housing costs and don’t experience themselves as particularly well-off, despite their high incomes. The response shouldn’t just be to take out the world’s smallest violins to play for these lucky duckies, but to recognize that integration requires an acceptance of difference; if we want people of different types to live close by each other and send their kids to the same schools, we can’t then turn around and treat every difference in suspension rate by group as a civil rights violation, as the Obama Administration has also done.  Still less would any reasonable advocacy of integration allow for the kind of complacency about rising crime rates and even slobbering enthusiasm about riots and political violence we’ve seen from mainstream publications over the last two years.

As in everything in American life, discussions of race tend to crowd out discussion of everything else, including economic segregation; trends in racial segregation in some ways are, actually, in the reverse direction of trends in economic segregation, as this graph from the Manhattan Institute makes clear:


The gradual decline in racial segregation is a central plank in the American narrative of moral progress as told to schoolchildren and used in political rhetoric (although the previous, early 20th Century increase in segregation is often left out). Reversing the increase in economic segregation of the last four decades, particularly in a changed economy and world that has less and less need for low-income labor or high-income munificence, probably requires not the idealism of the Civil Rights Movement but realism about the forces that are pulling us apart and careful thought about the reasonable means, respectful of individual self-determination and families’ own decisionmaking about their best interests, to help put us back together again.

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