Among the disturbing economic trends in America is the sharp decline over the last four decades of families living in middle-income neighborhoods. Instead there is increasing segregation into enclaves of wealth and poverty. This pattern reflects that the middle class, that once broad and stable foundation of American society, is losing ground — literally. America's social mobility and diversity is being replaced with the harsh reality that where a person lives and grows up, and the opportunities that flow from it, too often depend on the size of the family's bank account, an inversion of the American dream.
A new study by Stanford University researchers paints a bleak picture of the residential income segregation in upwards of 90 percent of the country's 117 biggest metropolitan areas. In 1970, 65 percent of families lived in neighborhoods defined as middle-income. As of 2007, only 44 percent of families did. No longer do a majority of American families live in middle-class communities where the values of stability are stitched into the fabric. While the middle has been squeezed, the extremes have expanded. The study found that a third of American families live in areas that are either wealthy or poor, up from 15 percent in 1970. In Florida, the researchers note that the area of Fort Lauderdale, Pompano Beach and Deerfield Beach went from having only 9 percent of families living in areas of either affluence or poverty in 1970 to nearly 38 percent in 2007.
The societal consequences of this economic stratification and isolation are obvious. When the wealthy sequester themselves into separate residential neighborhoods they are less interested in supporting public policies that benefit the larger community. With the experience of the less fortunate so remote, the wealthy will inevitably care less about quality schools, parks, child care and public transportation for all.
For those families in poverty, the consequences of being locked into areas with dilapidated, underfunded schools, high crime rates and financially overstressed families are sadly predictable. Their children will have less opportunity for upward social mobility and few successful role models to emulate. The New York Times quoted one of the study's researchers as saying that the gap between the standardized test scores of rich children versus poor children is 40 percent bigger now than in 1970 — and twice the size of the gap between black and white children.
The study says that income segregation grew significantly in the 1980s, started declining in the 1990s, but has accelerated in the 2000s, concentrating wealth and poverty in an alarming way. America's strength throughout much of the 20th century was the shared prospects, an egalitarianism that gave our nation the confidence and optimism that anyone could make it. But instead of one America we are becoming two as the middle class disappears. That should be concerning for elected leaders from the White House to the county courthouse, from the Governor's Mansion to the mayor's office.