A New Kind Of Segregation, Income Segregation?

More Americans are segregated by income today, than they were 30 years ago. That's according to a new Pew Research Center study looking at U.S. neighborhoods. Rice University sociologist Stephen Klineberg says income segregation is a direct result of a shrinking middle class. He speaks with guest host Jacki Lyden about these changes.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, the Summer Olympics may be over, but London's organizing committee hopes that the city's youth remains inspired to keep active. We'll hear how the games could permanently change the outlook for young people in East London's struggling neighborhoods. That's in a moment.

First though, we take a look here in America at our own cities. As we heard, the disparities between the haves and the have-nots are central in this year's presidential campaign. There's little question that the middle class is shrinking in this country. One thing we don't often ask is, where has it gone?

A new study from the Pew Research Center has found that more Americans are segregated by income than 30 years ago. Essentially, this trend in rising income inequality is shrinking middle-class or mixed-income neighborhoods.

To find out more about this, we're joined by Stephen Klineberg. He's a sociology professor at Rice University and the co-director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research. He's on the line from Houston, Texas, a city that's seen some of the greatest changes in its neighborhoods.

Professor Klineberg, welcome to the program.

STEPHEN KLINEBERG: Thank you, Jacki. Great to be here with you.

LYDEN: Well, would you please explain this concept, which we may know sort of emotionally. We often think of segregation by race in this country, not so much by income segregation. What does that mean and why is it happening now? What's it look like?

KLINEBERG: So what's happening - as the gap between rich and poor increases, people increasingly live in very separate worlds and we've always sort of been more comfortable in communities made up of what the Wall Street Journal once called PLUs, people like us. Right? We never liked it too much. There were a lot of people much poorer than us or much richer than us. We'd like to be in those communities where we felt at home and with people like ourselves and you see it in Houston, I think, more than most other cities because Houston is still, today, the most spread out, least dense major city in the country.

LYDEN: Well, let me ask you about that. You mentioned Houston. We're speaking to you. You're in Houston and two other cities mentioned in this study, San Antonio and Dallas. Is it something about the southwest? Why is there more income segregation and residential division there?

KLINEBERG: Well, because all three of those cities are big, spread out cities in this gigantic state that is the size of all of France and Houston covers a geographical space of over 10,000 square miles. That's larger than the state of Massachusetts and so we live in very separated worlds, and it's much easier in cities like Houston and San Antonio and Dallas to live in those gated communities, those master planned communities that bring people together all of the same socio-economic status.

LYDEN: Yeah. Let's go back in time 50 years or so to Houston's economy. What's been the most significant change in the way people make a living?

KLINEBERG: Well, the sense of reality is that we have suddenly become part - not of a national economy, but of a global economy. Companies can produce goods anywhere, sell them everywhere. If you are doing a job that I can train a third world worker to do and I pay that third world worker $10 a day to do that job, I'm not going to pay you $10 an hour.

LYDEN: And that had a big impact on some of the most enduring manufacturing centers in Houston, the Hughes Tool Company, the Cameron Iron Works.

KLINEBERG: Yes, exactly. The big employers in Houston in the 1960s and '70s during the great oil boom years was Hughes Took Company, Cameron Iron Works; good blue collar jobs, someone with a strong right arm and a willingness to work hard, able to work their way up into the middle class. Those jobs have disappeared.

LYDEN: You know, you talked a moment about PLUs, and the Wall Street Journal said, people like us. There was a time when we thought of segregation as, of course, we are still seeing people living in communities in which they identify ethnically, but now the division is greater, actually, isn't it, when it comes to income equality?

KLINEBERG: Well, I tell people the great challenge for the future of Houston and America is not an ethnic divide - although that still remains important - but, you know, we are falling in love with each other, marrying, making beautiful multiracial babies. We're moving into a whole new transracial world, sociologists call it.

The great danger for the future of America is not an ethnic divide. It's a class divide.

LYDEN: What effect does that have if you have only professionals living next door to each other and there's not this mix of blue collar workers and people who do other kinds of things?

KLINEBERG: Oh, tremendous consequences of the isolation of the poor in places where there are only other poor people with very few connections to the job opportunities that are out there, to the knowledge. We know that there are several forms of capital. Right? There's human capital, which is education. There's financial capital and there's, above all, social capital. Who do you know? Who are you connected with? Who can you go to for advice? Who will know about jobs that are opening and help connect you to those jobs?

And so the isolation of the poor creates two things. Number one is it isolates the poor in ways that make it much more difficult for them to work their way out of poverty and it isolates the rich so that they live in worlds where they have no clue as to the kind of challenges that people are facing.

LYDEN: So how do we change this? Or can we change this?

KLINEBERG: So the most critical thing is education. Right? The only way to improve the lot of the poor is to invest in their skills, to ensure that they acquire skills that enable them to get the technical jobs in the 21st century, and it requires, also, attention to a whole range of other things, to a progressive income tax, to a minimum wage that keeps up with inflation and provides a living wage for people. The whole range of things that we have allowed to erode that have accelerated the inequalities or inequalities are happening all across the country and the world more serious - the gap is greater in the United States than any other industrial country in the world.

LYDEN: Well, in fact, a person is more likely to move into the middle class in Europe than in America, but is...

KLINEBERG: That's right. That's a powerful kind of contradiction to the whole American ethos that this is a land of opportunity.

LYDEN: It's a powerful contradiction, but it could also be argued that - especially in an election year - that it's a political one. Do you really see a political will to tackle the problem by making sure that neighborhoods are more economically diverse?

KLINEBERG: Well, I don't know if we're going to - you know, either party is pushing toward a specific change in neighborhoods, although cities across the country that all left the inner city and went out to the suburbs, there is growing interest now on the part of people in the suburbs to move back to cities. There's a great inversion that's going on in the whole nature of the American city and there's a new opportunity now to encourage the development of mixed-income inner city communities and you can see that in Houston and Dallas, as well as in Philadelphia and New York.

LYDEN: Stephen Klineberg is a sociologist at Rice University and the co-director of its Kinder Institute for Urban Research. He spoke with us from his home office in Houston. Stephen Klineberg, thank you for joining us.

KLINEBERG: Oh, you bet, Jacki. Thank you.

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