Study: New Challenges for Black Middle Class

A recent report from the Brookings Institution says middle-class America is shrinking, and it's happening fast in major cities. But sociologists report that black middle-class families are especially feeling the pinch. George Galster, professor of urban affairs at Wayne State, and Mary Pattillo, associate professor of sociology and African-American studies at Northwestern University, discuss the findings.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Middle class America is quickly vanishing, and it's happening most notably in major cities like New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. A recent report from the Brookings Institution says one potential reason for the shrinking middle class in major urban areas is that cities and suburbs are becoming increasingly segregated by income. And reports suggest that black families are having an even tougher time maintaining a foothold than the middle class because of barriers to home ownership such as gentrification.

We're joined now via phone by one of the leading authors of the Brookings Report, George Galster, professor of urban affairs at Wayne State University in Detroit. Also on the line, Mary Pattillo, professor of sociology and African-American studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. She also has a upcoming book title, Blacks on the Block: The Politics of Race and Class in the City.

I thank you both for joining us. I appreciate it.

Professor GEORGE GALSTER (Professor of Urban Affairs, Wayne State University): Hello, Ed. Hello, Mary.

Professor MARY PATTILLO (Professor of Sociology and African-American studies, Northwestern University): Hello, George.

GORDON: George, let me start with you, if I may. What we're finding - and if we can bottom line it, and we've been hearing this for a long time - America is quickly becoming a society of haves and have nots.

Prof. GALSTER: Yes. Our study, Ed - that was done at Wayne State University with my co-authors Jason Booza and Jackie Cutsinger - found very clearly that the middle income parts of our major metropolitan income distributions are rapidly diminishing. We found that since 1970, the middle class in American cities and suburbs have been declining by roughly one quarter. But even more dramatically, we found that the middle class neighborhoods - where there is a large variety of incomes represented, typically - have been declining even faster. They've been declining by almost 30 percent since 1970. And I think this disappearance of not only the middle class, but these highly diverse, middle class neighborhoods are very, very sobering for the American political and social future.

GORDON: We should note that when we talk about middle class neighborhoods, we're talking about families that earn between 80 and 120 percent of the local median income.

Prof. GALSTER: That's exactly right.

GORDON: Talk to me if you will how you see and what you see to be the biggest concerns and problems when you talk about the social and political - and obviously - economic ramifications of all of this.

Prof. GALSTER: Ed, I think that politically, when we have different income groups living in different neighborhoods and increasingly in different political jurisdictions throughout the metro area, that we're going to see the politics of selfishness become more and more dominant. By that I mean that different income groups are going to see their own class interests as the primary reason for enacting certain kinds of public policies. And because they have less diversity of classes within their political jurisdiction, those policies more and more are going to be self-serving.

As far as social, I think that we found that people tend to reduce their stereotypes of other groups when they are able to live together as neighbors. And if more and more we're seeing neighborhoods which are representing only one income group, we're going to increasingly see polarization of attitudes and stereotypes among the different groups. And of course, economically, we've traditionally seen that the way that people in lower and middle income groups make it into higher income groups is by accessing the public services and jobs and social networks that the higher income groups can offer.

And so with this increasing segregation of income groups, the geography of opportunity is becoming increasingly unequal for Americans.

GORDON: Mary, here's an interesting dynamic in all of this. We know that the black middle class is disproportionately being hurt by all of this. But what we are seeing is a dynamic - even within the African-American community - of haves and have nots, and that is growing tremendously.

Prof. PATTILLO: Definitely. Interestingly, the African-American population is always on the leading edge of a number of trends. And so class segregation within the black community actually is higher than it is within the white community in terms of residential class segregation. That's a little misleading, because while the classes in the African-American communities live separately, when you look at some of the measures we look at, they live more proximately. So the middle class black neighborhoods are proximate, are next door to, are adjacent to poor African-American neighborhoods.

So you kind of have a mixed income situation in the black community for many years, even though within the larger segregated black community, you have this kind of segregation within the black community. And I think what this report shows, though, I think it reflects some of the suburbanization of the African-American community, the way in which more highly educated African-Americans are able now - more able to move out of traditional African-American communities. And I think this report is capturing some of that.

GORDON: And Mary, what we also find when we talk about, quote, rich neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods is that many of the African-Americans that make it into what has been categorized as the rich neighborhood really are holding on often by fingernails.

Prof. PATTILLO: Well, definitely. The black middle class is particularly fragile, especially, for example, when you look at wealth. We often think of class and we think of income. And so, for every dollar that whites make, African-Americans make about $.68. And so there's a gap there, but the gap is really huge when you think about wealth. So if for every dollar that whites have in net worth, African-Americans have about $.10. So that shows you the kind of fragile hold that African-Americans have on middle class status, because to be able to maintain middle class status you have to be able to weather certain kinds of economic storms - for example, loss of a job, or a family member who needs particular help, or the ability to pay for college. And with such meager wealth holdings in the African-American community, you see particular kinds of fragility among African-Americans.

GORDON: George, it's interesting because Los Angeles really - if you look at the numbers - illustrates what we are talking about here. We've seen the share of a poor neighborhood go up 10 percent in Los Angeles, a rich neighborhood up by 14 percent. But the middle income neighborhood is down by 24 percent.

Prof. GALSTER: Right. It's really quite dramatic how in some of our major metropolitan areas, the middle class neighborhoods are an endangered species, and quickly becoming extinct. And right now, it not only is Los Angeles - the circumstance where less than a third of their neighborhoods are qualifying as middle class neighborhoods - but other major metropolitan areas are not far behind.

New York, Houston, Newark, Dallas, Bakersfield, El Paso - they're all in this situation of having a very, very polarized set of neighborhoods where the middle class neighborhood - which not only traditionally had middle class people living in it, but higher and lower income people living in it - those are indeed disappearing rapidly.

GORDON: Mary, as you put your book together - The Politics of Race and Class in the City - I'm curious how you found the juxtaposition of what we're hearing from the White House, and that is that the economy is booming, that it's moving along - save gas prices and a couple of other things - and the idea that we are seeing what we're calling today the incredible shrinking middle class.

Prof. PATTILLO: Right. Well, most of that is that the booming economy has pretty much benefited only a few. I mean, the wages in the middle sector and definitely at the bottom have definitely been stagnating, and we're talking about a - really, a 30-year, almost 40-year period now. So most of the growth -with the exception of the period in the late 1990s when you had that kind of dot-com boom when really incomes were growing across the income spectrum - as of late most of that growth, most of that whatever good economy that we have had has gone into corporate profits and, you know, there are a lot of stories about corporate pay and so on. And much of that wealth and income has been concentrated at the upper end. So the middle class - the income picture for the middle class has very much been stagnating and that's what this report shows in fact.

GORDON: George Galster, what does this mean for - and pick up on your point -but what does this mean for what was a burgeoning black middle class in this country that was trying attain wealth, to build wealth and solidify it for future generations?

Prof. GALSTER: Well, I think that the opportunities for any group to move up the economic ladder, and especially African-Americans, are very, very importantly structured by their residential location.

And we're talking about access to things that we know are crucial aspects of social mobility, such as a healthy environment with low levels of environmental dangers for children such as lead poisoning. We're talking about an environment where children can have recreational opportunities free from the tremendous psychological and physical dangers associated with the violence in a potential neighborhood.

We're talking about a place where, as they grow older, they can go to high quality schools. We're talking about places that increasingly are differentiated depending on where one lives and where one's parents' incomes are.

And my fear is that this growing wealth of the upper part of the American income distribution is going to become perpetuated because of the fact that this upper tail of our income distribution is rapidly segregating themselves in exclusive communities. And they're holding within their own communities all of these geographic advantages which they're providing to their children. And they're not as widely available to children in other economic groups.

And by default, children of lower economic status parents are not being able to afford the kinds of neighborhood environments and political jurisdictions where their chances for economic opportunity are going to be great.

Prof. PATTILLO: And can I just add something about the situation for African-Americans there.

GORDON: Very quickly for me, Mary.

Prof. PATTILLO: Yes. When you compare middle class black and middle class white neighborhoods on every measure, middle class black neighborhoods have higher poverty rates, higher unemployment rates. One particular statistic in Houston, 12.8 percent of the units were boarded up in middle class black neighborhoods, compared to the 2 percent of the units were boarded up in middle class white neighborhoods.

And this gets to the kind of opportunities that George was just mentioning.

GORDON: All right. George Galster is professor of urban affairs at Wayne State University and part of those that wrote the report for the Brookings Institution. And Mary Pattillo is professor of sociology and African-American studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Her new book soon to be released is, Black on the Block: The Politics of Race and Class in the City. I thank you both.

Prof. GALSTER: Thank you.

Prof. PATTILLO: Thank you.

GORDON: Coming up, recognizing religious holidays in schools. Where should schools draw the line? And there goes the neighborhood. Some Harlem residents are complaining about their high-profile neighbor. We'll discuss these and other topics on our Roundtable, up next.

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