The Rise of Residential Segregation by Income
Research has demonstrated that income inequality in the United States has grown significantly over the past two generations. While this widening divide between the haves, have-nots and have-somethings is reflected in more income stratification in the composition of residential neighborhoods, a 2012 study from the Pew Research Center suggests that this segregation pattern varies significantly according to factors such as region, metropolitan area and population migration.
The study, from the Center’s Social and Demographic Trends division, “The Rise of Residential Segregation by Income,” analyzes data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2010 American Community Survey to examine the income composition of various census tracts in 1980, 1990, 2000 and 2010. The study developed a Residential Income Segregation Index (RISI) to measure the level of income segregation in the 30 largest metropolitan areas in the United States.
The study’s findings include:
- Residential income segregation increased significantly over the past 30 years. The number of lower-income households who reside in census tracts where the majority of households are lower income rose to 28% in 2010, up from 23% in 1980. As of 1980, “12% of households were in majority lower-income tracts and 2% were in majority upper-income tracts.” In 2010, 15% of households were in majority lower-income tracts, and 6% of households were in upper-income tracts.
- In 2010, the average upper-income household resided in a census tract composed of 32% upper income household, compared to 25% upper-income households in 1980. However, “rather than distancing themselves from the poor, upper-income households have the same degree of exposure to lower-income households as in 1980. In 2010, the typical census tract of upper-income households was composed of 22% lower-income households, unchanged from the 1980 level.”
- The top three metropolitan areas in the U.S. with the highest levels of income segregation, according to RISI scores, were Houston, Dallas and New York. The metropolitan areas in the U.S. with the lowest levels of income segregation were Boston, Chicago, and Atlanta.
- There has been a significant rise in residential segregation in metropolitan areas with high population growth, such as Houston and Dallas. Immigration is the likely driver of this trend.
- With respect to regions, the Southwest has the highest level of residential income segregation in the United States, followed by the Northeast. The Southeast has the least residential income segregation of any region in the United States.
“These increases are related to the long-term rise in income inequality,” the study notes. Rising inequality has “led to a shrinkage in the share of neighborhoods across the United States that are predominantly middle class or mixed income (to 76% in 2010, down from 85% in 1980) and a rise in the shares that are majority lower income (18% in 2010, up from 12% in 1980) and majority upper income (6% in 2010, up from 3% in 1980).” These patterns are also the result of immigration creating large groups of low-income communities, as well as a rapidly shrinking American middle class.
Other recent research within this broad topic provides additional perspectives and data. See studies on: the decline in racial segregation over a longer time period; the movement of Hispanics to new areas; and the latest assessments of poverty dynamics in U.S. urban areas.
Read the issue-related New York Times article titled "Income Inequality May Take Toll on Growth."
- What key insights from the news article and the study in this lesson should reporters be aware of as they cover issues relating to U.S. inequality?
Read the full study titled “The Rise of Residential Segregation by Income.”
- What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
- Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
- What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
- How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.
Newswriting and digital reporting assignments
- Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
- Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
- Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
- Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.
Class discussion questions
- What is the study’s most important finding?
- Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
- What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
- How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
- How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
- What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?