The income gap is receiving much attention lately as more Americans are isolating themselves around "people like us."
More accurately, they surround themselves with people who earn similar incomes, and it is now fueling a rise in residential segregation. One recent study suggests the income gap might be greater today than even during colonial times – even when you account for slavery.
"Thirty years ago, about 9 percent of all upper-income people lived in predominantly upper-income neighborhoods," says Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Center. "That share has now doubled to 18 percent."
Taylor recently co-authored a study that tracked this income gap increase between 1980 and 2010.
He tells Jacki Lyden, guest host of weekends on All Things Considered, that this is a national trend. But, he adds, locally several factors can contribute to residential segregation by income, including in-migration, the nature of the local economy, housing discrimination and even a city's physical layout.
Although it might seem self-evident that people of similar incomes would gravitate toward one another, Taylor says the problem is that it creates an increasingly polarized electorate.
"We are in a political moment where the sense of the middle, the sense of the cohesion, isn't feeling particularly robust," he says. "One outcome of that is a sense that the political process is ossified ... [and] that Washington doesn't work."
Residential segregation also makes it easier when it comes to gerrymandering, or redrawing district boundaries. Taylor says that increasingly the people who draw those lines do so in order to create "safe" districts, whether for Republicans or Democrats.
A Changing Neighborhood
The Shaw neighborhood in Washington, D.C., is one rich in history, but whose fortunes have not always been so stable. Home to Duke Ellington, the area has historically been at the center of black culture in the city, and was once a gathering place for black artists and professionals.
In the 1960s, the neighborhood was severely affected by the damage caused by riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
"[That] was sort of the beginning of a long decline," says Peter Tatian, a researcher at the Urban Institute.
That decline, however, is now reversing. Over the past 20 years, about 1,000 new people have moved in to the neighborhood. Many of those new people are high-income residents. Adjusted for inflation, the average family incomes in and around Shaw in 1979 was less than $50,000. Today, it has more than doubled.
"The question is whether that is a sustainable mix, or whether this will take time and we're [just] going to see all upper-income people," Tatian says.
While the mix today is economically diverse, Tatian says that if you look at the trend, it's hard not to be pessimistic about what the future might hold.
Resident Mechelle Baylor has lived through many of these changes in Ledroit Park, a historic enclave within Shaw. Baylor and her family have been in the same house there for nearly a century; her grandfather paid cash for it in 1929.
The house has so much history for Baylor that she says she wouldn't think of budging even as she's seen some of her old neighbors go.
"A lot of people who did not own these houses could not afford to keep them because they were going up; these are million dollars homes around here," Baylor says.
When her mother died, Baylor says she received many offers for her home. She refused because she didn't want to see her family's house turned into condos.
"That's what they've done to a lot of houses on the block," she says.
The Story In Texas
The Shaw neighborhood is just one example of where residential segregation by income is taking place, but the Pew study also shows that this trend happens to be most extreme in one place: Texas.
In Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, about a quarter of upper-income households are in majority upper-income areas. Rice University sociologist Stephen Klineberg had studied income disparity and how it affects the way we live for 30 years. He says it mostly comes down to one thing: land.
"Houston was built on a bayou 50 miles from any natural barrier in any direction," Klineberg says tells NPR's Lyden. "People have the option here, that they have more difficulty elsewhere, to live in ... communities with 'people like us.'"
Klineberg says we tend to be uncomfortable when large numbers of people have much more money or less money than we do, and people in Houston have better opportunities to express that desire to live among people of similar means.
Klineberg says what we're losing with this segregation by income is the social capital you gain by living in a mixed neighborhoods.
"Social capital connects you to the opportunities that are out there," he says. "When you're segregated by income, it means that there's an isolation of the rich ... with no real sense of how the other half of American is living and struggling today."
Likewise, Klineberg says that if you're isolated as a poor person, you have no access to the opportunities, networks and information systems that occur when people are part of a single community.
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden, in for Guy Raz.
The income gap is receiving a lot of attention lately. It may be greater today than during colonial times, even when you account for slavery. That's what a new study coming out of the University of California at Harvard suggests. More Americans today are isolating themselves around PLU, people like us, people who earn like us in this case.
Residential segregation by income is on the rise. Those are the findings of a recent Pew study, and we'll get to that in a bit. But first, let's look at a neighborhood here in Washington, D.C., on the cusp of change. Our cover story today: Money, the new neighborhood segregator.
It's not so much keeping up with the Joneses as living next door to them. Shaw is a neighborhood rich in history whose fortunes haven't always been so stable.
PETER TATIAN: It's historically been the center of African-American culture. Duke Ellington was from here. In its heyday, Shaw was a Mecca for all kinds of African-American artists and professionals.
LYDEN: I met up with Peter Tatian, a researcher at the Urban Institute, for a walking tour around Shaw. Change is in the air here. Construction sounds clatter and bang as a new supermarket goes up. But the residential street we walked down is something of an oasis.
TATIAN: This is a hot part of town.
LYDEN: This is just a really charming street. I mean, the architectural details. No two houses are alike. You know, parquet brick for the sidewalks and beautiful, tall, mature trees. And, you know, pretty desirable. And on the lower floors, bars on the window.
LYDEN: Those window bars are the legacy of a less stable time in Shaw's past.
TATIAN: In the 1960s during the riots that happened after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, this neighborhood, along with a lot of other inner-city neighborhoods, was severely affected by the damage that was caused by rioters. That was sort of the beginning of a long decline.
LYDEN: But that decline is reversing. Over the past 20 years, 1,000 new people have moved into the neighborhood where Peter Tatian and I strolled. Many of these newcomers are high-income residents. The average family income in and around Shaw in 1979 was less than $50,000. That's adjusted for inflation. Today, it's more than doubled.
TATIAN: The question is whether that's a sustainable mix or whether this is just, you know, going to take a little more time and then we're just going to see all upper-income people.
LYDEN: And while the mix today is a diverse one economically...
TATIAN: If you look at the trend, one maybe is going to be pessimistic about what the future might hold.
MECHELLE BAYLOR: My name is Mechelle P. Baylor.
LYDEN: Mechelle Baylor has lived through many of these changes in Ledroit Park, a historic enclave within Shaw. Mechelle and her family have been in the same house there for nearly a century. She points to a framed photo on her living room table.
BAYLOR: This is my grandfather. He's the one that got the house in 1929. My mom, she got married in 1950 right there.
LYDEN: She got married standing right in front of this window?
BAYLOR: Her and my dad.
LYDEN: Wow. This house has so much history for you.
LYDEN: Enough history that Mechelle wouldn't think of budging even as she's seen some of her old neighbors go.
BAYLOR: A lot of people who did not own these houses, they could not afford to keep them because they were going up. These are million-dollar homes around here. When my mom died, I got so many letters of people wanting this house because this is a gold mine.
BAYLOR: I just tore it right up. They would have turned this house around, probably made it a condo.
BAYLOR: That's what they have done to a lot of these houses on the block.
LYDEN: In the 1950s, Mechelle's grandfather was something of a neighborhood watchman. He worked for the public school system where he got Mechelle's father a job.
BAYLOR: Everybody in this neighborhood, they worked. And my grandfather, he was the type of person he looked out for people and he found jobs for people because that's just what was in his heart.
LYDEN: A relative newcomer to Ledroit Park is Myla Moss, who bought her home in 1999 for about $150,000. Today, it's worth half a million. She went to school at nearby Howard University, but back then, she wouldn't walk through the neighborhood she now calls home due to the crime and drugs. Now, as advisory neighborhood commissioner, she's working to preserve Ledroit Park history, including the renovation of the historic Howard Theatre.
MYLA MOSS: This was the first African-American theater in the country that allowed black performances, allowed black audiences. And this was the start of amateur night with Ella Fitzgerald. And when I purchased my home, I began to be educated by many in the community about the history.
LYDEN: We're looking at income disparity in neighborhoods, income segregation. Are you worried as someone who's obviously in love with this neighborhood just generally about this notion of poorer people being segregated? And for that matter, more affluent people segregated and not even seeing the problems of poorer people?
MOSS: I am worried about that. Economic disparity is growing, unfortunately. And it's cost-prohibitive to move into this community anymore. And I think that the affluent residents want the non-affluent residents to be here.
LYDEN: You do? You think they want them here?
MOSS: Yeah, I do. I don't think that they are acting in malice and trying to move people out. I really don't. I think everybody on the planet wants a nice neighborhood, a good school, a good hospital to go to, a grocer. Young people who come to Washington to work on the Hill and to do policy and find a way to buy a home are not seeking to change the community. They're thinking to be a part of it.
LYDEN: Paul Taylor has studied the shift in neighborhood income segregation. He's with the Pew Research Center and co-author of the recent study tracking its rise.
PAUL TAYLOR: Thirty years ago, about 9 percent of all upper-income people lived in predominantly upper-income neighborhoods. That share has now doubled to 18 percent. The share of lower income living in predominantly lower-income neighborhoods has also grown. Thirty years ago, it was 23 percent. Now, it's 28 percent.
LYDEN: So you are seeing people basically living with people whose income levels are a lot like theirs.
TAYLOR: We're seeing a trend in that direction. It remains the case that the heavy majority of people or households are in census tracks that are predominantly either middle class or mixed, but it's a little bit less so than in the past. Thirty years ago, something like 86 percent of all households lived in such either majority middle or majority mixed neighborhoods. Now, it's down to 75 percent.
LYDEN: Why is this happening?
TAYLOR: This was a broad trend. We looked at all the major metropolitan areas in the country. The same trend I have described has played out in 27 of the top 30. So this is pretty much a national trend. The local variance probably goes to lots of factors. And I think in-migration has been a major factor in some of these cities. Just the layout of the cities, the physical geographic/topographical layout may be a factor. Historical settlement patterns, the nature of the local economy, the nature of the local workforce, housing discrimination, real estate practices. On and on it goes.
LYDEN: So, Paul Taylor, a lot of people would say, well, this is self-evident. Of course, this is going to happen. What's the big deal?
TAYLOR: Right. Well, yeah. Listen, like tends to attract like. What's the big deal? One of the things we say to ourselves as a country right from the beginning is E pluribus unum - out of many, one. And that's been part of the magic of America throughout our entire history. We are a place that lots of different people come, and they have different income levels, wealth levels. They have different racial and ethnic backgrounds, immigrant backgrounds and all the rest. And yet, somehow, we do make it work. There is a common America.
You know, we are in a political moment where the sense of the middle, the sense of the cohesion isn't feeling particularly robust. There is a profound polarization of the electorate, and one outcome of that is a sense that the political process is ossified, polarized, Washington doesn't work. The public feels that way.
So frankly, part of the reason for the political ossification has to do with gerrymandering, has to do with the way that we draw lines. And increasingly, folks who draw the lines in state after state do so to create safe districts, whether for Republicans or Democrats.
LYDEN: Paul Taylor, executive vice president of the Pew Research Center, thank you very much for joining us.
TAYLOR: My pleasure to be with you.
LYDEN: Now, here's something else that caught our eye in this Pew study that we've been talking about - the top three cities where residential segregation by income is most extreme are all in Texas: Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. There, about a quarter of upper-income households are in majority upper-income areas. So to find out why Texas seems to be ground zero for this trend, I spoke to sociologist Stephen Klineberg. I asked him, what's going on in Texas?
STEPHEN KLINEBERG: There is land in this region of the country. There is open spaces. Houston was built on a crummy little bayou 50 miles from any natural barrier in any direction - no mountains, no big streams or lakes. And people have the option here that they have more difficulty elsewhere to live in what we were calling the PLUs - living in communities made up of people like us.
We tend to be uncomfortable when large numbers of people have much more money or much less money than each of us living in these communities. And people in Houston have better opportunities to express that because we've got all these subdivisions and gated communities and so on all around the region.
LYDEN: Now, at the top of this show, we went to neighborhoods in D.C. - Shaw and Ledroit Park - in Washington and heard a lot about what a tight-knit, middle-class community meant historically and how people could talk to and help each other. And that's often called social capital. Are we losing that?
KLINEBERG: Well, social capital is critical. We tend to think of resources as human capital, education and financial capital, money in the bank. But social capital, it connects you to the opportunities that are out there that provide support systems when you're having difficulty. When you're segregated by income, it means that there's an isolation of the rich just around other rich people with no real sense of how the other half of America is living and struggling today.
And if you're isolated as a poor person in poor communities, you have no access to the opportunities that emerge when people have good jobs that are connected to new opportunities that are out there. And the networks and the information systems and the opening of doors occurs much less in these isolated worlds than when we are all part of a single community.
LYDEN: That's sociologist Stephen Klineberg, co-director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University in Houston. Here's a stat from the Economic Policy Institute that speaks to the way we live now. In the 1960s, a typical CEO earned about 20 times what a typical worker would. Today, that number is close to 400 times as much. E pluribus unum. It may be the American ideal, but perhaps not really the way we live now.
This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.