Friday, November 18, 2011

That sixties suburban sweet spot revisited -- again

A disturbing new study based on census data, previewed by the New York Times, shows how the rise in income inequality has literally changed the landscape in America:
In 2007, the last year captured by the data, 44 percent of families lived in neighborhoods the study defined as middle-income, down from 65 percent of families in 1970. At the same time, a third of American families lived in areas of either affluence or poverty, up from just 15 percent of families in 1970...

Much of the shift is the result of changing income structure in the United States. Part of the country’s middle class has slipped to the lower rungs of the income ladder as manufacturing and other middle-class jobs have dwindled, while the wealthy receive a bigger portion of the income pie. Put simply, there are fewer people in the middle.

But the shift is more than just changes in income. The study also found that there is more residential sorting by income, with the rich flocking together in new exurbs and gentrifying pockets where lower- and middle-income families cannot afford to live.
The middle class paradise lost, I noted in a recent post, was lived by my wife (b. 1958) growing up on a leafy cul-de-sac lined with 1950s split levels in West Seneca, NY, an inner ring suburb of Buffalo.  Here's what the family recalled recently about neighbors' professions:

Mr. Grimm was a bricklayer. Mr. Wojick was a foreman at the Ford plant. Mr. Majewski worked in a bronze casting factory, as did one other neighbor. Mr. Cobb worked in product safety at Fisher-Price.  Mr. Frank was a stockbroker. Tombari sold insurance. Panetta was a meat wholesaler.  White was a concrete contractor working mainly on bridges. Carlotti was a dentist (and my father-in-law, an oral surgeon). The Murphys, husband and wife, were teachers, and so were the Stones. Burger was a roofer...

[Today,] there are fewer factory workers, natch.  And I suspect that the dentists and stockbrokers probably live elsewhere. The area has had its share of McMansion building, and you can get a castle in the outer burbs for under $350k. 

The most disturbing facts in the Times article concerned the widening chasm in educational opportunity:
Sean F. Reardon, an author of the study and a sociologist at Stanford, argued that the shifts had far-reaching implications for the next generation. Children in mostly poor neighborhoods tend to have less access to high-quality schools, child care and preschool, as well as to support networks or educated and economically stable neighbors who might serve as role models...

there is evidence that income differences are having an effect, beyond the context of neighborhood. One example, Professor Reardon said, is a growing gap in standardized test scores between rich and poor children, now 40 percent bigger than it was in 1970. That is double the testing gap between black and white children, he said.

And the gap between rich and poor in college completion — one of the single most important predictors of economic success — has grown by more than 50 percent since the 1990s, said Martha J. Bailey, an economist at the University of Michigan. More than half of children from high-income families finish college, up from about a third 20 years ago. Fewer than 10 percent of low-income children finish, up from 5 percent.
I'm reminded of my wife's comment re educational opportunity for her generation on her block: factory workers' kids went to cheap Catholic schools and on to college. Not that that doesn't still happen. But the Catholic schools teach far fewer children (4.5 million in the mid-60s, 2.1 million today), they teach poorer children, and college is way more expensive.

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