Emily Badger, Washington Post, May 10, 2016
“Forty to fifty years of social-science research tells us what an important context neighborhoods are, so buying a neighborhood is probably one of the most important things you can do for your kid,” says Ann Owens, a sociologist at the University of Southern California. “There’s mixed evidence on whether buying all this other stuff matters, to0. But buying a neighborhood basically provides huge advantages.”
Owens’s latest research, published in the American Sociological Review, suggests that wealthy parents snapping up such homes have driven the rise of income segregation in America since 1990. The rich and non-rich are less and less likely to share the same neighborhoods in the United States, a trend shaped more by the behavior of the wealthy than the poor or middle class. Owens’s work, though, adds another twist: The recent rise of income segregation, she finds, is almost entirely caused by what’s happening among families with children.
In her study, Owens looked at income segregation patterns across neighborhoods in the 100 largest metros in the United States. From 1990 to 2010, income segregation among families with children rose by about 20 percent. By 2010, income segregation was twice as high among families with children younger than 18 living at home as among households without them. That means that a typical childless household lives among more diverse neighbors from across the economic spectrum than does the typical family with children.
The nationwide phenomenon of rising income segregation is in effect the aggregate outcome of parents who can afford to jockeying for position for their kids. And as income inequality has widened over this same time, the rich have more and more money to spend on the real estate arms race to get into wealthy neighborhoods, where everyone else is wealthy, too (and the same can be said of the local classrooms).Owens’s research suggests that rising income inequality hasn’t translated into the same residential sorting effect for households without children. That’s perhaps because the childless rich–including so-called DINKs–are spending their greater wealth on other luxuries, such as expensive restaurants, travel and entertainment. Given that school quality is embedded in the high cost of housing in many communities (think Northwest Washington), it’s also logical that households without children would decline to pay a premium for an amenity they don’t plan to use.
Owens additionally argues that as wealthy parents are spending their added resources on housing, they’re choosing that housing with schools particularly in mind. In her data, there’s wider income segregation among families with children in “fragmented” metropolitan areas that have more school districts for parents to choose from, allowing greater sorting between low-quality and coveted districts.
It’s highly likely this same pattern exists within school districts, as wealthy parents compete for housing within the attendance zones of the best schools (again, think Northwest Washington). But Owens doesn’t yet have the data to show this at the smaller local level.