Why Are Some Neighborhoods Becoming Extremely Homogenized?

Wealthier families with kids are snatching up homes in better school districts.

Posted Apr 28, 2016

Source: Tonis Pan/Shutterstock

We live in a time of unprecedented economic inequality. Since the great recession of 2008, the divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ has grown ever-wider. A new study, published today, reports that some neighborhoods across the country are becoming increasingly homogenized and segregated by income. Interestingly, this is predominantly happening among families with children.

Why is it that certain neighborhoods are becoming less diverse? Interestingly, the latest form of segregation is driven by income inequality combined with a previously overlooked factor, which is the quality of a neighborhood's school district.

Good school districts are a top priority for every family, but richer families are gobbling up the real estate in zip codes with top notch public schools, while poorer families are getting shut out. For parents living in large cities, with multiple school districts, the zoning of public schools has become a prime driving force of where wealthier people choose to buy real estate. 

The April 2016 study, “Inequality in Children’s Contexts: Income Segregation of Households with and without Children,” was published by the journal American Sociological Review.  

The lead author of this study, Ann Owens, is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Spacial Sciences at the University of Southern California. She conducted the extensive research based on census data from 100 major U.S. metropolitan areas—from Los Angeles to Boston and everywhere in between—while at Harvard University.

The new study reports that income segregation between neighborhoods within the nation's greater metropolitan areas increased by an average of 20 percent from 1990 to 2010. However, income segregation for neighborhoods with better school districts increased by nearly twice as much.

In a statement, Owens said the increased neighborhood income segregation that her study uncovers is a troubling sign for low-income families. Many previous studies have shown that diverse and integrated learning environments are especially beneficial for children from socioeconomically disadvantaged households. Owens also said,

"The growing income gap and increased economic segregation may lead to inequalities in children's test scores, educational attainment, and well-being. Neighborhood and school poverty are big drivers of low-income kids' poor educational outcomes, so rising income segregation perpetuates inequality and may reduce poor kids' mobility."

One of the unexpected results of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which went into effect in 2002, is that it prompted a rise in cut-throat competition on various levels based solely on numerical rankings. With more data at our fingertips, it's become easier to pinpoint which schools appear to have the best teachers and highest student achievement.

Owens believes that NCLB increased the focus on rankings which drove parents—who naturally want the best for their kids—to make getting their child into an excellent school (at any cost) a top priority. Unfortunately, only parents with the financial resources to reside in these school districts can afford to live in these zip codes. 

Improving Schools Could Create Upstream Changes and Reduce Homogenization

Obviously, solving the problems of economic inequality is extremely complex and leads to heated debate, as we’ve all seen in the current Presidential election. One thing that I find groundbreaking about this study is that Ann Owens offers a unique option, which is to shift the focus towards improving all of the schools with the belief that the affordability of housing for families will level off. Many researchers believe that housing policy can drive education policy, but Owens believes, “School policy can also be housing policy."

Typically, policymakers have addressed economic inequities through proposals such as raising the minimum wage increases, but, as Owens explains,

"If schools play an important role in residential segregation, then breaking that link and making it less important and sort of alleviating parents' concerns about where their kids are going to attend school would reduce income segregation. Changing school attendance policies could be more feasible than reducing income inequality, raising the minimum wage, instituting metropolitan governance, or creating affordable housing stock to address residential segregation.”

In conclusion, Owens recommended that educational leaders should consider redrawing boundaries to reduce the number and fragmentation of school districts in major metropolitan areas. They could also consider designing inter-district choice plans and strengthening current plans within districts to address inequities.

The Importance of Creating Enriched and Diverse Learning Environments

Everybody has a unique life experience and story about which neighborhood you grew up in and where you went to school. As I was reading these research findings over coffee this morning, I had a rush of flashbacks to my own childhood educational experiences as they relate to Owens' new study.

The first thing that sprung to mind was that I lived in Boston during the late 1970s when attempts to bus children from poorer black neighborhoods into wealthier white neighborhoods was making national headline news. The city erupted in violent clashes that seemed to go on for over a decade.

"The Soiling of Old Glory" taken by Stanley Forman during the Boston busing desegregation crisis. 
Source: Stanley Forman/Wikimedia Commons

The image to the left captures the essence of some of the conflicts that occurred during Boston busing desegregation (1974-1988). If history teaches us lessons... one that came out of the Boston busing debacle is that redrawing boundaries in major metropolitan areas can be very tricky. That said, as a parent of an 8 year old, I believe that it’s extremely important that we avoid creating homogenized neighborhoods and school systems based on socioeconomic status.

Reading this study also brought back a wave of memories of my closest friend in 7th, 8th, and 9th grade. His name was Geoff Sanders. He was an African-American from Roxbury, which was one of the poorer black neighborhoods in Boston when I lived there in the late ‘70s and early '80s. At the time, my family lived in Chestnut Hill, which is an affluent enclave six miles from downtown Boston.

Geoff and I both attended The Park School, which is a K-9 private day school in Brookline, Massachusetts. Geoff was at Park on a scholarship and took a bus with a handful of other students from Roxbury every day. Tragically, Geoff was murdered in his Boston neighborhood just after high school and became another statistic. I was a pallbearer at his funeral.  

Geoff’s influence on my life is poignant for many reasons. Until I met Geoff, I’d lived in a homogenized bubble and hadn’t been exposed to people of other ethnicities or socioeconomic backgrounds. Geoff and I were both outsiders at Park for different reasons ... I was a very awkward and insecure adolescent who was coming to grips with being gay. Geoff and I bonded over our love of Donna Summer’s Bad Girls album. Even though it was the “Disco Sucks” era, in homeroom, Geoff and I would shamelessly blast songs such as “There But for the Grace of God Go I,” which spoke directly about the pitfalls of homogenized neighborhoods with “no blacks, no Jews, and no gays.”

Geoff was so confident and comfortable in his own skin. He taught me how to be comfortable in my skin, too. If I hadn’t bonded with Geoff in 1979, and witnessed how graciously he coped with feeling marginalized, I probably would’ve stayed in the closet and pretended to be somebody I wasn’t for way too long.  

Upon graduating from Park, Geoff and I shared a yearbook page. Although I was only 15 years old, and it was very uncool to be gay—the “free to be... you and me” aspects of Park, and my friendship with Geoff—gave me the cojones to print lyrics from Diana Ross’ classic “I’m Coming Out” in my 9th grade yearbook.Unfortunately, I left Park and landed in a very stodgy and homogenized boarding school in Wallingford, Connecticut with a dean who didn’t necessarily like to celebrate diversity or have a clue about how to handle LGBT issues appropriately. One reason that I have such a strong knee-jerk reaction to social stratification and homogenization of any sort is that I believe it breeds an “us” against “them” mentality.

To give full disclosure, much like myself at her age, my daughter currently lives in a somewhat hermetically sealed wealthy zip code in a tony neighborhood. That said, it’s extremely important to me that she not lose touch with how the other 99% of Americans live. This is one reason I'm an outspoken advocate for policies that keep housing affordable in zip codes with good schools and leveling the playing field in other ways.

Conclusion: Socioeconomic Stratification and Homogenization Hurts Us All

In closing, over the years I’ve written a wide range of Psychology Today blog posts about the impact of poverty on childhood brain development and the importance of funding classroom environments that are clean, safe, filled with natural light, and, ideally, surrounded by green spaces.

The new research by Ann Owens offers a refreshing new approach to breaking the homogenization of neighborhoods by focusing on improving schools in every district and zip code. Hopefully, these findings will serve as a call-to-action for policymakers and politicians on both sides of the aisle.

To read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts, 

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