A losing 'prosperity map'

A losing 'prosperity map'

November 20th, 2011 in Opinion Times

A spate of recent research has produced troubling evidence of both soaring poverty levels and the growing wage-and-wealth gaps between ordinary Americans and the nation's wealthy elite in recent decades. The latest study reflects more troubling consequences from these trends: A shrinking percentage of truly middle-class Americans living in diverse middle class neighborhoods, and larger percentages living in either poor or affluent neighborhoods.

The long-term impact from these shifts in the nation's prosperity map is shown in a sharply higher degree of neighborhood segregation by income since the 1970s, and a concomitant loss of social middle ground and reasonably equitable levels of opportunity, educational quality, public amenities and public safety.

The percentage of Americans who now live in middle-income, middle-class neighborhoods in the nation's 119 largest metropolitan areas (those with populations of 500,000 or more) fell from 65 percent in the 1970s to 44 percent in 2007, the latest year captured by Census data used for the study. By comparison, fully a third of American families now live in either poor or affluent neighborhoods in these metropolitan areas, up from just 15 percent in the 1970s.

This significant shift was found in a study by Stanford University that was developed in cooperation with the Russell Sage Foundation and Brown University. The broad reach of these trends -- found in more than 90 percent of large and medium-size metropolitan areas -- suggests these patterns of income segregation are occurring nationally in all parts of the nation, and not just in narrow economic zones.

The study, to be sure, does not examine the economic and structural reasons for the shift in the micro and macro geography of the nation's prosperity, and the shrinking of the broad middle class. It just confirms it, yet it certainly raises questions about how and why the shift is occurring, and its ultimate long-term impact on the nation's social fabric.

The study's authors divided the poor, middle class and affluent areas by various income levels pegged to the local metropolitan median household incomes. Families in poor neighborhoods had incomes of no more than 67 percent of local metropolitan median incomes. Middle-class neighborhoods had family incomes of 80 percent to 125 percent of local median incomes. Affluent neighborhoods had family incomes of upwards of 150 percent of the local median family income.

The resulting income segregation is felt in most metropolitan areas by broad discrepancies in the quality of life and opportunities for residents. The affluent neighborhoods generally offered greener, safer residential areas characterized by more amenities, better schools, better stores, cleaner streets and parks, and higher achievement levels in schools, college graduate rates and professional areas.

Conversely, families and children in lower-income and middle-class neighborhoods had substantially less of these attributes.

While these disparities may be obvious, the insidious widening of them found in the study should be a wake-up call to local communities. Indeed, the study underscores the challenges that increasingly confront most metropolitan communities, including the Chattanooga area.

Our own apparent gaps in quality jobs, incomes, education, public amenities and public safety are both the factors and the causes of the neighborhood disparities, and they seem to be circular and self-perpetuating. Though they may owe mainly to the vast off-shoring of the nation's factory jobs, they are certain to widen without constructive intervention. Low achievement in schools, for example, not only inhibits higher education, the prospect of better jobs and upward mobility; it also influences despairing young people of all races toward gangs, higher teen pregnancy rates and other social ills.

Communities, ours included, must work harder and more effectively at strengthening poor neighborhoods, their family agencies, and the schools and jobs that serve them. This is not a new challenge. As the study shows, it's been a growing challenge across the nation since at least the 1970s. But that's the core dilemma: we haven't yet begun to reverse this dismal and destructive trend, and it will continue to go downhill until we do.