This Is Where White People Live

Self-segregation and clustered affluence is now normal in America. Why do policymakers only worry about concentrated poverty?

Members of the Grosse Pointe Windsurfing club get into starting position for their weekly race on Lake St. Clair, just off Grosse Pointe Park. 
National Journal
Alana Semuels, The Atlantic
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Alana Semuels, The Atlantic
April 17, 2015, 2 a.m.

Last sum­mer, the Michigan town of Grosse Pointe Park erec­ted a farm­er’s mar­ket in the middle of one of the few re­main­ing streets that al­lowed cars to pass between the tony sub­urb and the urb­an De­troit neigh­bor­hoods at its bor­der. It was the latest of many at­tempts by Grosse Pointe Park res­id­ents to close off roads and block traffic between what has be­come a pre­dom­in­antly white, af­flu­ent sub­urb, and its poorer, urb­an neigh­bor.

There were protests about the bor­der, and Grosse Pointe Park later said it would tear down the farm­er’s mar­ket and re-open the road, but the in­cid­ent speaks volumes to the se­greg­a­tion that ex­ists in De­troit, and the ten­sions that can grow as a res­ult.

The fact that these two areas are so close is unique—the bor­der between Grosse Pointe Park and the city of De­troit is the only place in any of Amer­ica’s biggest cit­ies where a very wealthy, pre­dom­in­antly-white area abuts a very poor, black one, ac­cord­ing to re­search from a new work­ing pa­per from the Uni­versity of Min­nesota. But the ex­ist­ence of self-se­greg­ated wealthy white areas close by low-in­come minor­ity ones isn’t unique, ac­cord­ing to the Min­nesota re­search­ers. They have sor­ted census tracts in 15 of Amer­ica’s 20 biggest cit­ies in­to “ra­cially con­cen­trated areas of af­flu­ence” and “ra­cially con­cen­trated areas of poverty,” and find that many cit­ies have more areas of se­greg­ated af­flu­ence than they do poverty.

Ra­cially con­cen­trated areas of af­flu­ence, by the re­search­ers’ defin­i­tion, are census tracts where 90 per­cent or more of the pop­u­la­tion is white and the me­di­an in­come is at least four times the fed­er­al poverty level, ad­jus­ted for the cost of liv­ing in each city. Ra­cially con­cen­trated areas of poverty, by con­trast, are census tracts where more than 50 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion is non-white, and more than 40 per­cent live in poverty.

De­troit has 55 ra­cially con­cen­trated areas of af­flu­ence and 147 ra­cially con­cen­trated areas of poverty, ac­cord­ing to the re­search, done by Ed Goetz, Tony Dami­ano, and Jason Hicks. De­troit’s ra­cially con­cen­trated areas of af­flu­ence are just 1.1 per­cent black. Its ra­cially con­cen­trated areas of poverty, by con­trast, are 76 per­cent black.

Cit­ies such as St. Louis, Bo­ston, Bal­timore, and Min­neapol­is have more ra­cially con­cen­trated areas of af­flu­ence (RCAAs) than they do ra­cially con­cen­trated areas of poverty (RCAPs). Bo­ston has the most RCAAs of the cit­ies they ex­amined, with 77. St. Louis has 44 RCAAs, and 36 RCAPs. Oth­er cit­ies with a large num­ber of ra­cially con­cen­trated areas of af­flu­ence in­clude Phil­adelphia, with 70, Chica­go, with 58, and Min­neapol­is, with 56.

In Bo­ston, 43.5 per­cent of the white pop­u­la­tion lives in census tracts that are 90 per­cent or more white and have a me­di­an in­come of four times the poverty level. In St. Louis, 54.4 per­cent of the white pop­u­la­tion lives in such tracts.

Still, it’s the poor areas, rather than the areas where whites have self-se­greg­ated, that get the most at­ten­tion from poli­cy­makers, who have sought to ameli­or­ate con­cen­trated poverty in se­greg­ated areas by mov­ing fam­il­ies from black, urb­an areas to white sub­urbs. Be­gin­ning in 1989, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment star­ted dis­mant­ling hous­ing pro­jects, spend­ing bil­lions to re­tool the type of hous­ing avail­able to low-in­come people in urb­an cores.

Pro­grams may still in­teg­rate schools between white and black areas, as I’ve writ­ten about be­fore, and they may move black fam­il­ies to white neigh­bor­hoods, as I’ve also de­tailed. But gov­ern­ment pro­grams don’t—and prob­ably shouldn’t—move white fam­il­ies from wealthy areas to some­where else (al­though they do provide in­cent­ives for home buy­ers or build­ers to loc­ate in cer­tain lower-in­come neigh­bor­hoods, thus be­gin­ning a pro­cess of gentri­fic­a­tion).

Pub­lic policy has “fo­cused on the con­cen­tra­tion of poverty and res­id­en­tial se­greg­a­tion. This has prob­lem­at­ized non-white and high-poverty neigh­bor­hoods,” said Goetz, the dir­ect­or of the Cen­ter for Urb­an and Re­gion­al Af­fairs at the Uni­versity of Min­nesota, when present­ing his find­ings at the Lin­coln In­sti­tute of Land Policy. “It’s shiel­ded the oth­er end of the spec­trum from scru­tiny—to the point where we think se­greg­a­tion of whites is nor­mal.”

Goetz and his team are still re­search­ing the ef­fects of this self-se­greg­a­tion of whites, but he thinks that a high num­ber of RCAAs may be a neg­at­ive factor for cit­ies.

“Some people ar­gue that when whites and af­flu­ent people se­greg­ate them­selves, it can erode em­pathy, and it can in­hib­it the pur­suit of re­gion-wide rem­ed­ies,” he told me. “It can in­hib­it a sense of shared des­tiny with­in a met­ro­pol­it­an area.”

This brings to mind a metro area such as De­troit, which emerged from bank­ruptcy last year, and was char­ac­ter­ized by a poor and se­greg­ated urb­an core and wealthy white sub­urbs that did not con­trib­ute to the city’s rev­en­ue. The ex­ec­ut­ive of Oak­land County, to De­troit’s north, which is one of the whitest areas in the na­tion, has said pub­licly he doesn’t feel any in­cent­ive to help the city of De­troit.

Goetz and his team also re­searched the RCAAs’ and RCAPs’ dis­tance to down­town. Areas of af­flu­ence are loc­ated, on av­er­age, 21.1 miles from a metro area’s down­town. In De­troit, ra­cially con­cen­trated areas of af­flu­ence are, on av­er­age, 24.2 miles from the city’s down­town. In Wash­ing­ton, D.C., ra­cially con­cen­trated areas of af­flu­ence are 25.1 miles from down­town; in Chica­go, they’re 22.1 miles. Ra­cially con­cen­trated areas of poverty, on the oth­er hand, are on av­er­age 6.6 miles from down­town, and in cit­ies such as Bal­timore, St. Louis, and Phil­adelphia, they’re much closer.

There is less self-se­greg­a­tion of metro areas in the West: San Fran­cisco and Hou­s­ton have just five ra­cially con­cen­trated areas of af­flu­ence each, Seattle has nine, Los Angeles, 11. Seattle has just six ra­cially con­cen­trated areas of poverty and San Fran­cisco has 12. These west­ern cit­ies have lar­ger pop­u­la­tions of af­flu­ent minor­it­ies, and are, in gen­er­al, more di­verse. Only 1.1 per­cent of af­flu­ent house­holds live in RCAAs in San Fran­cisco and only 3.1 per­cent do in Seattle, but in St. Louis, by con­trast, 23.1 per­cent of af­flu­ent house­holds live in a ra­cially con­cen­trated area of af­flu­ence. In cit­ies in the North and East, there are also still linger­ing ef­fects of the hous­ing policies that, for dec­ades, kept non-white fam­il­ies from buy­ing in cer­tain neigh­bor­hoods.

The ra­cial makeup of con­cen­trated areas of poverty dif­fers between re­gions, too: they’re pre­dom­in­antly black in At­lanta, Bal­timore, Chica­go, De­troit, St. Louis, Phil­adelphia, and Wash­ing­ton, pre­dom­in­antly Latino in Hou­s­ton and Los Angeles, and mixed in Bo­ston, Min­neapol­is, and San Fran­cisco.

Goetz and his fel­low re­search­ers are plan­ning on look­ing in­to why these areas form in cer­tain cit­ies and cer­tain places, and wheth­er people pay a hous­ing premi­um to live in se­greg­ated areas of af­flu­ence, as op­posed to more ra­cially di­verse areas of af­flu­ence.

Some of their fur­ther re­search has already gen­er­ated in­ter­est­ing res­ults. They looked in­to how fed­er­al hous­ing dol­lars are spent in areas of poverty and areas of af­flu­ence in the Twin Cit­ies, and found something sur­pris­ing: The gov­ern­ment spends just as many hous­ing dol­lars in areas of poverty as it does in areas of af­flu­ence.

In ra­cially con­cen­trated areas of af­flu­ence, fed­er­al dol­lars come in the form of the mort­gage-in­terest de­duc­tion. In areas of poverty, they come through vouch­ers and sub­sid­ized hous­ing units. In the Twin Cit­ies, the total fed­er­al in­vest­ment in the form of hous­ing dol­lars in RCAAs was three times lar­ger than the in­vest­ment in RCAPs. On a per cap­ita basis, it was about equal.

Fed­er­al dol­lars are now be­ing spent to “sub­sid­ize ra­cially con­cen­trated areas of af­flu­ence,” Goetz said.

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