The Dream Revisited

Keep Concentrated Poverty at the Forefront

by Michael Lens | November 2014

Reardon and Bischoff call on us to pay more attention to the segregation of the affluent, which by the authors’ measures has actually surpassed the segregation of the poor. While I agree that we should potentially be concerned about the increasing segregation of the affluent, there are also some fundamental reasons why concentrated poverty is likely to remain a greater concern.

While there is surely more that we can and should learn about the concentration of the affluent, there is no concrete evidence about negative societal impacts that stem from the concentration of the affluent. Reardon and Bischoff offer one plausible hypothesis – that segregated affluent people will be less likely to support policies that benefit poor or middle class households. But even taking into account the outsized influence that the affluent have on American politics, do we know that spatial segregation limits political empathy? Without such evidence, we are left without a tangible effect from concentrated affluence. 

On the other hand, we have substantial evidence demonstrating that people who live in high-poverty neighborhoods endure limited opportunities and negative outcomes. It makes intuitive sense that the disadvantaged suffer from being isolated from the advantaged. We cannot say the same about the highly advantaged. And these realities have clear policy implications: the people of Beverly Hills and Manhattan’s Upper East Side are not suffering from a lack of public investment, unlike those in South LA and East New York.

The growing concentration of affluence does create the worrisome possibility that the affluent could hoard outsized amounts of the best public services and amenities even more so than is already the case.  Yet children of middle class parents in most metropolitan areas still go to high-performing public schools and those families still live in safe neighborhoods. This is not typically the case for lower income households. In research with Ingrid Ellen and Katherine O’Regan, we found that twice as many poor renter households lived in high crime neighborhoods as the general population. Though the gap in income may be widening, the differences between the affluent and the middle class are not as stark in terms of exposure to neighborhood crime, low-achieving schools, and other neighborhood aspects as are the differences between the poor and the middle class. If we look at segregation not just of people but of the tangible benefits that a neighborhood offers its residents, then the poor are the outlier, not the affluent.

I agree with Reardon and Bischoff that “neighborhoods are not islands.” Like the authors, I advocate for knowing more about the macroeconomic forces and metropolitan-level factors that can explain why economic segregation is occurring. There is a risk of dependent variable overload, however, if we bring the concentration of the affluence to the fore in such research. The causes of the increased concentration of the affluent may well differ from the causes of the increased concentration of poverty. But in addressing those causes, it matters which types of segregation we care about the most. Until we see more evidence on the negative effects of affluent segregation, we should prioritize solutions for concentrated poverty.

Michael Lens is an assistant professor of urban planning at the Luskin School of Public Affairs at the University of California, Los Angeles. He tweets at @mc_lens

More in Discussion 9: Residential Income Segregation