The United States is characterized by increasing class segregation—as both a condition and consequence of growing inequality.
We all know that the share of income going to the top 10 percent has steadily increased since the mid-1970s (from an already-high 33.41 percent in 1976 to an astounding 49.85 percent in 2014). That’s because a tiny group at the top has been appropriating a growing surplus and then distributing a large share of it to the other members of the top decile.
Now we know, thanks to recent research by Sean F. Reardon and Kendra Biscoff (pdf), that rising income inequality in the United States has been accompanied by increasing residential segregation by income:
Income segregation has increased over the last four decades, and has continued to increase in recent years. In large metropolitan areas (the 117 metropolitan areas with populations of 500,000 or more), the proportion of families living in neighborhoods with median incomes well above or below the median income of their metropolitan area has grown rapidly since 1970. . .In 1970, only 15% of all families lived in such neighborhoods, while 65% lived in middle‐income neighborhoods. By 2012, over one third (34%) of all families lived in either rich or poor neighborhoods, more than double the percentage in 1970. Over the same time period the proportion living in middle‐income neighborhoods declined from 65% to 40%.
And, they admit, this growing class segregation is not going to be easy to break:
In an era of very high income and wealth inequality, families have very different resources to spend on housing, and the housing market responds to this inequality in ways that exacerbate segregation. Given the importance of neighborhood contexts for children’s opportunities, and for shaping the experiences of the affluent, rising income segregation will likely only further exacerbate the economic inequality that has produced it. This self‐reinforcing cycle—where inequality begets segregation and segregation fosters inequality—will be hard to break.
Let’s call it the vicious cycle of class inequality and segregation.
As Thomas B. Edsall explains, that vicious cycle is both caused and reinforced by fundamental changes in the American social order and political system: from the fact that the increasingly segregated well-to-do have found ways of supporting and taking advantage of key services (health, education, job search and other opportunities) to aid themselves and their own children to the fact that (as Bernie Sanders recently reminded us) the top decile has been able to exercise much more influence over politics and policy (through voting and political donations) than its share of the electorate would suggest.
And, as we’ve seen in recent months, the combination of inequality and segregation has exacerbated tensions within the Democratic Party:
The “truly advantaged” wing of the Democratic Party. . .has provided the Democratic Party with crucial margins of victory where its candidates have prevailed. These upscale Democrats have helped fill the gap left by the departure of white working class voters to the Republican Party.
At the same time, the priorities of the truly advantaged wing — voters with annual incomes in the top quintile, who now make up an estimated 26 percent of the Democratic general election vote — are focused on social and environmental issues: the protection and advancement of women’s rights, reproductive rights, gay and transgender rights and climate change, and less on redistributive economic issues. . .
Sanders’s extraordinary performance to date. . .points to the vulnerability of a liberal alliance in which the economic interests of those on the top — often empowered to make policy — diverge ever more sharply from those in the middle and on the bottom.
As the influence of affluent Democratic voters and donors grows, the leverage of the poor declines.
Meanwhile, the vicious cycle of class inequality and segregation makes the rich richer, everyone else poorer—and the yawning gap between them continues to grow.