Our Metro Areas Have Become Engines of Inequality

Editor’s Note: This essay is part of an Urban Affairs Forum’s Scholars Series on “What the Trump Administration Should Know About Cities.”  Our first essay comes from George Galster who is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Wayne State University.  He has published numerous articles on housing markets, housing policy, economic and ethnic segregation, and urban sprawl among many other topics. 

By George Galster (Wayne State University)

America prides itself as the land of equal opportunity.  Sadly, it is clear that equal opportunity is a cruel sham in a nation whose metropolitan areas’ neighborhoods and schools are increasingly segregated by race and class.  Our metropolitan areas are rapidly becoming engines of inequality.

Here is what the Trump Administration should know:

Aggressive federal actions are required to counter the past “social engineering” undertaken by the private market and the public sector that has turned our metropolitan areas into engines of inequality.

This dictum is based on four propositions that rest on substantial, arguably consensual, empirical evidence:

  1. There is increasing residential and school segregation in our metropolitan areas along income and several ethnic dimensions
  2. There are increasing geographic inequalities in pollution, violence, access to employment and consumption opportunities and the quality of public services, facilities and schools, and these inequalities increasingly correlate with the race and class of residents
  3. Spatial contexts in which children are raised strongly affect their chances for later economic success, health, and well-being
  4. In the past and continuing into the present, governments at all levels have actively promoted segregation and geographic inequalities in resources

Let’s take a closer look at each:

1. Increasing Residential and School Segregation by Class and Race

We have witnessed steady growth in the degree of neighborhood segregation by income since the 1970s (Reardon and Bischoff, 2016). The number of neighborhoods with 40% or more poor residents has risen by over 75 percent and the number of Americans living in such neighborhoods has risen by more than 90 percent since 2000 (Jargowsky, 2015).  There has been corresponding growth in segregation of low-income students between school districts within the same metropolitan area since 1990 (Owens, Reardon and Jencks 2016).  Residential segregation of blacks from whites continues to be extremely high in many urban areas, although black/white segregation has declined since 1970 (Glaeser and Vigdor, 2012). By contrast, the segregation of Hispanics and Asian Americans relative to whites has increased over this period (Logan 2011).  Black/white segregation between school districts has risen, particularly in the north, since 1980 (Orfield and Lee, 2007; Reardon and Owens, 2014).

2. Increasing Inequalities in Geographic Context

Huge racial-ethnic and economic disparities in exposure to environmental pollutants of multiple kinds have been a persistent feature of most U.S. metropolitan areas (Downey, 2007; Ard, 2015).  A similar pattern has been exhibited for exposure to violence (Braga et al. 2011; Papachristos, 2013; Sampson, 2012), though there has been some convergence over the last decades in the degree to which poor and non-poor residents, and white and nonwhite residents, are exposed to violent crime in their neighborhoods (Friedson and Sharkey, 2015).  Compared to a white household, the average black or Hispanic household is much more likely to live in a neighborhood of concentrated poverty (Jargowsky, 2015) and in a financially strapped local political jurisdiction (Dreier, Mollenkopf and Swanstrom, 2004).

3. Spatial Contexts Affect Socioeconomic Opportunities

Recent studies have been virtually unanimous on the conclusion that place of residence has a major influence on one’s life chances.  National data reveal tremendous variation in economic mobility across specific commuting zones in ways suggesting that places themselves have causal effects (Chetty et al., 2014; Chetty and Hendren, 2015).  Analysis of random-assignment data from the Moving To Opportunity demonstration shows that low-income children benefit economically as young adults having moved from high- to low-poverty neighborhoods when they were young (Chetty, Hendren and Katz, 2015), though other, natural experimental evidence indicates that teens also are substantially influenced by certain neighborhood environments (Galster and Santiago, forthcoming).  Among several dozen methodologically sophisticated studies, there is a clear preponderance of evidence that neighborhood context wields an important influence over the educational, health, exposure to violence, behavioral, fertility, and employment outcomes for children and youth (see the comprehensive review in Galster and Sharkey, 2017).

4. Governments Have Actively Promoted Segregation and Geographic Inequalities

The aforementioned increases in segregation and inequalities in geographic contexts within metropolitan areas have not solely been due to the actions of markets.  On the contrary, governments at all levels have for extended periods promoted these outcomes passively and actively (Massey and Denton, 1993; Galster, 2012).  The federal government promulgated racial redlining in its mortgage lending and insurance programs from the 1930s to the 1960s, failed to prohibit discrimination by real estate agents, mortgage lenders, and local jurisdictions until the 1960s, and turned a blind eye to the segregationist actions by local public housing authorities under its purview until the 1990s.  Since the dramatic use of its power to desegregate schools in the South during the 1950s, federal policies beyond the courts have been absent.  Meanwhile, many local communities have continued their longstanding practice of promulgating homogeneous neighborhoods and school districts through legal exclusionary zoning and extra-legal acts (Freund, 2007).

A Moral Duty

The federal government has a moral duty to correct such injustice.  Moreover, since it bears significant culpability in creating this injustice, the imperative to act is that much more compelling.  Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary-designate Ben Carson has denigrated HUD’s recent efforts to equalize the geography of opportunity by calling it “social engineering.”  He and President Trump must know that, however labelled, federal actions are required to offset the spatial foundations of inequality that the market and government actions have engineered for generations.  Only then can “equal opportunity” morph from a hollow promise into a hallowed premise.


Ard, Kerry. 2015. “Trends in exposure to industrial air toxins for different racial and socioeconomic groups: A spatial and temporal examination of environmental inequality in the US from 1995 to 2004.” Social Science Research 53: 375-390.

Braga, Anthony, David Hureau, and Andrew Papachristos. 2011. “The Relevance of Micro Places in Citywide Robbery Trends: A Longitudinal Analysis of Robbery Incidents at Street Corners and Block Faces in Boston.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 48(1): 7–32.

Chetty, Raj, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline, and Emmanuel Saez. 2014. “Where is the Land Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States.” (NBER Working Paper No. 19843). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Chetty, Raj, and Nathan Hendren. 2015. “The Effects of Neighborhoods on Children’s LongTerm Outcomes: Quasi-Experimental Estimates for the United States.” Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Department of Economics Unpublished Working Paper.

Chetty, Raj, Nathaniel Hendren, and Lawrence Katz. 2015. “The Effects of Exposure to Better Neighborhoods on Children: New Evidence from the Moving to Opportunity Experiment.” (NBER Working Paper No. 21156), Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research. Downey, Liam. 2007. “US Metropolitan-Area Variation in Environmental Inequality Outcomes.” Urban                    Studies 44(5-6): 953-977.

Dreier, Peter, John Mollenkopf, and Todd Swanstrom. 2004. Place Matters: Metropolitics for theTwenty-First Century. University Press of Kansas.

Freund, David. 2007. Colored Property: State Policy and White Racial Politics in the Modern American  Suburb.  Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Friedson, Michael, and Patrick Sharkey. 2015. “Violence and Neighborhood Disadvantage after the Crime Decline.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 660(1): 341-358.

Galster, George .2012. Driving Detroit: The Quest for Respect in the Motor City.  Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Galster, George and Anna Santiago. Forthcoming. “Do Neighborhood Effects on Low-Income Minority Children Depend on Their Age? Evidence from a Public Housing Natural Experiment,” Housing Policy Debate.

Galster, George and Patrick Sharkey. 2017. “Spatial Foundations of Inequality: An Empirical Overview and Conceptual Model,” RSF: The Russell Sage Journal of the Social Sciences 3 (2): 1-34.

Glaeser, Edward, and Jacob Vigdor. 2012. The End of the Segregated Century: Racial Separation in America’s Neighborhoods, 1890-2010. New York, NY: Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

Jargowsky, Paul. 2015. “The Architecture of Segregation.” New York: The Century Foundation.

Logan, John. 2011. “Separate and Unequal: The Neighborhood Gap for Blacks, Hispanics and Asians in Metropolitan America.” Project US2010 Report: 1-22.

Massey, Douglas and Nancy Denton. 1993. American Apartheid. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Orfield Gary and Chungmei Lee. 2007. “Historic reversals, accelerating resegregation, and the need for new integration strategies.” Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles: Civil Rights Project.

Owens, Ann, Sean Reardon, and Christopher Jencks. 2016. “Income Segregation between Schools and Districts, 1990 to 2010.” Palo Alto, CA: Stanford Center for Education Policy Working Paper No.16-04.

Papachristos, Andrew. 2013. “48 Years of Crime in Chicago: A Descriptive Analysis of Serious Crime Trends from 1965 to 2013.” Chicago: ISPS Working Paper ISPS 13-023.

Reardon, Sean, and Kendra Bischoff. 2016. “The Continuing Increase in Income Segregation, 2007-2012.” Retrieved from Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis: http://cepa.stanford.edu/content/continuing-increase-income-segregation-2007-2012

Reardon, Sean, and Ann Owens. 2014. “60 Years After Brown: Trends and Consequences of School Segregation.” Annual Review of Sociology 40: 199–218.

Sampson, Robert. 2012. Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

The “What the Trump Administration Should Know” Scholars Series was developed and edited by Scott Minkoff (Forum Editor) and Jered Carr (UAR Managing Editor).


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