U.S. Losing Its Middle-Class Neighborhoods

Jim and Lynn Russell and son Adam moved from a middle-income Indianapolis neighborhood to an outer suburb.
Jim and Lynn Russell and son Adam moved from a middle-income Indianapolis neighborhood to an outer suburb. (Photos By Blaine Harden -- The Washington Post)

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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 22, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS -- Middle-class neighborhoods, long regarded as incubators for the American dream, are losing ground in cities across the country, shrinking at more than twice the rate of the middle class itself.

In their place, poor and rich neighborhoods are both on the rise, as cities and suburbs have become increasingly segregated by income, according to a Brookings Institution study released Thursday. It found that as a share of all urban and suburban neighborhoods, middle-income neighborhoods in the nation's 100 largest metro areas have declined from 58 percent in 1970 to 41 percent in 2000.

Widening income inequality in the United States has been well documented in recent years, but the Brookings analysis of census data uncovered a much more accelerated decline in communities that house the middle class. It far outpaced the decline of seven percentage points between 1970 and 2000 in the proportion of middle-income families living in and around cities.

Middle-income neighborhoods -- where families earn 80 to 120 percent of the local median income -- have plunged by more than 20 percent as a share of all neighborhoods in Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. They are down 10 percent in the Washington area.

It's happening, too, in this prosperous, mostly white middle-income Midwestern city where unemployment is low and a vibrant downtown has been preserved. As poor and rich neighborhoods proliferate, the share of middle-income neighborhoods in greater Indianapolis has dropped by 21 percent since 1970.

"No city in America has gotten more integrated by income in the last 30 years," said Alan Berube, an urban demographer at Brookings who worked on the report.

"It means that if you are not living in one of the well-off areas, you are not going to have access to the same amenities -- good schools and safe environment -- that you could find 30 years ago," he said.

The decline of middle-income neighborhoods may also be a consequence of increased economic opportunity and residential mobility, especially for upper-income minorities, said Joel Kotkin, an urban historian and senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

"This is about upward mobility and class. Until the 1970s, middle-class blacks and other minorities often had little choice about where they could live," said Kotkin, the author of "The City: A Global History." He added: "They usually had to live close to lower-income people of their own race. Now, if they can afford it, they can move to higher-income neighborhoods. Dollars trump race. Many choose not to live around poor people."

The Brookings study says that much more research is needed to better understand why middle-income neighborhoods are vanishing faster than middle-income families. But it speculates that a sorting-out process is underway in the nation's suburbs and inner cities, with many previously middle-income neighborhoods now tipping rich or poor.

Several urban scholars who had no role in the Brookings study said that its findings are consistent with what they have seen in cities from Los Angeles to Cleveland, as the middle class hollows out and as an economic chasm widens between rich and poor neighborhoods.

"We are increasingly being bifurcated on an economic basis," said Paul Ong, a professor of public affairs at the University of California at Los Angeles. "It has taken a big chunk out of the middle."


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