Middle Class Neighborhoods On The Decline genre: Indie-Script & Polispeak & Six Degrees of Speculation

In a study released on Tuesday by the Brookings Institution, it appears that there is more evidence of the income divide within the United States. The study looked at the decline of middle class neighborhoods in a number of American cities and found that these neighborhoods were actually declining faster than middle income families. Brookings indicated that more research would be needed to fully understand this disparity of information. Read the full article here.

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.

"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.

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.

This type of data makes the tax cuts promoted by the Bush administration all the more troubling. The contention that such tax cuts create jobs has some merit but when the overall trending shows that the middle class is in decline, one must conclude that small business growth is being jeopardized...and it has long been known that small business growth is the engine that creates the lions share of employment opportunities. If we lose this benefit that results from a strong middle class, there will be an increasing concentration of employment in the hands of larger and larger corporations...a trend that has been seen to support lower wage positions that have led to increasing illegal immigration to fill those jobs.

"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."

The Brookings study says that increased residential segregation by income can remove a fundamental rung from the nation's ladder for social mobility: moderate-income neighborhoods with decent schools, nearby jobs, low crime and reliable services.

I would argue that the decline in middle class neighborhoods will ultimately drive up the costs for cities and communities as they struggle to collect the funds needed to provide services for declining neighborhoods. As wealth is relocated to outlying suburbs and counties, sales and property tax revenues are also shifted away from communities that will likely be dealing with increasing crime rates, the need for more social services, schools that are struggling to find teachers, and increasing levels of indigent health care.

The housing industry in the Midwest and the Northeast routinely floods local markets with new, ever-larger houses.

Such overbuilding is rampant across the Midwest and Northeast, where the number of new houses -- almost always at the edge of metro areas -- swamped the number of new households by more than 30 percent between 1980 and 2000, according to a study co-written by Thomas Bier, executive in residence at the Center for Housing Research and Policy at Cleveland State University.

"As upper-income Americans are drawn to the new houses, neighborhoods become more homogenous," he said. Echoing the Brookings study, he said: "The zoning is such that it prevents anything other than a certain income range from living there. It is our latest method of discrimination."

In a pattern that is the mirror opposite of what is happening in the Midwest and Northeast, there is a chronic undersupply of housing in many cities on the West Coast. But it, too, has contributed to a decline of middle-income neighborhoods, said Berube, the Brookings demographer.

That has pushed up the price of housing in mixed-income neighborhoods. Gentrification often pushes the poor away to less-desirable suburbs.

In the end, if the neighborhood divide becomes a mirror image of the income divide, the consequences will be amplified. The middle class has long been a key to societal cohesion as it offers the promise of mobility to the poor along with the revenues to fund many of the programs that keep cities and societies functional. Unless we begin to see a shift in these two trends, we will soon be confronted with problems that far exceed the economic considerations.

Daniel DiRito | June 22, 2006 | 7:53 AM
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