November 27, 2013

Super ZIPs and Economic Inequality

Sean beckerBy Sean Becker

Sociology graduate, University of Wisconsin - Madison

One of the key insights of social science is that structural factors influence the life course of individuals. For instance, pervasive and predictable patterns exist regarding the socioeconomic class that one will be a part of. One’s race and or neighborhood come to largely determine their opportunities in life. Such predictability is captured by the term social reproduction, which refers to the idea that most people will end up with a socioeconomic status similar to their parents. In contrast, social mobility refers to the ability of individuals to have socioeconomic status different from that of their parents.

For social mobility to exist, however, one must come into contact on a regular basis with those of different socioeconomic backgrounds. This is where they key factor of geography comes into play. Today, our society is increasingly segregated along class lines. A recent piece in the Washington Post clearly illustrates this. Using census data, the authors averaged the percentile ranking of income and education level for each ZIP Code in America, giving each a score between 0 and 99. Those ZIP codes with 95 or higher were labeled “Super ZIPs,” a term first coined by American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray. To see the results on a map is a stunning visual representation of inequality in America.

Surely, affluent individuals have moved away from less affluent people in the past. The massive “white-flight” out of cities and into suburbs following World War II is a prime example of this. In larger metro areas, super ZIPs tend to be contiguous to one another, forming entire suburban regions of prosperity where one would have to travel quite some distance to see any sort of poverty.

Yet, the urban super ZIP regions found in New York City illustrate inequality far more starkly. Take for instance the cluster of super ZIPs in East Manhattan. A single neighborhood, East Harlem, separates the 10128 ZIP code in East Manhattan from the 10454 ZIP code in the South Bronx. The Manhattan ZIP code has a score of 96, while the Bronx ZIP code has a score of 3. In many places, it seems that your chances of either going to college or going to prison depend on if you live on one side of the freeway or the other.

Whether Super ZIP regions are suburban or urban in nature, the line on the map that separates the working class from the wealthy is becoming less permeable. Middle class neighborhoods are places of social mobility, where people of different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds trade social capital and relate with one another out of necessity, bonded by a shared community. But research has shown that since the 1970s, the proportion of families living in middle-class neighborhoods has dropped 23%. In 2010, one-third of all American families lived in either poor or affluent neighborhoods (census tracts with a median income under 67% of, or more than 150% of, the median income of the greater metropolitan area, respectively). The proportion of those living in either one of these extreme neighborhoods was only 15% in 1970.

Much like the map in the Washington Post, these figures are simply a reflection of growing income inequality in the United States. Today, the top 10% of earners take home nearly half of total earnings, leaving 90% of Americans the other half. Over 19% of total earnings are concentrated in the hands of the top 1%. In 2012, the bottom 99% of earners saw a 1% increase in their income, while the top 1% of earners saw increases of about 20%. Letting these numbers sink in, it is not surprising to see the disappearance of middle class neighborhoods and social mobility, since the middle class itself has shrunk so much. Such disparity has been unknown since the 1920s.

During the second half of the twentieth century, a large segment of America’s less affluent blossomed into a thriving middle class with far greater access to healthcare, education and gainful employment. Many neighborhoods were middle-class and social mobility was at its peak, countering a social reproduction that often kept families poor generation after generation. There was a desire on the part of the government to create a Great Society for all. This was coupled with an enormous growth of the American economy. When the economy began to slow down in the late 1970s however, an ideology of neoliberalism took hold, halting the progress made in previous decades by giving the private sector greater freedoms. And since the recession of 2008, a rationale of austerity has been in the air, defunding many public programs. National policies affected by these ideologies have disproportionately hurt the poor, while allowing wealth to stay concentrated on the top, effectively ending social mobility.

If we want to surround ourselves with people who are similar to us, then the current trend ought to please us. But if we as Americans understand that community homogenization and income segregation not only stop the less affluent from achieving social mobility, but also prevent us from understanding and creating social harmony with those of different socioeconomic backgrounds, then something needs to change. Just because times are tough does not mean that wealth cannot be spread more evenly across the American populace. If we want to halt this regression and make the United States a prosperous nation once again, we need to create economic conditions that grow the middle class and desegregate wealthy and working class communities to foster real social mobility.


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You are soo right in what you are saying. I hope that many people will share your vision.

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