Economic segration index US Martin Prosperity Institute

A recent study pegged San Antonio as one of the most economically divided cities in America, topping lists measuring two different types of economic segregation. San Antonio wasn’t alone among Texas cities on the list — four of the top 10 most economically segregated large U.S. metropolitan areas are in Texas: Austin, San Antonio, Houston and Dallas — according to study author and urbanist Richard Florida, director of the Martin Prosperity Institute (“MPI”) at the University of Toronto.

Austin-Round Rock took the top spot on Florida’s list of the 10 large metropolitan areas in the U.S. with the highest levels of economic segregation; San Antonio ranked third, followed by Houston-Sugarland-Baytown at number four, and Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington at number seven.

The study focused on how Americans are clustered by income, education and socioeconomic class, and how those three factors together produce economic segregation.

Richard Florida
Richard Florida

“Economic inequality is not an abstract phenomenon,” said Florida in an appearance on MSNBC Thursday. “It’s literally baked into our cities and our neighborhoods. Not only is (economic) segregation growing, it’s also hardening.” Even in affluent cities across America, he said, “You have people living in completely different universes.”

“The big sort” that political scientist Bill Bishop wrote about in his 2009 book of the same name is only getting bigger, as Americans increasingly choose to live around those they most resemble.

“Americans have become increasingly sorted over the past couple of decades by income, education, and class,” according to the MPI report, “Segregated City: The Geography of Economic Segregation in America’s Metros,” prepared by Florida and Charlotta Melander. “A large body of research has focused on the dual migrations of more affluent and skilled people and the less advantaged across the United States. Increasingly, Americans are sorting not just between cities and metro areas, but within them as well.”

Segregation is also cumulative: Segregation in one dimension, especially income, increases the likelihood of educational and occupational segregation, among others, according to the report.

When the Pew Research Center looked at similar trends in a comprehensive study entitled, “The Rise in Residential Segregation by Income” published in 2012, they found San Antonio to be at the top of its “Residential Income Segregation Index” or “RISI” for the nation’s 30 largest metropolitan areas.

The Pew report focused on the increasing trend of Americans to segregate along income lines, with the wealthiest and the poorest segments being increasingly confined to geographical areas, be they neighborhoods or zip codes, populated almost exclusively by people of similar socio-economic profiles.

Click here to download report.
Click here to download report.

In the 2012 Pew report, 25% of upper-income San Antonians live in a census tract where a majority of other residents are also upper-income (versus 8% for Boston, 12% for Chicago, or 13% for Philadelphia). Similarly, 38% of lower-income San Antonians live in majority lower-income tracts, according to Pew.

The trend for like collocating with like has been accelerating since the 1980s, and is more pronounced among upper-income neighborhoods than poor neighborhoods, though both have tended to become pockets of sameness. For the past three decades, San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, Phoenix and Miami, have ranked among the nation’s fastest-growing large metropolitan areas, according to Pew, “fueled in part by an influx of low-skill, low-wage immigrants from south of the border and in part by an influx of high-skill, high-wage workers and well-to-do retirees. These dual migration streams could well have contributed to a rise in residential segregation by income.”

Florida and Mellander found that “economic segregation tends to be more intensive in high-tech, knowledge-based metros,” and is “positively correlated with high-tech industry, the ‘creative class’ share of the workforce, and the share of college grads.” There’s also a correlation with race, especially for people of color who are more likely to live in economically segregated areas, as opposed to whites, and income inequality, “even more so than wage equality,” according to the “Segregated City” report. Economically advantaged residents can, of course, be the most selective about where they choose to live.

Professor of sociology and anthropology at Trinity University Christine Drennon
Christine Drennon

Christine Drennon, Ph.D., an associate professor of sociology at Trinity University and the head of the school’s  Urban Studies Program, said she’d read the recent “Segregated City” report with interest.

When asked to explain why several Texas cities, including San Antonio, made the list of most economically segregated U.S. cities, she reached back to the mid-20th century for an explanation, citing “the built environment” and the tendency of home builders and buyers to create pockets of homogeneity over time.

“There’s probably a school district angle on this too,” she said, “but I attribute most of it to our built environments and the years of building homogenous developments.” If you notice in our older, pre-World War II neighborhoods, such as Tobin Hill, there is much more of a mix of housing. Big mansions next door to little bungalows, producing a socioeconomic landscape or geography that is much more ‘mixed-up,’ because we live where we can afford to live.”

Southwestern cities as a whole tended to dominate both the Pew and the MPI lists, and Drennon spoke to that as well. “Northern cities are much older than Southern cities, and have more neighborhoods that are ‘mixed’ like this than we do, thus giving rise to more mixed-income neighborhoods.” she said. “We are trying to craft policy that will ensure that new neighborhoods or developments are mixed income.” Existing neighborhoods, she said, “aren’t conducive to that.”

Florida and Mellander’s “Segregated City” report examined three combined measures of income, educational and occupational segregation, and seven individual measures from an “Index of Dissimilarity,” to create the index of overall economic segregation. The Segregated City report used data from more than 70,000 U.S. Census tracts, as well as data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census. Last year San Antonio had the “dubious honor” of being at the top of the list for income segregation, a subset of the broader economic segregation, according to an article in Texas Monthly.

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Lily Casura

Lily Casura, MSW, is the Director of Equity and Impact at YWCA San Antonio. An independent researcher as well as a current graduate student in applied demography at UTSA, she co-authored the "Status of...