The Child Factor: Drilling Down on Income Segregation

Income segregation in neighborhoods in the United States has increased over the past few decades, but certain demographic groups have experienced a sharper rise than others. Only two-thirds of households in the United States are families, defined as two or more people related by birth, marriage, or adoption. The other one-third are non-family households, which are very likely to have different residential priorities and resources. A study led by Ann Owens, “Inequality in Children’s Contexts: Income Segregation of Households with and Without Children,” provides evidence and examines two possible factors affecting the existing imbalance in income segregation across demographic groups: schooling and income inequality. Studies show that a high percentage of public school children attend their neighborhood school, so school district boundaries are likely to be a key component in the residential decision of families with children.

The study uses income data from the 1990 and 2000 US Census and the five-year estimates from the 2008- 2012 American Community Survey (ACS) to calculate income segregation between neighborhoods, focusing on the 100 largest metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) in the United States. To estimate income segregation, Owens estimates the uniformity with which residents of different incomes are sorted between neighborhoods, and the exposure of residents to other income groups within neighborhoods. Owens then estimates the extent to which household income variation within neighborhoods in an MSA compares to the variation in household income in the whole MSA. After determining whether income segregation is different between households with and without children, Owens analyzes the extent to which schooling options and income inequality are relevant in explaining this difference. To determine if a variation in income inequality helps predict changes in income segregation, the author estimates the Gini coefficient for both households with and without children. To assess how schooling may impact income segregation, Owens compares trends in income segregation between neighborhoods and segregation between school districts, using data from the School District Demographic System (SDDS).

As H is closer to 0, all households in the neighborhood have similar income, and this income is similar to the whole MSA household income.

The results of the study support the hypothesis that income segregation in neighborhoods is higher and has risen more for households with children than without. In particular, households with children have experienced an increase in income segregation of approximately twenty percent, while the rate among childless households has been static. In addition, when comparing economic segregation across different income distributions, Owens finds that affluent families with children live in more homogeneous neighborhoods than less privileged families. She concludes that this may be related to the unequal increase in investment that high-income families make in their children compared to low-income families.

The author finds that metro areas with more schooling options experience a larger increase in income segregation for households with children. Income segregation between districts among households who have at least one child attending public school is almost three times higher than segregation among childless households, reinforcing the idea that families with children are the ones experiencing income segregation, and showing how schooling options strongly contribute to neighborhood sorting by income.

Lastly, the results depict a low variation in income inequality among households without children, and in the cases in which it did rise, the effect on income segregation was half as large as among families with children. This indicates that income inequality is a better predictor of income segregation among families with children, and Owens concludes that this may be because of the differences in resource allocation regarding residence between childless households and families with children.

Research shows that children raised in wealthier neighborhoods have considerable advantages over those who live in underprivileged ones. The findings from this particular study that income segregation is increasing among families with children should make us think about the implications for future generations. They may also help us understand other issues regarding children, such as the growing economic disparities in educational outcomes and attainment, and provide insight for policymakers seeking to reduce inequality.

Article source: Owens, Ann. “Inequality in Children’s Contexts: Income Segregation of Households with and without Children.” American Sociological Review, 2016.

Featured photo: cc/(Robert Herhold, photo ID: 61817080, from iStock by Getty Images)

Adelaida Correa Miranda
Adelaida ('17) is a staff writer for Child & Family. She is interested in family affairs and international development.

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