Photo: Flickr / CosmoPolitician
Roll back the clock to 1980 and Greater Houston looks quite a bit different.Some of the tall buildings, meandering toll roads and shiny professional sports venues aren’t there, of course, but of more significance is the absence of many places that Houstonians now call home.
As the metro area’s population doubled over the past three decades, extensive developments and master-planned communities popped up or expanded to serve those with the means to buy spanking new homes on the suburban fringe.
As for those of little means — many of them immigrants, legal and otherwise — they increasingly crowded into older, low-income neighborhoods abandoned by residents who lost jobs or found better housing elsewhere.
The result, according to a new study released Wednesday by the Pew Research centre, is a dubious honour: Houston leads the way among the nation’s 10 largest metropolitan areas when it comes to affluent folks living among others who are affluent, and poor living with poor. Pew said residential income segregation is increasing across the country and especially in Texas and the Southwest.
Of the nation’s 30 top metro areas, San Antonio, Houston and Dallas command the medals podium in Pew’s Residential Income Segregation Index. In Houston, the percentage of upper-income households in census tracts with a majority of upper-income households increased from 7 in 1980 to 24 in 2010. Likewise, low-income households in majority low-income tracts jumped from 25 to 37.
“The real challenge for the future of America is not a race divide but a class divide”
The Pew researchers stopped short of saying precisely why Texas’ major cities lead what has become a national trend. Rapid growth has a lot to do with it, they said. But there are other causes they found of particular concern.
“These increases are related to the long-term rise in income inequality, which has led to a shrinkage in the share of neighborhoods across the United States that are predominantly middle class or mixed income,” the report states.
That doesn’t mean that most people are rich or poor, or dwell in either mansions or shacks. Three-quarters of Americans, the report finds, still live in neighborhoods where a majority of residents fall into the middle-income category. But the trend is otherwise, and it worries social scientists.
“The real challenge for the future of America is not a race divide but a class divide,” said Stephen Klineberg, a Rice University sociologist who has spent much of the past 30 years tracking Houston’s demographic and economic changes. “We are heading into a world of division not by ethnicity but by class. It is becoming increasingly rigidified. The more income inequality there is, the more the upper classes live in a different world and in a different reality than the poor kids or the middle-class kids.”
After World War II, as the baby boom was beginning and U.S. manufacturing ruled the world, a much smaller percentage of Americans lived in places totally insulated by class, Klineberg said. Most kids went to public schools. Most of their parents had friends and neighbours with college degrees and with formal education that ended at high school. He considers that a good thing, but one that’s disappearing.
“Those days of a rising tide that lifted all boats are gone,” he said. “You used to have factory workers living next to college professors, and their incomes weren’t that radically different. No more. The accelerating inequality is the fundamental political challenge of our time. The things that assured increased equality of Americans are now gone.”
As the gap between the haves and have-nots began to spread, the desire to associate with those of dissimilar class dwindled. Klineberg referred to a Wall Street Journal story from a few years ago that described the tendency to want to be surrounded by “PLU” — people like us.
In rapidly growing cities of the Southwest where land on the edges of town was literally dirt cheap, developers came up with a template for success starting in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Build homes catering to comfortably middle, upper middle and borderline affluent people who did not want the inconveniences of old urban living. “Master planned” became a pseudonym for uniform and nice. There were recreational fields, community centres and often golf courses.
Low-income housing advocate John Henneberger doesn’t have anything against these suburban enclaves, some of which became fenced off and gated in more recent years, but he insists the corresponding concentration of low-income families in certain areas has bad long-term effects.
“There certainly are negative consequences if poor people are isolated and living only with other poor people,” said Henneberger, co-founder of Texas Housers, an Austin-based advocacy group. “The money tends to go where more affluent people live, where the people are more politically engaged. Social capital is highly related to economic capital. Those isolated poor are going to be considerably disadvantaged.”