Segregated Neighborhoods Are Damaging the American Dream

Restrictive zoning rules that allow for racially and economically homogenous neighborhoods are ruining the American dream for everyone.


The number of neighborhoods with mixed class and cultural backgrounds are shrinking. Los Angeles is the most segregated city in America for white and Hispanic populations. African-American and white residential segregation has somewhat improved, but as the fourteenth most segregated, we’re still not much better than the majority of states. The map below, created by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, shows the population of Los Angeles with one dot per person. The dots are colored-coded to each person’s race/ethnicity as reported to the Census: blue dots for Whites; Orange dots for Latinos; Green dots for African-Americans; Red dots for Asian-Americans. Each dot is placed within its own census block, using 2010 census data. The Orange dots tend to be concentrated near the city’s downtown and industrial areas, while the blue dots tend to be near the ocean and the Santa Monica Mountains.

racial dot map


Not surprisingly, the city is also economically segregated. This map, which calculates economic segregation based on income, education and occupation, shows the overall economic segregation for the U.S. The data places the Los Angeles metro area as the tenth most economically segregated among all U.S. metro areas, and the fifth most segregated among large metro areas with over one million people.

economic segregation map

Cities were once a mix of people of different wealth, education and cultural backgrounds, but are now increasingly becoming divided. But, why should we care?


In a recent study out of UCLA, the researchers found that neighborhoods divided by income have led to enclaves for the super-rich. These neighborhoods have abundant resources that go toward schools, public space, transportation and other amenities that fuel children and their families’ ability to thrive. Yet, in the poorer areas, less resources means education, public parks, hospitals and other public systems suffer. You might think that despite the lack of resources in a neighborhood, American is the land of mobility where hard work can get you anywhere. Well, you’re wrong. Economic mobility is consistently lower in the U.S. than most developed countries.


Children who grow up in poor neighborhoods tend to stay poor, whereas children that grow up in mixed-income and mixed-race neighborhoods have greater odds of experiencing class mobility. While this can’t yet be interpreted as a causal relationship, researchers have found that income mobility varies substantially based on where you grow up. They found that with all things being equal, upward mobility tended to be higher in metropolitan areas where poor families were more dispersed among mixed-income neighborhoods. While some cities such as Salt Lake City, UT have mobility rates comparable to countries with high rates of relative mobility, other cities such as Milwaukee, WI (one of the worst cities to be African American) and Atlanta, GA have lower rates of mobility than any developed country for which data are available. This interactive map lets you look up the odds of economic mobility in your area. Compared to cities in the southeast, Los Angeles children are actually better off. Those that grow up with parents earning in the 25th income percentile, end up, on average, in the 44th percentile for income. Still, that’s only a 9.6% chance of rising to the top fifth income level (a family income of more than $70,000).


Urban studies author and activist Jane Jacobs said American cities need all kinds of diversity to succeed. So is there a way we can encourage mixed neighborhoods? The UCLA researchers that I mentioned earlier say their research shows urban planning and policies should focus on desegregating wealthy enclaves and offering affordable housing in those areas, as opposed to making poorer neighborhoods more attractive to upper incomers. They have a list of recommended land use regulations to decrease segregation. Other things like affordable housing, policies to enforce integrated schools and a strong public transportation system that allows easier movement between neighborhoods would also help. Until we address residential segregation, we can’t claim that that the ‘American Dream’ of prosperity and success is alive and well for everyone.


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