Why Today’s Middle-Class Black Families Don’t Exactly Live Like The Huxtables

Why Today's Middle-Class Black Families Don't Exactly Live Like The Huxtables
The Cosby Show

AFRICANGLOBE – Many of the nation’s racial disparities stem from the simple economic fact that white families make more money than Black families on average, a gap that has remained stubbornly large in recent decades.

Yet neither this income gap nor blatant discrimination is the only reason for the disparities. A new study, by three Stanford researchers, highlights another big cause: the neighborhood gap.

Even among white and Black families with similar incomes, white families are much more likely to live in good neighborhoods — with high-quality schools, day-care options, parks, playgrounds and transportation options. The study comes to this conclusion by mining census data and uncovering a striking pattern: White (and Asian-American) middle-income families tend to live in middle-income neighborhoods. Black middle-income families tend to live in distinctly lower-income ones.

Most strikingly, the typical middle-income Black family lives in a neighborhood with lower incomes than the typical low-income white family.

“I was surprised by the magnitude,” said Sean Reardon, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and the paper’s lead author. “I thought comparing people at exactly the same income level would get rid of more of the neighborhood differences than it did.”

The findings are especially notable because they come shortly after a separate research project, by two Harvard economists, that we’ve covered in detail at The Upshot. That project has tracked several million children since the 1980s to analyze how the area where they grew up affected their lives. Children who grew up in better neighborhoods — which tended to have less poverty, less crime, more two-parent families and schools with higher test scores — fared much better as adults than otherwise similar children from worse neighborhoods.

The new paper, being published in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, suggests that these neighborhood effects are helping to widen racial disparities, including disparities in upward mobility.

Consider these numbers: A typical Black child living in a household with $100,000 in annual income lives in a neighborhood with a median income of $54,400. And a Black child in a household making $50,000 typically lives in a neighborhood with a median income of $42,200.

White and Asian children are much more likely to live in neighborhoods where median income is similar to — or higher than — that of their own family. Latino children fall in the middle, less likely than white and Asian children to live in middle-class or affluent neighborhoods but more likely than Black children to do so.

The gaps are largest across much of the Northeast and Midwest. The two metropolitan areas where Black and white children of similar family incomes grow up in the most economically different neighborhoods are Milwaukee and Newark. In both, a typical white family with $50,000 in annual income lives in a neighborhood with a median income 1.8 times larger than a typical Black family making $50,000.

Not far behind those two areas are: Gary, Ind.; Bridgeport and Hartford, Conn.; Buffalo; Albany; Chicago; and Philadelphia. Among the 100 largest metro areas, the 25 with the largest gaps also include Cleveland, Detroit, Boston, New York and Baltimore.

Generally, the neighborhood gap tends to be biggest in metro areas with large Black populations, though that’s not an ironclad relationship. Birmingham, Ala., Atlanta and Memphis, which have very large Black populations, have neighborhood gaps not so different from average.

The other end of the spectrum — where white and Black families of similar incomes tend to live in economically similar neighborhoods — is dominated by midsize Western metro areas. There is virtually no white-Black neighborhood gap (after taking income into account) in El Paso or Riverside, Calif. Also in the bottom 25 are Albuquerque; Phoenix; Las Vegas; Portland, Ore.; San Jose and Sacramento, Calif; and Seattle.

(This list reminds me that, in several respects, the West seems more comfortable with diversity than any other part of the country. Rather than being divided on white-Black lines, much of the West is a multiracial melting pot. The metro areas with the largest gay and lesbian shares of the population are also disproportionately Western, a recent Gallup analysis found.)

Of course, the neighborhood gap arises in part from voluntary choices. Many Americans, of all races, prefer to live among people who are similar to them, note Mr. Reardon and his colleagues Lindsay Fox and Joseph Townsend. For African-Americans, such a choice often means living in lower-income areas, given the racial disparity in incomes.

But the neighborhood gap is also a reflection of the wealth gap: White families have considerably higher net worth than Black families, even after controlling for income, Federal Reserve data shows. A white family making $50,000 is much more likely than a Black family to have the savings for a down payment on a house in a middle-class neighborhood.


By: David Leonhardt