June 28, 2006

Study: Middle-income urban neighborhoods disappearing even faster than the middle class

It's not just Manhattan that's turning into an urban enclave for either the rich or poor. As the American middle class shrinks, urban middle-class neighborhoods are disappearing even faster, according to a Brookings Institution analysis of 1970-2000 U.S. census data.

"Middle-income neighborhoods as a proportion of all metropolitan neighborhoods declined from 58 percent in 1970 to 41 percent in 2000," the analysis notes. "This dramatic decline far outpaced the corresponding drop in the proportion of metropolitan families earning middle incomes, from 28 percent in 1970 to 22 percent in 2000."

The Boston/NH "PMSA" (primary metropolitan statistical area) had just 21.9% of residents in the middle-income category, according to the Brookings Institution analysis. That includes much of eastern Massachusetts as well as some of southern New Hampshire.

The study looked at the hundred largest metro areas in the U.S. as well as city and suburbs for 12 "selected" metropolitan areas.

It's not just sappy American Dream nostalgia: A thriving middle class is good for a healthy society. When people are divided between a few very rich and a lot of very poor, that's more a profile of an undesirable Third World country. While there are naturally going to be some neighborhoods with mostly upper income families and others housing lower income families, it used to be fairly common for the middle class to be present in substantial numbers. However, "the proportion of neighborhoods that were middle-income shrank faster than the proportion of families that were middle-income in each of 12 large metropolitan areas examined."

Where's the middle class? Suburbia. "A much larger proportion—44 percent—of suburban neighborhoods in the 12 metropolitan areas had a middle-income profile in 2000. Yet this proportion fell over the 30-year period, too. ... Suburban middle-income neighborhoods were replaced in roughly equal measure by low-income and very high-income neighborhoods." The Brookings Institutions sees an "increased vulnerability of middle-class neighborhoods 'tipping' towards higher- or lower-income status." In other words, some middle-income neighborhoods get gentrified; others decline.

Policymakers need to understand this vulnerability if they want to maintain a middle-class amongst their wealthy and lower income residents -- especially since all communities need middle-class workers. Specific housing and zoning decisions will be needed to bolster affordable housing for the middle class.
"When middle-income people -- be they firefighters, teachers, nurses or corporate office workers -- move to [the exurbs], the housing may be cheaper, but those families and society as a whole pay new kinds of costs, said Brad Paul, a former San Francisco deputy mayor for housing and neighborhoods," the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

"If you're commuting two hours each way to work, it means you can't spend time with your kids," Paul told the Chronicle. "And there are transportation impacts in the amount of gas we burn, in global warming. Don't you want people to live and work in the same area?"

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